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Parnell is not fictional, and does not actually appear as a character in the novel. However, as an Irish political leader, he is a polarizing figure whose death influences many characters in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. During the late nineteenth century, Parnell had been the powerful leader of the Irish National Party, and his influence seemed to promise Irish independence from England. When Parnell's affair with a married woman was exposed, however, he was condemned by the Catholic Church and fell from grace. His fevered attempts to regain his former position of influence contributed to his death from exhaustion. Many people in Ireland, such as the character of John Casey in Joyce's novel, considered Parnell a hero and blamed the church for his death. Many others, such as the character Dante, thought the church had done the right thing to condemn Parnell. These disputes over Parnell's character are at the root of the bitter and abusive argument that erupts during the Dedalus family's Christmas dinner when Stephen is still a young boy. In this sense, Parnell represents the burden of Irish nationality that Stephen comes to believe is preventing him from realizing himself as an artist.
Ace your assignments with our guide to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man!