A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

James Joyce
Summary

Chapter 1, Section 1

Summary Chapter 1, Section 1

Stephen's illness enables him to skip class as he recovers in the infirmary. The kind and humorous Brother Michael cares for Stephen, who wonders if he will die from his illness. Stephen tells himself that death indeed might be possible, and he imagines his own funeral. Another student patient in the infirmary, Athy, asks Stephen riddles that he cannot solve. Stephen daydreams about returning home to recover. At the end of the section, Brother Michael announces the death of Parnell, the Irish patriot.

Analysis

Stephen is the hero of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and, in fact, Joyce titled an early version of the novel Stephen Hero. The narrative is limited to Stephen's consciousness, so his misperceptions become part of the story—there is no narrator who explains the difference between Stephen's reality and objective reality. Stephen is essentially Joyce's alter ego, and there are many factual similarities between Stephen's life and Joyce's. Clongowes, for example, had been Joyce's boarding school in real life. The novel is more than just an autobiography, however, as Joyce is not merely recounting elements of his own boyhood, but also meditating on what it means to be a young man growing up in a confusing modern world. Stephen's bewilderment about the world and its strange rules reflects the sensation of alienation and confusion that Joyce and a number of his literary peers felt at the beginning of the twentieth century. We see Stephen's alienation on the playground, where he watches other boys playing ball but does not participate himself. Stephen's feeling of being a dissatisfied outsider develops steadily throughout the novel.

The fact that the novel opens with a story emphasizes the importance of art—particularly literary art—in Joyce's world. The fact that the story deeply influences Stephen demonstrates that art is not mere empty entertainment, but has the power to form people's identities and shape their thoughts. Stephen's reaction to the story is to imagine that "[h]e was a baby tuckoo": he becomes conscious of his own existence at this young age by identifying with a character in a fictional story. Similarly, Joyce implies that art can defend against danger or cure wounds. When Stephen is scolded for expressing his wish to marry a Protestant girl, he uses art to soothe his soul, making a song out of his governess's gruesome threat: "Pull out his eyes, / Apologise. . . ." Art also has a political dimension: in the academic competition at Clongowes, the teams take their emblems from the Wars of the Roses. Stephen, however, meditates on the red rose and the white rose only in terms of the fact that "those were beautiful colours to think of." It may seem that Stephen is ignoring politics and history, focusing only on beauty. But this feeling for beauty actually brings Stephen back to history and politics, as he wonders whether a rose could possibly be green, the traditional color of Ireland. With this image of the green rose, Joyce may be slyly hinting at the possibility of an independent Irish state. A sense of beauty may in this regard be quite revolutionary.

One of the most notable features of Stephen's artistic development in this first section is his interest in the sounds of language. Stephen notices sounds even in the very first passages, when he is young enough to use baby words like "moocow" and "tuckoo." When he is a bit older, he ponders the intriguing sound of the word "wine," and imagines that the cricket bats are saying, "pick, pack, pock, puck." This interest in sounds and wordplay reveals much about Joyce himself, who was one of the twentieth century's most important innovators of language. Joyce was also a pioneer in psychological fiction and stream of consciousness technique, capturing the illogical associations made by the human mind and its odd jumps from topic to topic. The montage of perceptions in Stephen's first memories lack traditional realistic description, giving us mental impressions instead, as if thoughts are flowing directly onto the page. Joyce would later refine this stream of consciousness technique to great effect in his novel Ulysses.