Language and Identity

If Dubliners is designed as a cumulative image of the Irish spirit and national identity, while A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man portrays the estrangement from that identity of a singular individual, then one very appropriate point at which to begin a discussion of the two works is Fleming’s satiric versification of Stephen Dedalus’ identity: “Stephen Dedalus is my name, / Ireland is my nation. / Clongowes is my dwellingplace / And heaven my expectation.” Music and verse, frequently a repository of shared cultural identity, here become so to an ironically literal extreme. Both the verse and the identity are simplified, flattening Stephen into a formulaic construct, subsuming him into a generic Irish Catholic boyhood. A Portrait is the story of the blossoming and metamorphosis of this identity through the subversion of these four tidy lines: Stephen Dedalus, marked out by his apt and unusual name, rebels against nation, leaves his dwellingplace, and turns his back on the expectation of heaven.

The protagonists of Dubliners progress in age as the stories proceed, the depth of time and the weight of memory growing in influence and significance, until finally the largeness of the past overwhelms Gabriel Conroy in “The Dead.” In “Counterparts,” for instance, Farrington’s thoughts and actions reveal him as a man eroded by years of disappointment and ineffectuality, with no apparent hope for future improvement. In “A Painful Case,” the judgment of time manifests in particularly direct and destructive fashion. But unlike A Portrait, the stories in Dubliners do not chart the development of a mind and soul through a substantial period of its existence. It is perhaps for this reason that in “Araby” Joyce eschews the core stylistic and verbal technique which characterizes A Portrait. The narrator of “Araby” is not quite the young Stephen. As we noted in class, there is a kind of disjuncture in “Araby” between the naive perspective of the narrator and the language through which it is expressed which gives us an impression of temporal vertigo, something like the experience of looking back on one’s own life and narrating it rather than living it for the first time – a process which I would say we are probably almost all engaged in almost all of the time, at some conscious or unconscious level. Of course, this is exactly what Joyce is doing in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but much of the originality of the novel develops from his elaborate simulation of immediacy, the sense that, with rare exceptions, Stephen’s fierce emotions and confused thoughts are being spontaneously experienced rather than retroactively described. (The fact that the book is, unlike “Araby,” narrated in third person seems to me only a relatively small part of how this effect is achieved.) Unlike in “Araby,” the narrative voice of A Portrait never seems to be ahead of the protagonist’s perspective. The gradually developing lyrical voice in the novel is both the sign and the substance of Stephen’s evolution. The first chapter is largely comprised of Stephen’s experiments with language, the slippery matter of cognition and obsessive subject of the novel, and Joyce writes in a way that mirrors Stephen’s youthful uncertainty about words: “Suck was a queer word… the sound was ugly. Once he had washed his hands in the lavatory of the Wicklow Hotel and his father pulled the stopper up by the chain and the dirty water went down though the hole in the basin. And when it had all gone down slowly the hole in the basin had made a sound like that: suck. Only louder. To remember that and the white look of the lavatory made him feel cold and then hot. There were two cocks that you turned and water came out: cold and hot. He felt cold and then a little hot: and he could see the names printed on the cocks. That was a very queer thing.” Stephen is grasping for an understanding of the relationship between language, senses, memory… and, at some unconscious level, signaled by the words “suck” and “cock,” sexuality. Certainly, Stephen’s development as a thinker and an artist are tied in some uncertain, uncomfortable way to his sexuality. His fantasies of Mercedes bring us into territory very close to that of “Araby,” the realm of mock romance, and make us aware that, in a sense, romanticizing one’s life is a kind of artistry. The word itself, “romance,” contains overlapping meanings suggestive of the mysterious relation between eros and imagination. Stephen is never more passionately expressive (they are Joyce’s words, but Stephen’s thoughts and feelings) in the first two sections of the novel than in the erotic agony which culminates in his first sexual encounter. And, conversely, it is in the scorching intensity of an extended and terrifying sermon on the torments of hell that Stephen’s voice is smothered and silenced, his consciousness expunged from the book for a considerable number of pages. This waxing and waning of Stephen’s voice leads to his epiphany at the strand, during which the sight of a lovely young girl unleashes him and Joyce into an ecstasy of verbal exuberance.

The fluidity of Joyce’s language is therefore the fluidity of Stephen’s identity, and in a book so directly concerned with words, it is not surprising that Stephen’s name would mark him as significant. Perhaps it is a sign of Joyce’s hubris that his surrogate, Stephen Dedalus, is so named. But the novel seems to suggest that Stephen can’t be Stephen Dedalus, can’t fulfill the mythic destiny of the artificer which his name seems to promise, without shedding the nation, the dwellingplace, and the expectation which form the sum of his identity at the novel’s beginning.


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