A Serious Childhood

The feeling I get when reading A Portrait of the Artist is a lot like what I imagine it must feel for Stephen Dedalus himself to experience life on his own terms: swaddled completely by this character’s idiosyncratic memories and associations, which make sense to the reader from a distance only because they are listening to the same story that Stephen Dedalus is relating, seemingly to himself. I do wonder who is supposed to be hearing this description of Stephen’s inner life; maybe since the title suggests that this book is a “Portrait”–lying inertly in a dusty attic somewhere in Dublin–there is no audience except those who choose to open the book.

Joyce seamlessly combines narration with the perceptions of his narrator, so that nothing is presented to the reader that has not been filtered through the eyes and mind of Stephen first. When I say that both the reader and Stephen feel swaddled, I mean that Stephen’s religious and metaphysical neuroses, while providing a safe, familiar ground on which Stephen conducts his life, also limit his mobility, i.e., his ability to forage forward through life by solving problems through social interaction or conversation or any kind of activity that isn’t purely mental, as he seems to do often.

An example of this kind of swaddled, introverted problem solving occurs when he is being directed by his lust and wanders downtown: “He stood still in the middle of the roadway, his heart clamoring against his bosom in a tumult” (94). He has had the presence of body to place himself downtown where a prostitute might venture to pick him up. But the passivity of this encounter, where he is physically rooted to the street until a woman touches his arm and takes her to his room (and even then, he waits out of fear until she embraces him, and then kisses him) shows how blindly Stephen gropes his way through his life, experiencing every emotion as a terrible glory or death upon which he interprets everything he can about life in a larger sense. There are no insignificant moments for Stephen Dedalus.

For this reason, it is easy to see aspects of his character in the young narrator from “Araby”. Compare Stephen’s brooding over Mercedes–“The noise of children at play annoyed him and their silly voices made him feel…that he was different from others. He did not want to play. He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld” (59-60, emphasis mine)–with the Araby narrator’s swooning over Mangan’s sister: “From the front window I saw my companions playing below in the street…I looked over at the dark house where she lived. I may have stood there for an hour seeing nothing but the brownclad figure cast by my imagination…” (Dubliners 25, emphasis mine).

The passages that I made bold in each quote highlight the similarities between the two characters.  The Araby narrator is in many ways a younger version of the 15-16 year old Stephen Dedalus during his encounter with the prostitute. Each has difficulties in expressing himself, especially concerning desires too powerful for them to fully comprehend, and each displays trends of paralysis, hesitance, and confusion. Unable to effectively process the world in which they find themselves, each character behaves unnaturally seriously for their age, leaving me wondering exactly what it means to be a child, for Joyce, and why the young characters we have read about have such serious, anxious temperaments.


One thought on “A Serious Childhood

  1. jsdrouin

    One fact that your highlighted comparison reified for me is that both Stephen and the boy in “Araby” are clear to say that they follow images cast by their imaginations. For both of these boys, the imagination is something like the semi-autonomous being that the Romantics attributed to artistic vocation. It interferes with waking life and informs (clouds?) the judgment. So, the portrait aspect of this novel seems to portray the development of the childish imagination, which often confuses dream with reality, into the fully realized artistic vocation of the young adult. Lets talk tomorrow about whether the childish quality remains in Stephen by the end of A Portrait.


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