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BACKGROUND INFORMATION (continued)

IRISH NATIONALISM

Centuries of turbulent, often bloody, history have left their mark on the Ireland of Portrait of the Artist, and on Stephen Dedalus. The most troubling issue of that history was Ireland's difficult relations with England.

England, which from the twelfth century had controlled portions of Ireland, gained near-complete dominance of the island in the sixteenth century. Irish resentment of the conquerors was strong, especially when under King Henry VIII the English monarchy became Protestant, while Ireland clung to Roman Catholicism. Irish Catholics became victims of religious persecution in their own country. Unjust agricultural policies also contributed to the difficulties. Most Irish land was owned by absentee landlords and leased to tenant farmers. It was an inefficient system that was in part responsible for a series of Irish famines, the most terrible of which occurred after the failure of the potato crop in 1848. Over a million people died during this famine.

From time to time, revolutionary heroes-like the eighteenth-century patriots Wolfe Tone and Hamilton Rowan admired by young Stephen-aroused Irish hopes for independence, only to be crushed. In Joyce's youth, confrontation was once again in the air. The Land League, led by Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell, had campaigned successfully for agricultural reforms. Other groups campaigned for Irish cultural independence by promoting the use of Gaelic, Ireland's native tongue, rather than the English brought by Ireland's conquerors. Perhaps most important was the campaign for Irish Home Rule, self-government through an independent Irish parliament.


The Home Rule campaign was led by Charles Stewart Parnell. If your family has ever been divided over a key political issue, you'll understand the vehemence of the argument over the Parnell question when you read the Christmas dinner scene in Chapter One. Parnell's leadership in the British Parliament had succeeded in winning over his colleagues to Home Rule. Before the bill was passed, however, Parnell's enemies exposed his personal relationship with the married Katherine (Kitty) O'Shea, with whom he had been living secretly for many years.

The Parnell affair divided Ireland. Parnell's own party deposed him, the Catholic Church denounced him, and his British backers withdrew their support. Parnell died of pneumonia shortly afterwards, in 1891, when Joyce was nine. (In the infirmary scene in Chapter One, the feverish Stephen dreams of his hero's funeral procession.)

Irish politics remained hopelessly tangled after Parnell's downfall. Some groups still wanted to work for independence by peaceful means. Others believed that violence was necessary. Irish nationalists, like Stephen's friend Davin, joined a group called Sinn Fein, whose military arm was called the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Remnants of the IRB later became the Irish Republican Army, known as the IRA. The Sinn Fein's armed Easter Sunday Rebellion of 1916 against the British was unsuccessful in its attempt to seize Dublin and proclaim a republic. The British outlawed the group in 1918 and sent in troops ("Black and Tans") to round up remaining guerrilla fighters. Nevertheless, the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland) was established four years later; it included most, but not all, of Ireland. The six counties of the northern region of Ulster remained, as they are now, a part of Britain-but violently divided over religious issues. Thus, the long tradition of Anglo-Irish conflict continues to this day.

For Stephen, Ireland's history was so unhappy, so bitter, that he wanted nothing to do with it. Let naive idealists like Davin campaign for political and cultural independence. He will have no part of the campaigns. He has seen Ireland destroy too many of her heroes. She is, he says, an old sow that eats her farrow (a pig that eats her young). He can deal with the weight of Irish history not by attempting reform or by revolution-but only by attempting escape.

THE DAEDALUS MYTH

The name Stephen Dedalus was chosen by James Joyce to link his hero with the mythical Greek hero, Daedalus. The Latin epigraph is from the Roman poet Ovid's version of the story.

In Greek myth, Daedalus was an architect, inventor, and craftsman whose name is often translated as "cunning [skillful] artificer." By request of king Minos, Daedalus built a labyrinth-a maze-on Crete to contain a monster called the Minotaur, half bull and half man. Later, for displeasing the king, Daedalus and his son Icarus were both confined in this labyrinth, which was so complex that even its creator couldn't find his way out. Instead, Daedalus fashioned wings of wax and feathers so that he and his son could escape. But when Icarus flew too high-too near the sun-in spite of his father's warnings, his wings melted, and he fell into the sea and drowned. His more cautious father flew to safety.

Joyce had always been drawn to myths-ancient legends and tales that, despite their cultural origins, relate universal themes, like the conflict between father and son or the role of the creative artist. The legend of Daedalus and his headstrong son particularly interested him. He found in it parallels to his own predicament as an artist caught in the maze of his own constricted life, with his own father-son conflict. Like Daedalus, he needed skill and courage to fly away and escape. Joyce signed the name Stephen Daedalus to some of his early stories. Later, when he decided to use the name for the hero of Portrait of the Artist, he changed the spelling to Dedalus to make it seem a more Irish last name.

The Daedalus myth gives a basic structure to Portrait of the Artist. At first, Stephen doesn't understand the significance of his unusual name. He comes to realize, by the fourth chapter, that like Daedalus he is caught in a maze. If he wants to be free, he must fly high above the obstacles in his path. At the end of Chapter Five, he is poised to try his wings.

The novel echoes the myth on several levels. Stephen seeks a way out of the restraints of family, country, and religion. Like Daedalus, he will fashion his own wings-of poetry, not of wax-as a creative ("cunning") artist. But there are also times when Stephen feels like Icarus, the son who will not heed his father's advice and who died for his stubborn pride. At the end of Portrait of the Artist, he seems to be calling on a substitute, spiritual parent for support, when he refers to Daedalus as "old father, old artificer."

The myth's pattern of flight and fall also gives shape to the novel. Some readers see each chapter ending as an attempted flight followed by partial failure-a fall-at the beginning of the next chapter. The last chapter ends with the most ambitious attempt, to fly away from home, religion, and nation to a self-imposed artistic exile. If you identify Joyce with Stephen Dedalus, the last flight will appear to have been a success. As a purely fictional matter, however, it is not certain whether Stephen will soar like Daedalus or drown like Icarus.

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