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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
CHAPTER ONE (continued)
THE CHRISTMAS DINNER
Joyce's portrayal of a Christmas dinner ruined by an argument is one of the most famous scenes in Portrait of the Artist. Because Joyce uses the dinner primarily to reveal the characters and issues that surround his hero, it's one of the few scenes in the book whose action isn't fully filtered through Stephen's consciousness. Instead, it's presented to you directly, as it would be in a more conventional novel or in a play. As a result, the scene has great dramatic tension. It's also very funny-Joyce shows you the bitterness that can divide a household, but he also shows you the humor contained in that bitterness, as adults behave like children throwing tantrums over their political differences.
The dinner episode marks the beginning of Stephen's loss of faith in religion, because the Church seems responsible for destroying the great political hero, Parnell. It's also a compact summary, in dramatic terms, of the political turmoil that divided many Irish families after Parnell's disgrace and death.
The bright Christmas setting of the Dedalus living room is in abrupt contrast to Stephen's gloomy school experiences. It's the first time Stephen is old enough to join the grownups at the Christmas table. You'll see that this dinner is a turning point for the little boy in more ways than one.
This is the last time Stephen's family is portrayed as well off.
Like Joyce's own family, the Dedalus clan is in for hard times. Tonight
there is turkey and ham and a "big plum pudding." By the final
chapter, Stephen is drinking watery tea and dipping crusts of fried bread
into "yellow drippings" of fat usually from cooked bacon or
The conversation around the table soon turns into an unpleasant political argument between Dante and a family friend, Mr. John Casey. Simon Dedalus, Stephen's father, joins in. The quarrel centers on Charles Stewart Parnell, whose funeral had entered Stephen's dream in the previous section. Parnell had been denounced by the Catholic Church because of his long-time affair with the married Kitty O'Shea. The scandal led to his fall from political power and perhaps contributed to his death. With him fell Ireland's chances for obtaining Home Rule.
As you observe this bitter argument, ask yourself which side you think Stephen supports. You'll be told in the next chapter. Joyce himself was strongly pro-Parnell as a boy. When he was nine years old, he wrote a poem attacking one of his hero's foes.
John Casey and Simon Dedalus condemn the Church for attacking Parnell. They insist the Church should not "preach politics from the altar." But Dante has deserted her former hero to side with her faith. "God and religion before everything!" she cries. She prophesies that Stephen will long remember this bitter attack against religion in his own home. Mr. Dedalus retorts that what the boy will remember is the guilt of the priests who drove Parnell to his grave. As you'll see, both prophecies will be fulfilled.
The heat of the argument terrifies Stephen. It has brought out startling flaws in the adults he admired. The smiling Casey is capable of rage, and can do something as crude as spit tobacco juice into the eyes of an old woman. Stephen's father becomes coarse and bestial in his language, and the usually restrained Dante loses control and almost spits in Casey's face. As a result, Stephen's sense of insecurity deepens. The quarrel has given him cause to doubt his family circle, the Church, and a country that turns against its hero for incomprehensible reasons.
Some readers point out that the Christmas dinner scene is a good example of what Joyce called an epiphany-a special, sudden moment of truth. Although the dinner argument focuses on politics, its meaning for Stephen is much deeper. It causes him to doubt the institutions and people he has been told to believe in. Those doubts will grow.
The motif of eyes and blindness is woven through this scene as it was earlier. The old woman who shouts that she is blinded is one example. Can you find others in this sequence? Being blind is of course a symbol for not understanding the world or oneself clearly; in Portrait of the Artist, blindness or the threat of it usually comes as a punishment.
Joyce's poor eyesight was always on his mind. It plagued him early in life and steadily deteriorated. He was nearly blind in his mature years in spite of a series of operations. His faulty vision may have contributed to his strong musical sensitivity and keen ear for the sounds of language. Joyce studied languages at university, and also taught himself (and others).