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Free Study Guide-A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES

CHAPTER 1

Notes

Readers will find the narrative line of Joyce’s first chapter difficult to follow since it operates out of fragmentation rather than the seamless whole of more traditional narratives. The first chapter traces Stephen’s earliest childhood memories. There are a few memories of his infancy, the sound of his father telling him a story about a "moocow" and the song of the wild rose blooming in the green field which Stephen in his child’s voice mispronounces and mixes up as the "green wothe blotheth." However, most of Stephen’s memories of his early childhood are of his first years at Clongowes. Joyce presents these memories with few time markers, forcing the reader to read actively, deducing from tidbits how old Stephen is, whether what is being narrated is truth, dream, or fantasy, and whether Stephen’s child’s perceptions are accurate.

To accomplish this narration, Joyce uses the stream-of- consciousness technique of free association of thoughts. For example, the roses in the war of the roses turn his thoughts to the colors of the prize cards, then to the song of his nursery days about the green rose. This technique is the dominant one used in this section of the novel. In this way, Joyce shows how a perceptive and sensitive child’s mind works. After all, it is Joyce’s purpose to trace the development of an artist from childhood into adulthood. Free association of thoughts is the best method for doing this.

The chapter is not entirely chaotic. It is punctuated with recurring thoughts, images, and sounds. For instance, the "All in!" of the field at Clongowes recurs at significant moments in the narration, the green rose of his childhood confusion over his nursery rhyme comes up several times, and the sound of the cricket bats hitting the balls are a recurring source of fascination for Stephen. Each of these recurring sounds or images contribute to the language and sound world of the young artist.


The kind of artist that Stephen will be is yet to be mentioned. It is clear, however, that he is already influenced by the Aesthetes of the late nineteenth century. These writers and artists included Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, and William Morris. The aesthetic movement came up with the principle "art for art’s sake," by which they meant that art should not be asked to serve other interests, but should exist for the sake of beauty alone. It should not be instructive or socially useful outside the simple existence of beautiful objects and performances. It was also a movement which reversed the classical privilege of nature over art. The Aesthetes claimed that art was not in imitation of nature, but was something better than nature. Joyce gets in a witty allusion to Oscar Wilde’s famous green carnation, a tribute to artifice (art) over nature, the power of the imagination.

Perhaps the most moving aspect of this first chapter is Joyce’s sharp depiction of the injustices and difficulties of childhood. Stephen feels small and weak in several instances in this chapter. Joyce captures the sense of a child in a world geared for adults. He feels small and weak on the football field and he feels a similar smallness when he considers the big thoughts of God and the boundaries of the universe and the boundaries of his knowledge of politics which seem to be so important to the adults in his world. When he faces the giant task of telling the rector that Father Dolan has been unfair with him, he momentarily decides not to go through with it "No, it was best to hide out of the way because when you were small and young you could often escape that way."

Stephen’s childhood is made even more difficulty by his small size, his lack of athletic prowess, and his loner sensibilities. Yet it is just these characteristics that enable him to stand back and observe with an artist’s eye. Memorable passages include the one on the soccer field. Stephen holds back from playing, afraid of the rough sport, but at one point, he bends down to look among all the legs of the players "The fellows were struggling and groaning and their legs were rubbing and kicking and stamping. Then Jack Lawton’s yellow boots dodged out the ball and all the other boots and legs ran after." Another vivid scene of the child’s/artist’s perception occurs during the dramatic argument between Mrs. Riordan and Mr. Casey and Mr. Dedalus. When Dante gets up suddenly to leave, she throws her napkin down and the napkin ring rolls off the table. All the other people in the room are busy with the issue of the argument, but Stephen. He notices the ring roll slowly and come to rest by the easy chair.

The reader will also notice a number of compound words like "strangelooking." Like many modernists, Joyce experimented with the representation of spoken language in his novels. He was quite interested in the way language changes with use, how every time and place twists language to its own uses.

Stephen’s dreams are vividly described. Joyce takes the excellent opportunity of Stephen’s illness to trace the line of his thinking, illness being a time when a person is forced to sit quietly, often alone, and think. For instance, as Stephen lies sleepily in the infirmary, the imagines the sight of waves as he sees the reflection of the fire rising and falling on the wall, then he imagines the sound of waves when he hears the voices rising and falling from the sports field nearby. Then he slips into a dream of a ship coming in to a dark harbor, carrying Brother Michael who announces to a multitude the death of Parnell.

In the famous political argument of the first chapter, Joyce counterpoises two very different types of language-consciousness. First, there is the absolute language of the church, a language which brooks no arguments, which issues from a central authority, which is based on sacred, and thereby unchangeable, text. Second, there is the decentered language of the folk, of the street, of the body. It is a language which defies the absolute with laughter and bawdiness. Dante Riordan uses the absolute language of the church while Mr. Dedalus and Mr. Casey respond with the language of the body and the streets. Stephen is moved by the exchange. It is between these two kinds of language that Stephen will struggle throughout his life--the sacred and the profane, the serious and the carnival.

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