Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Portrait: Is young Stephen Dedalus good? Likeable?

After the opening, we quickly move to young Stephen's being sent away to school. This is a standard sort of passage in a coming of age story and it had been written hundreds of times before Joyce had his shot at it. Like the classic moment in western movies when there is a river crossing or a funeral, or the first kiss in a love story, there is a whole lot of stuff that necessarily comes along with it.  Stuff like this:
 He turned to the flyleaf of the geography and read what he had written there: himself, his name and where he was.
Stephen Dedalus
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
County Kildare
The World
The Universe
And pretty soon he will be worrying about infinity. Every kid does this and more than one author has stuck this into a story of childhood. This isn't weakness or cliché on Joyce's part. We expect and even demand that this sort of stuff be in such a story. To not find here would be like a western movie without a gun duel or a romance without a marriage at the end.

The boy away at school had already been written often enough by the time that Joyce got to it that there were already established variations on the basic story. The one he gives us is of the sensitive boy who would never be good at games.
He kept on the fringe of his line, out of sight of his prefect, out of reach of the rude feet, feigning to run now and then. He felt his body small and weak amid the throng of players and his eyes were weak and watery. Rody Kickham was not like that: he would be captain of the third line all the fellows said.
Lots of stories feature this sensitive type. To pick the most obvious example, there is George Arthur in the old chestnut Tom Brown's School Days who is very much like Stephen right down to the battle with a fever.

Only George Arthur is actually at risk from the fever. Young Stephen is merely ill and the possible death is all part of his narcissistic fantasy. And I'm sorry but it is narcissistic. Perhaps not unusually so—what child has not fantasized about dying and all the people coming to their funeral. What makes it narcissistic is that we all forget, when indulging in this sort of thing, that we wouldn't be there for the funeral.

And while it is normal to have this experience, we do have to wonder about this sort of event being an important part of someone's moral formation. That little Billy felt this way at eleven is fine but if twenty-five year old Bill is still telling himself and others this story to explain who he is and why he became that person, I think we're entitled to think maybe something has gone wrong. For whatever reason, Joyce chose to tell us this little sequence and to leave out a lot of others from Stephen's days at Clongowes.

Stephen will even become very pious just like George Arthur but only for a while. He'll eventually become an artist instead of the sensitive religious type. And it is the being an artist rather than any capacity to produce art that matters here. It is artist as a way of life that matters. Heavily influenced by George Moore and Oscar Wilde, Joyce is one a of a whole bunch of artists who promoted this new way of being.

Historically, the big difference is that the sensitive religious type represented by George Arthur has not been much liked while the sensitive artist type represented by Stephen Dedalus has been much admired. Admired by intellectuals that is; most guys hate the type.

Stephen's encounter with Wells does not reflect well on Wells, of course, but Stephen doesn't show much character here either:
Then he went away from the door and Wells came over to Stephen and said:

  —Tell us, Dedalus, do you kiss your mother before you go to bed?

Stephen answered:

  —I do.
Wells turned to the other fellows and said:

  —O, I say, here's a fellow says he kisses his mother every night before he goes to bed.
The other fellows stopped their game and turned round, laughing. Stephen blushed under their eyes and said:

  —I do not.
Wells said:

  —O, I say, here's a fellow says he doesn't kiss his mother before he goes to bed.
They all laughed again. Stephen tried to laugh with them. He felt his whole body hot and confused in a moment. What was the right answer to the question? He had given two and still Wells laughed.
Yes, Wells is bullying Stephen but this is mild bullying of the sort that every child should be able to deal with. It's the way Stpehen deals with it that bothers me. He doesn't worry about kissing his mother and whether there is an age a boy should move past that (a question he might answer no to in private defiance of Wells) but rather tries to come up with the answer that will get him approval from other boys.  

How much did Joyce buy into the sensitive artist type himself? That is hard to say and it may not matter. What I mean is that this isn't a fact to discover so much as a lens to read the novel through. You can choose to identify Stephen with Joyce and read this novel as the promotion of a way of life. Or you can read Stephen as a creation and step back and examine him for flaws and question whether one should live the way he does.

I take the second approach. I think, Okay, he is young and small—he is a first-year boy after all—but what is he going to do about it? Hiding and not trying, as Stephen does, strikes me as normal enough but it also strikes me as something to grow out of. I think the sensitive artist type who endures school, never gets even moderately good at games and maintains a sense of self worth by feeling morally superior to bullies is a morally repulsive type all too typical of this ghastly age and, at this point at least, Stephen Dedalus seems like an all-too-typical example of one of these runty little twerps.

1 comment:

  1. So glad it's not just me who feels like whacking Stephen Dedalus out of his pointless, self-absorbed yakking. Who wants to swim in that kind of morass for five chapters? Mffft. Have yet to meet a hero/anti-hero that I found as annoying and unsympathetic. What a pain to read this book!