Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Circular Concepts in
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man


See pithy remarks for my personal comments.


James Joyce crafts a novel full of symbols and references in his A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in order to explore the life and tribulations of the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus. Joyce’s frequent allusions to circles, orbs, and cyclical concepts emphasize the loss of masculinity among the myriad of characters that Stephen meets during his titular bildungsroman. The fear of castration and masculine degeneration is a common phobia among most males. According to psychoanalytical thinking, the Oedipus complex, named after the Greek tragic king, “involves fear of the father (and of threatening males in general) as fully as it involves desire for the mother (and for inferior, inadequate mother substitutes)”(Murfin 271). The characters demonstrate a lack or decline in masculinity as external and internal conflicts surface, prompting an unconscious “Am I man enough?” In Stephen’s case, the magnitude of his difficulties deviate him to find comfort in a “mother substitute”. As he witnesses the experiences of these minor characters and those of his own in the novel, Stephen grows up, afraid of, yet influenced by, metaphorical castration and the paternal threats that pressure him to become a devoted Irish citizen and pious member of civilized society.

Stephen spends his early years in the halls of Clongowes, a private boarding school for boys. He is a relatively na├»ve, innocent, young teenager, unexposed to the harsh realities of life away from home. One day, he and his school mates congregate to discuss a recent crime committed by some students on school grounds. Although they at first believed it to be a theft of wine from the school’s sacristy, a friendly acquaintance of Stephen named Athy gives a different account of the incident:

– They were caught with Simon Moonan and Tusker Boyle in the square one night.
The fellows looked at him and asked:
– Caught?
– What doing?
Athy said:
– Smugging.
All the fellows were silent: and Athy said:
– And that’s why. (50-51)

The boys are shocked in disbelief. “Smugging”, in this context, is defined as a mild sort of homosexual play. Even the mere thought of homosexuality was beyond sinful in such a highly religious school and especially during the late 1800s.
Previously unexposed to such racy subject matter, Stephen begins wondering about the smugging, thinking it must be a joke: “He wanted to ask somebody about it. What did that mean about the smugging in the square?”(51). He recalls Simon Moonan having “nice clothes”(51) and on “one night he had shown him a ball of creamy sweets that the fellows of the football fifteen had rolled down to him along the carpet in the middle of the refectory when he was at the door”(51). Even though Stephen finds Simon as a decent peer, the sudden revelation of his wrongdoing exhibits the defacing of his character and masculinity. The ball of creamy sweets he had shown Stephen symbolizes an orb of forbidden temptations, hinting at the offence he would carry out. The scene of the crime, the square, meaning the school’s latrine or urinal, further accentuates Simon’s castration. In attempting to satisfy his maternal desire, he and Tusker Boyle meet in the part of the building meant specifically for execratory means. By returning to the primitive requirement needed by all humans, Moonan is essentially returning to the mother’s womb, in which “we are [all] born between feces and urine”(Henke 324), suggesting an ongoing cycle. Ironically, Simon is last seen “walking by himself kicking a stone before him”(50), unlike the time before in which he advises that he and the boys return inside instead of kicking the football anymore. Having lost face and masculinity, Simon is now a social outcast, alone and vulnerable to criticism, kicking a round object that once represented the sport he enjoyed as a complete man. Feeling less of a man, Simon receives a flogging for punishment, but both his physical body and character suffer from the heinous crime.

As Stephen ages and matures, he undergoes gradual changes in mindset and lifestyle. He spends the summer at his family’s new house in Blackrock. During this time, he frequently goes out with his great uncle Charles on errands. One day, a meeting with Mike Flynn, a friend of Stephen’s father, is scheduled. According to Stephen’s father, Mike “had put some of the best runners of modern times through his hands”(66). At first, Mike sounds like the ideal macho figure, a confident track coach who favors a masculine running stance involving “[the] head high lifted, [the] knees well lifted and [the] hands held straight down by [the] sides”(66). Since Mike is a friend of Stephen’s father, an associate of uncle Charles, and an athletic trainer, the supposedly great coaching and social persona about him makes Mike an ideal paternal character.

He begins “Stephen’s run round the park”(66). The trainer then makes a few comments about Stephen’s cyclic scamper and even demonstrates by shuffling along. However, his vain efforts attract “a small ring of wonderstruck children and nursemaids…[who] gather to watch him and linger even when he and uncle Charles had sat down again and were talking athletics and politics”(66). Mike may have had an illustrious career in the past, but his proficiency has obviously declined in the years that followed. Stephen’s “run round the track in the style [he] favour[s]”(66) is fruitlessly executed, to the extent that he may as well be running in circles rather than training for real. It seems Mike’s training regimen is no longer up to par. In addition, his own laughable scuttle draws a circle of surprised onlookers who even stick around to hear his conversations with uncle Charles. The spectators form a ring around Mike, signifying his lost aptitude. His once proud manhood is diminished, despite his optimism for continuing to train potential runners. He is susceptible to and unprotected from the spectators’ possible disparagement. Regardless, a talkative husk of Mike’s former self remains as he sits down to chat with uncle Charles about athletics and politics, refuting any paternal qualities he may have had because of his passive, nonaggressive demeanor. Furthermore, Stephen doubts his trainer’s authenticity,

often glanc[ing] with mistrust at his trainer’s flabby stubblecovered face, as it bent over the long stained fingers through which he rolled his cigarette, and with pity at the mild lustreless blue eyes which would look up suddenly from the task and gaze vaguely into the bluer distance while the long swollen fingers ceased their rolling and grains and fibres of tobacco fell back into the pouch. (66)

Age has apparently withered Mike’s body and masculinity, hence his comical shuffle and appearance. Stephen disapproves of his “flabby stubblecovered face” and “stained fingers”, implying his uncleanness and failure to keep a shaven face, like all men were expected to have. Still, Stephen sympathizes with Mike’s “mild lustre blue eyes”, orbs that “gaze vaguely into the bluer distance”, hinting at the trainer’s uncertainty of his career’s present and future. Although Mike continues to train people and runs himself, he has fallen a great deal in terms of his athletic and teaching abilities, denoting his unwitting castration.

Stephen is an older teenager now and leads a very strict religious life. Attending a Jesuit school, he devotes all his time to prayer and the church. The director of the school summons him to a meeting one day, where they initially exchange idle chatter about the capuchin dresses. The director mentions how they could be replaced with the more common les jupes. Smiling at his remark, Stephen contemplates the director’s reference to les jupes, which means skirts in French. Thus, the very slight mention of “the names of articles of dress worn by women or of certain soft and delicate stuffs used in their making brought always to [Stephen’s] mind a delicate and sinful perfume”(142). The French skirts startle and puzzle Stephen, as he struggles to ponder why such effeminate clothing would be worn by priests, “men who washed their bodies briskly with cold water and wore clean cold linen”(142). Stephen is clearly afraid of this possible departure from the normal, pure, masculine clothing he has always donned.

The director and the priests, the ultimate paternal figures, have summoned Stephen to speak “on a very important subject”(143). The director feels that Stephen is eligible to become a priest:

To receive that call, Stephen, is the greatest honour that the Almighty God can bestow upon a man. No king or emperor on this earth has the power of the priest of God. No angel or archangel in heaven, no saint, not even the Blessed Virgin herself, has the power of a priest of God: the power of the keys, the power to bind and to loose from sin, the power of exorcism, the power to cast out from the creatures of God the evil spirits that have power over them; the power, the authority, to make the great God of Heaven come down upon the altar and take the form of bread and wine. What an awful power, Stephen! (144)

Stephen is at first excited by the prospect of priesthood, “see[ing] himself, a young and silent-mannered priest, entering a confessional swiftly, ascending the altar-steps, incensing, genuflecting, accomplishing the vague acts of the priesthood”(144). However, as he walks home, he recalls the influence the church has had on him. The devotion he once had was no longer burning as strongly, especially since “the priestly role offered to Stephen here is feminine”(Brivic 288). Moreover, it is the binding quality of priesthood that steers Stephen gradually away from religion, as “once a priest always a priest”(146). Again, such devout commitment scares Stephen, as this robs him of the masculinity that is left within him. After temporarily discarding lust, greed, and other worldly thoughts, he realizes that he must learn the “wisdom of others … among the snares of the world”(148). Stephen decidedly resolves to abandon his faith, in pursuit of another form of refuge, his embodiment of the “substitute mother”. In the process, he successfully safeguards his invaluable masculinity from the effeminate influence.

The loss of masculinity is a terrible situation for any male. It can lead to acute criticism, exile, and disillusionment. As Stephen struggles through life, discovering the mistakes of others and his own, he prevents the castration of his own masculinity, learning the errors of those he meets and ultimately, finds the maternal womb he has so longed for. Joyce employs the imagery and conceptual ideas of round shapes to help underscore the male castration, showing the decline of one’s character and masculinity.

1 comment:

Kevin Ta 5 said...

This is probably my best explication throughout the whole year. I spent a good amount of time explicating the passages I chose, but I could have provided more analysis and explanation.