Hidden Politics Essay, Research Paper
The Impact of Politics in
The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
By Elisabeth Ireland
By definition, politics is the partisan or functional intrigue within a given group. However, in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce, there is no such concise definition, as politics are perpetually melded with Roman Catholicism and Irish nationality. Politics themselves are presented in three different manners: directly, and through the use of symbols and commentary. The direct and symbolic portrayal of politics in Portrait occurs mostly in the beginning of the novel. However, since the novel itself follows the development of Stephen’s thought processes, the full impact of these events and symbols are not acknowledged until later in the novel when a mature Stephen reflects on them.
Despite ambiguousness, politics play a crucial role in the development of the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, and his eventual exile from Ireland.
A major contributor to Stephen’s confusion growing up is the dynamic equation of Irish nationality, politics, and Catholicism. Ideally separate entities, these three qualities are inextricably intertwined. One of many instances depicting this occurred at the Dedalus’ Christmas dinner, in an argument involving Dante Rioridan, Stephen’s great-aunt, and Mr. Casey, a friend of the family.
—And can we not love our country then? asked Mr. Casey. Are we not to follow the man [Parnell] who was born to lead us?
—A traitor to his country! replied Dante The priests were right to abandon him. The priests were always the true friends of Ireland. (201)
As seen, Mr. Casey first links national fervor to politics with the rationale that in order to love their country, the Irish must also follow a specific politician, Charles Parnell. Dante’s reply furthers the integration of ideals by linking religion to politics, through stating that the priests were right in abandoning Parnell in the political arena. Religion and Irish nationality are also linked when Dante states that the priests were the “true friends” of Ireland. Later in the novel, when the director of his college approaches Stephen, religion is once again bonded with politics:
—No king or emperor on this earth has the power of the priest of God not even the blessed virgin herself has the power the power of the keys, the power to bind and loose form sin, the power of exorcism, the power to cast out the evil spirits that have power over them, the power, the authority What an awful power ( 293)
As noted by the critic Manganiello, the repetition of the word power transforms the meaning from the moral to the political sphere (1992). Thus, when Stephen rejects the priesthood, he is turning his back on both religious and political aspects.
Politics themselves are not clearly portrayed, appearing in two forms: direct and indirect. The direct form occurs primarily in the first section of the novel, at the Dedalus’ Christmas dinner. In this passage, Stephen’s family battles over Irish politics, Charles Parnell in particular. Stephen notes that “He [Mr. Casey] was for Ireland and Parnell, and so was his father” (200). Stephen sees politics as a force that is dividing his family, exciting bitterness and anger amongst them, and this display sparks Stephen’s later disdain for Irish politics. As Seamus Deane stated in the introduction of the novel, “The incident is deeply embedded” (31). Despite the impact of this incident on Stephen, it appears that the bulk of the political references are made through symbols and commentary.
Undoubtedly, the most prominent political symbol is Charles Parnell. Stephen is first introduced to Parnell through Dante, who “told him that Parnell was a bad man” (184). Parnell then becomes the key to young Stephen’s understanding of politics. “There were two sides in it: Dante was on one side and his father and Mr. Casey were on the other ” (p.184) Stephen delineates the sides according to who supports Parnell, and who does not. Another symbolic reference to politics that often appears is found in reference to the colors green and maroon. First appearing as brushes in Dante’s press, “maroon was for Michael Davitt and green was for Parnell”, the colors arise frequently (177). However, Thomas O’Grady felt that the green better symbolized political authority in Ireland, and maroon, religious authority (O’Grady 1990). Similarly, when Stephen’s friends beckon him from the water, “Bous Stephanoumenos! Bous Stephaneforos!” Stephen’s name itself becomes a symbol. (300) Stuart Curran noted that, translated literally, Stephanoumenos (v.) means to encircle or wreathe, and Stephaneforos (n.) means a wreath (1968). When put together, one gets “encircled by a wreath”, and from there the connection can be drawn back to the color green. As wreaths are green, it can be interpreted that Stephen is symbolically encircled by political authority. Stephen later comments on this symbolic state in conversation with his friend Davin: “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets[political and religious authority] flung at it to hold it back from flight.” (327)
Despite the numerous references, either direct or indirect, politics remained an enigma to Stephen. Michael Tratner speculated that the politics in the novel were left vague intentionally, so that “the most prominent reference to politics left in the novel is as one of the terms that confuses young Stephen” (Tratner 1995). Through his confusion as a youth, and the reflection on this confusion as an adult, we gain valuable insight into the forces of Stephen’s development.
As a young boy, Stephen struggled with the concept of politics: “It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant” (184). Unsure of the true meaning of the word, Stephen compensated for his lack of knowledge by making associations between things he did know and unclear political concepts. “He wondered if they were arguing at home about that [Parnell]. That was called politics” (184) He associated his father, due to Simon’s support of Parnell, with Irish politics; and Dante, who opposed Parnell, with Catholicism. These associations were strengthened at the Christmas dinner, after witnessing a bitter fight between family members from which Dante emerged victorious. However, it was the aftermath of the argument that initiated Stephen’s eventual disdain of politics. Stephen, “raising his terrorstricken face, saw that his father’s eyes were full of tears” (202)
In the years following this instance, each of his father’s subsequent falls in social status further widened the growing chasm between the maturing Stephen, his father, and his belief in what Simon Dedalus stood for. Stephen became aware that “his father had enemies, and that some fight was going to take place he was being enlisted in the fight” (202). Resenting his unendorsed involvement, Stephen gradually distanced himself emotionally from both his father, and the issues for which his father stood. The extent to which their relationship decomposed is shown when in Part V, Simon refers to Stephen as “[a] lazy bitch of a brother” (305).
At this point, a mature Stephen loathed politics and Ireland, seeing “Ireland [as] the old sow that eats her farrow”, (p.328) and decided to split from them. He also at this point realized that politics are not a distinct entity, and to escape from politics, he would also have to abandon all that it is associated with.
–I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church (362)
Despite pleas from his friend Davin, “Try to be one of us in your heart you are an Irishman”, Stephen refuses, claiming his disgust of what “Irishmen” were:
– No honourable and sincere man has given up to you his life and his youth and his affections from the days of Parnell but you sold him to the enemy or failed him in need or revealed him and left him for another. And you invite me to be one of you [Irishmen]. I’d see you damned first. (327)
As suggested by Grayson, this is the symbolic answer to a question Stephen was asked when he was a child by a schoolmate, “Do you kiss your mother?” (1982) Although the question confused Stephen as a child, he no longer hesitates in withholding his commitment, the symbolic kiss that would link him to his “mother” land, Ireland.
Undoubtedly, the many and varied forms that politics take in the novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, greatly influence Stephen’s development from an naive schoolboy to a strongly opinioned young man. However, the amalgamation of politics with Catholicism and Irish nationalism drive Stephen into exile. This is because although political refuge is what Stephen seeks, he realizes due to the multi-faceted character of politics, true refuge is unattainable without completely segregating himself from the other entities associated with it. Thus, in the end, both the exposure to politics, and the unification of politics with Catholicism and nationalism drive Stephen to the decision to abandon his family, his homeland, and all that he knew of Irish nationality.