‘A Portrait’ is a look at Stephen’s experiences initially as a small child, then schoolboy, and finally student.
The first Chapter deals with Stephen as a small child and his first year at Boarding School.
The reader is somewhat shocked at the childish language he faces in the first section of the book. The purpose is to lay some important foundation stones of Stephen’s character. Joyce portrays the innocent small boy whose only experiences are within his close-knit family. We immediately note, “his mother had a nicer smell than his father”. Although Stephen is shown to be special, he still has a close bond with his mother.
At this stage in his young life the whole world seemingly revolves around him. He calls himself “baby tuckoo”. It is a world of black and white, good and bad, hot and cold, and Joyce tries to rekindle in the reader what life was like for us all at this age. There is no compromise; there are no grey areas.
The other character responsible for Stephen’s early upbringing is his nurse, Riordan, and even at this early age, Stephen is aware of his nurse’s strong religious beliefs. She feels duty bound to instill a strict Catholic discipline in Stephen.
Stephen’s safe cozy world is dramatically replaced by Clongowes Wood Boarding School, and he immediately takes a dislike to this establishment. Joyce provides us with a good description of this place as his first day at this school is etched on his memory. We read:
“The wide playgrounds were swarming with boys. All were shouting and the prefects urged them on with strong cries. The evening air was pale and chilly and after every charge and thud of the footballers the greasy leather orb flew like a heavy bird through the grey light’’. He felt his body small and weak amid the throng of players and his eyes were weak and watery.”
This is the opening passage of Stephen’s time at the Jesuit Boarding School. Note the use of the words ‘swarming’, ‘pale and chilly’, ‘grey light’, and ‘weak and watery’. All these provide the atmosphere of this place in stark contrast to Stephen’s home. The description of the football using a simile liking it to a heavy bird is the first ‘bird’ imagery of the book, which imagery is repeated time and again.
Bullies have a knack of spotting misfits and loners, and it is not long before they focus on Stephen. With Stephen’s innocence still fresh in the reader’s mind, we now see his baptism into the real world with his submersion in the cesspit. His subsequent fever leads him to the infirmary where he enjoys some degree of safety from the harsh environment of the school. There he meets another patient who, like himself, shares an unusual name. Joyce deliberately invented the name Stephen Dedalus – the forename signifies Stephen the first Christian martyr who like our hero suffers at the hands of others, whilst the surname is taken from Greek mythology and was the man who devised the labyrinth that held the Minotaur. Towards the end of this Chapter the symbolism of Stephen’s surname comes to light as we journey with young Stephen as he negotiates the maze of dark corridors that leads to the Rector’s office.
Stephen’s cellmate in the infirmary is a boy called Athy, who is an agreeable boy whose father is a racehorse owner. Brother Michael cares for the 2 boys and he seems able to relate more to his charges because he is not a Priest like the other clerics in the school.
While Stephen resides in the infirmary he is more relaxed and whenever he becomes anxious about what awaits him outside the safety of the infirmary he uses his imagination as a means of escape. Although Stephen is physically weak, we sense that he has an inner resolve to face his adversities and survive.
On one occasion he imagines what his own funeral might be like. All would be dressed in black with sad faces. Even Wells would be there looking sorry for himself, but none of the other mourners would speak to him. Stephen imagines what the Chapel would look like with his coffin, and the tall yellow candles, and then the procession to the graveyard with Wells showing regret for his mistreatment of Stephen, and the bell would toll from the school. We read:
“Ding dong! The castle bell!
Farewell, my mother!
Bury me in the old churchyard
Beside my eldest brother.
My coffin shall be black,
Six angels at my back,
Two to sing and two to pray
And two to carry my soul away.”
During Stephen’s stay in the infirmary, Brother Michael would read to the boys from a newspaper. On one occasion Stephen learns of the death of Charles Stewart Parnell. He was an Irish political leader who was elected to the British Parliament in 1875. He vigorously supported Home Rule for Ireland and soon became Leader of the Irish M.P.’s in the House of Commons in London. His outspoken views so far as the British Government was concerned led to him being imprisoned in 1881. He was at his most influential in 1886 when at last the Government introduced a Home Rule Bill, which was subsequently defeated. He was then hit with scandal as he was cited as co-respondent in the divorce of William O’Shea and his wife Kitty. Parnell was to subsequently marry Kitty O’Shea, but his political career was irrevocably damaged. The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland came out against Parnell regarding him as immoral. During these times, the Roman Catholic Church had far more influence over the common man in Ireland than did its politicians. Many consider that this stance by the Church eventually led to the Nationalist movement resorting to violent means in order to obtain independence for Ireland.
The news of Parnell’s death was of little significance to Stephen until he returned home for the Christmas celebrations. He was delighted at being invited to sit with the adults for Christmas dinner, but this occasion was marred by the political and religious debate conducted by the adults concerning the life and death of Parnell. Stephen’s strict nurse supported the Church’s view regarding Parnell, whilst Casey supported Parnell. It is evident that Casey was an activist in the Nationalist movement as Joyce hints that he too had served a prison sentence for his radical behavior. What should have been a celebration of the birth of the King of Peace, turned into a heated domestic argument concerning the death of a political leader.
Joyce uses symbolism in likening Stephen’s mother to mother Ireland, for although Stephen in his later life wishes to escape the restrictions imposed by the Irish society, when he is away he misses Ireland and his mother, and in his mind they represent the same symbol.
Stephen’s inclusion into the adult world forces him to face up to some clear truths concerning the adult members of his household. In his prayers, Stephen can relate to Jesus, but is this the same Jesus Christ that his strict old nurse worships? Her view on Parnell is unbending and cruel, and she almost relishes his death as the death of a sinner. We can draw parallels with Joyce’s own childhood and his governess Dante Conway and a friend of Joyce’s father, John Kelly who had been imprisoned for supporting Parnell. It is no doubt that this scene in Stephen’s home depicts a similar occurrence in the Joyce household.
The reader would not be wrong in drawing parallels between Stephen and Parnell. He has been wrongly punished by the sadistic Father Dolan and to some degree Parnell was wrongly punished by the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland at this time always strove for perfection and could not align them with the flawed Parnell. It will be shown later that Stephen also struggles to obtain perfection, spurred on by the influences at school and also the ingrained influence of his nurse, Riordan. Like Parnell, Stephen becomes a short-lived hero at the end of this Chapter.
We learn also about Stephen’s father in this episode, not by what he does, but what he does not do. Stephen must observe that his father although pleasant, is quite ineffectual. The Christmas dinner scene is another step towards Stephen’s loss of innocence.
Back at the school, Stephen continues to be at the wrong end of cruelty. Through no fault of his own his glasses are broken and although he writes home immediately for a new pair, he is regarded by Father Dolan as a malingerer. Again, Stephen witness’s cruelty from a Church representative, but this time Stephen decides to get some satisfaction for the injustice of the beating he receives at the hands of Father Dolan.
Stephen negotiates the labyrinth of corridors to the Rector’s office. This passage is full of symbolism. We feel as apprehensive as Stephen as “he passed along the narrow dark corridor, passing little doors that were the doors of the rooms of the community. He peered in front of him and right and left through the gloom and thought that those must be portraits. It was dark and silent and his eyes were weak and tired with tears so that he could not see’’ He saw the Rector sitting at a desk writing. There was a skull on the desk and a strange solemn smell in the room like the old leather of chairs.” On reading this, we wonder what further cruelty awaits Stephen, but the intuitive Rector supports Stephen and will try and right the injustice he has suffered.
This Chapter is framed by light for Stephen becomes a hero with his classmates at the end of the Chapter because he has stood up to the cruel Father Dolan.