A Revolt Against Actuality: Stephen Dedalus and Ireland’s Troubles

A Revolt Against Actuality: Stephen Dedalus and Ireland’s Troubles[1]

[NOTE: This is an essay for an English lit class that I wanted to air out]

Stephen Dedalus, of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, adopts an ambivalent ideology as a defense against colonization—particularly colonial pressures in the form of religion, politics, education, and nationalism. While colonialism and nationalism in Ireland usually are considered vis-à-vis the British occupation, for Stephen these other institutions become colonizing forces through the Catholic church. In order to realize his self-actualization as an artist and discover what it means to be Irish—free of the filters of colonialism—he must ultimately “free his feet from the fetters of the reformed conscience” (Joyce, Portrait 180) and leave Ireland for the distant but autonomous vantage point of mainland Europe. Such an action represents not only a desperation on the part of Stephen but also a diagnosis of the broader Irish society.

Stephen feels stifled first and foremost by the Catholic church and its domination over religion and education. The church’s relationship to the Irish people has been difficult at best (and has, elsewhere, played a central role in colonization and conquest). Mr. Casey asks, “didn’t the bishops and priests sell the aspirations of their country in 1829 in return for catholic emancipation?” As a result of open practice and the requirement of political conservatism, the church has imposed itself on the Irish, governing morals and even politics. He also decries how “the priests and the priests’ pawns broke Parnell’s heart and hounded him into his grave,” and eventually declares: “No God for Ireland!… We have had too much God In Ireland. Away with God!” But this religious colonization extends directly to Stephen as well: as a boy, Stephen is not allowed to play with the Protestant Eileen; and, just before Stephen’s departure, Cranly recognizes that his mind “is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” Even disavowal cannot shake off the fetters (38, 33, 39, 240).

At school, Stephen faces more catholic subjugation. In his Latin class, he is paddied by the prefect arbitrarily and capriciously, how punishment is often exacted against the colonized. “It was unfair and cruel because the doctor had told him not to read without glasses and he had written home to his father that morning to send him a new pair. And Father Arnall had said that he need not study till the new glasses came… It was cruel and unfair to make him kneel in the middle of the class then” (51-52). When he is later accused of heresy in an essay, “he could feel about him a vague general malignant joy” after this “public chiding” (79), in which he is forced to revise his intellectual ideas about theology to conform.

British direct colonialism plays a major role in daily Irish life. However, the reality of military occupation only appears once, in a mention of “the terror of soul of a starving Irish village in which the curfew was still a nightly fear” (181). Where the consequences of British rule become most apparent is through its mirror, Irish nationalism. Nationalism thus places itself in opposition to all of the colonizations Stephen faces: Protestant nationalist Parnell[2] challenged the church, as did Simon Dedalus and Mr. Casey, and nationalism offered Irish against the Catholic schools’ Latin.

Yet, for Stephen, nationalism is not the right antidote to colonization. Stephen counters Davin’s attempts to recruit him to the cause of independence by joking about when they fight “the next rebellion with hurleysticks” (202), though Davin responds with the common nationalist slogan, “our day will come yet, believe me” (203). Even within his family, Stephen felt estranged from the political divisions: “He wondered which was right, to be for the green [nationalists] or for the maroon [loyalists]… Dante was on one side and his father and Mr Casey were on the other side but his mother and uncle Charles were on no side” (16-17), though their neutrality in a way represents another side; in fact, they both play an active role in attempting to pacify the now-vicious argument.

Despite Stephen’s “independence” from the independence movement and the church, he still grapples with the prescient question of what the Irish national identity is. When Howes writes, “in Joyce, colonialism and nationalism constantly carry us inward, to the fantasies, divisions, and traumas of the individual psyche,” the reader can picture Stephen caught in this paradoxical ambivalence. Stephen’s Irishness is called into question by Davin: “What with your name and your ideas… Are you Irish at all?” But Stephen himself recognizes his distance from “Irish culture,” whatever that may be, and seeks to discover “the hidden ways of Irish life” (Howes, “Joyce” 269; Joyce 202, 181).

His perception of Irishness is largely based in language and the image of the peasant woman. Speaking with the English Dean of Studies, Stephen notices that “the language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine… His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech” (189). However,

Stephen’s estrangement from the language in which he writes marks a classic colonial condition, in which the colonizers try to force their language and culture upon the colonized. That condition has several components: Stephen recognizes his identity as Irish, conceives of that Irish identity in opposition to Englishness, and recognizes his Irishness as a divided condition, so that English is both ‘familiar’ and ‘foreign.’ The sense of dispossession and resentment generated is a catalyst for the period’s Irish nationalism. (Howes, “Joyce” 257)

Because of this, Stephen still continues to distance himself. When Davin asks, “why don’t you learn Irish?” (202), Stephen responds, “This race and this country and this life produced me… I shall express myself as I am… My ancestors threw off their language and took another… They allowed a handful of foreigners to subject them” (203). Through ambivalence, Stephen is able to simultaneously acknowledge his subjugation while shirking responsibility.

Similarly, Stephen views a fetishized notion of the peasant woman as representative of Irish culture. Following a story Davin tells him, he “reflected in other figures of the peasant women whom he had seen standing in the doorways at Clane as the college cars drove by, as a type of her race and his own” (183). Again, Stephen separates himself, this time by his passing location in a car. From this perspective, “it has become possible for Stephen to see the ‘peasant women’ of villages like Clane as representatively Irish figures and himself as part (however problematically) of the national community they embody” (Howes, “Goodbye” 336).

Stephen, then, finds himself able to create and occupy what Homi Bhabha terms the “in-between” space, where he can be both Irish and non-Irish, colonized and free, tied to Irish history and independent of it. In short, he has created for himself a means to create his own identity, free from colonization and the scourge of nationalism. “These ‘in-between’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself” (Bhabha 2).

Despite this seclusion, Stephen is still trapped within Irish life. “Stephen contemplates his ambivalent relation to the category and ideology of the nation—his rejection of nationalism, his separation from the national community, his desire to learn ‘the hidden ways of Irish life’ and to ‘hit their conscience’ to help revive his nation” (Howes, “Goodbye” 336)—and he realizes he needs to leave Ireland. Stephen tells Davin, “when the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets” (Joyce 203), and indeed, like his namesake, he does.

At first glance, his flight away from the problems of his home appears to be a childish escapism, as a younger Stephen almost convinces himself not to complain about his punishment to the rector by telling himself that “it was best to hide out of the way because when you were small and young you could often escape that way” (54). In reality, though, this is an act of courage, giving up everything and taking the risk of being alone, “not only to be separate from all the others but to have not even one friend” (247). When Stephen finally leaves to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” (253), he performs a diagnostic function for his culture. As the Algerian psychologist Frantz Fanon describes in writing about his own people’s struggle for independence, “a society that drives its members to desperate solutions is a non-viable society, a society to be replaced. It is the duty of the citizen to say this” (53). Stephen plays the role of both the desperate member and the citizen. While he leaves despite the objections of his dear friend Cranly and his mother, he does so for the benefit of his “race,” of Ireland. Paradoxically, this act of leaving seems to fulfill Seamus Heaney’s plea, from his aptly-named poem “Kinship,” to “Come back to this / ‘island of the ocean’ / where nothing will suffice” (Heaney 133-35).

As Stephen matures, he finds that the only way for him to create his own personal identity is to carve out a space separate from the colonizing forces at work in Ireland—church, state, school, and race. Each of these he finds prohibitive and restrictive, obscuring the true character of Ireland and the Irish people, in addition to himself. By leaving Ireland for an outside, unclouded view, he intends to discover himself and his nation, while providing to the latter a warning that all is not well on the island.


Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Fanon, Frantz. Toward the African Revolution. Trans. Haakon Chevalier. New York: Grove, 1967. Print.

Heaney, Seamus. “Kinship.” North. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1975. 33-39. Print.

Howes, Marjorie. “’Goodbye Ireland I’m Going to Gort’: Geography, Scale, and Narrating the Nation.” James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: A Casebook. Ed. Mark A. Wollaeger. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. 319-42. Print.

—. “Joyce, Colonialism, and Nationalism.” The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce. Ed. Derek Attridge. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 254-71. Print.

Joyce, James. “Ireland: Island of Saints and Sages.” Occasional, Critical, and Political Writing. Ed. Kevin Barry. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 108-26. Print.

—. “James Clarence Mangan.” Occasional, Critical, and Political Writing. Ed. Kevin Barry. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 53-60. Print.

—. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Penguin, 1964. Print.

[1]             The title comes from Joyce’s “James Clarence Mangan: “Poetry, even when apparently most fantastic, is always a revolt against artifice, a revolt, in a sense, against actuality” (59).

[2]    Joyce also wrote of Parnell: “perhaps the most formidable man ever to lead the Irish but in whose veins not a single drop of Celtic blood ran” (“Ireland” 115).