Essay on Convergence in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Essay on Convergence in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

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Convergence in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

 
As far as portraits go, James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is pretty dynamic.  Stephen is constantly in motion, hurtling through life. He sees, smells, and touches everything around him.  But I'd like to focus on one of the quieter moments - a moment of convergence.  The narrative encloses Stephen in a cloud of his own past, present, and future as he stands in a Dublin courtyard:

 

He began to beat the frayed end of his ashplant against the base of the pillar.  Had Cranly not heard him?  Yet he could wait.  The talk about him ceased for a moment: and a soft hiss fell again from a window above.  But no other sound was in the air and the swallows whose flight had followed with idle eyes were sleeping. [1]

 

Stephen's impatience melts as his quiet thoughts replace whatever he was about to say to Cranly.  He closes his senses off to his companions, to the roosting sounds of the birds in the courtyard and the jangle of the streets.  He hears only "a soft hiss".  This is the point of intersection for Stephen, and for the narrative itself.  Stephen remembers a quiet moment of prayer "in a wood near Malahide" - the past.  He thinks of Emma walking through the streets of Dublin leaving a trail of reverent silence.  She is the now.  Stephen beats an ashplant - a convenient prop for a poet - against a pillar and decides that he can wait.  Darkness is falling - it's almost tomorrow, almost the future.  This moment of quiet convergence for Stephen is a point of intersection for the reader: past, present, and future meet in a dusky Dublin courtyard.  Joyce incorporates several layers of his own creation into the scene - draws on his own "Epiphanies" and gives Stephen a prop to carry into Ulysses.

 

            In chapter five of the novel, Joyce sets up this meditative moment for Stephen, has him remember a quiet moment of prayer from his past:

 

. . . he had dismounted from a borrowed creaking bicycle to pray to God in a wood near Malahide. He had lifted up his arms and spoken in ecstasy to the sombre nave of the trees, knowing that he stood on holy ground and in a holy hour.

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And when two constabularymen had come into sight round a bend in the gloomy road he had broken off his prayer to whistle loudly an air from the last pantomime  (Joyce 392).

 

This is a purer Stephen.  He dismounts from the borrowed bicycle - borrowed from Joyce - and speaks in ecstasy to the trees.  He abandons the mechanical world the bicycle implies, casts off stiff ceremony for ecstasy.  The challenge for Stephen is to worship, to find reverence everywhere.  It seems easy in this hallowed spot, within "the sombre nave of the trees".  But then the two policemen come onto the scene.  Stephen bails, begins to whistle "an air from the last pantomine".  Here's where a bit of retrospective humor comes in.  Stephen recalls his beautiful moment, his prayer-laced epiphany, yet also remembers its anti-climax.  He's almost laughing at himself.  But is this act of narrative self-mockery truly Stephen's moment? 

 

The scene is taken straight from Joyce's "Epiphanies", journals he kept in Paris.  Joyce wants something special to mark this climactic moment in the text.  So he flips through his notebooks and picks out one of the first things he's ever written to present as a gift to Stephen.  He feels close to his character.  He's going to give him this beautiful moment of self-awareness.  But he's also going to send the cops in to bust up the party and fortify the narrative with a little irony.   Stephen may not appreciate the humor of the moment, but the reader certainly will.  Yet the narrative does not fully ironize itself. 

 

Joyce plants a staff - the ashplant - in Stephen's hand to mark him as a poet.  "He began to beat the frayed end of his ashplant against the base of a pillar,"  (Joyce 392) [2] . It's a wonderful prop.  It could mean almost anything, and for now it means the future.  Stephen plans life as a poet, an artist.  The ashplant is an affectation: Stephen walks around the city of Dublin carrying a prophet's staff.  He does it without irony.  Stephen smiles as he remembers the constabulrymen barging into the wood to interrupt his "epiphany", yet beats his pride and his artifice against a pillar.    The essential challenge remains: Stephen must find beauty in the things around him, must worship.  He bears himself proudly as a poet, yet blocks out the everyday.  The poet would have an easy time of it if Cranly and Temple were trees, but they're not: Stephen must find art in his companions, in the city streets. But he bears himself proudly, staff in hand, throws his head back in introspectively, and waits.  He can't laugh at himself, can't fully ironize his own portrait.  Significantly, the ashplant reappears in Ulysses.  Stephen travels to Paris to study and comes back without having lost his affect.

 

It's interesting how three different portraits, three different Stephens, intersect.  Stephen becomes, for one moment, the little boy in the wood, the adolescent in the courtyard, and a projected future Stephen - the Stephen worthy of his staff and his tremendous name.  Joyce reinforces the narrative importance of this scene by borrowing from his journal and alluding to his novel-in-progress.  The intersection of Ulysses and the Paris journals with the narrative is secondary, however, to the sense of connection Stephen feels at this moment, to the convergence of past, present, and future in the narrative.

 

Works Cited

 

[1] James Joyce.  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992 (392).  Hereafter cited parenthetically.

[2] The reader is dazzled with not one but two phallic symbols, beating uselessly against each other.

 
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