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The Powerful Female Character in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
One of the most powerful nuances of any writing is the dialogue within the story. In literature, it is all too often that characters live only in the jaded voice of the author and never truly develop as their own, or are not strongly opinionated in a manner which contrasts the opinions of the writer. It is also unfortunately true that the women depicted in most male-authored literature do not often sound realistic, or how most women one would speak to in the course of the day tend to sound. All too often, women are depicted on a lower level of speech than men. For instance, Dickens and Arthur Miller both apparently subscribed to this notion, as the women in their stories were usually more passive, and not as elaborate as men in their speech, however, James Joyce did not see things in the same light. The most developed female character in Joyces A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is one who speaks with dignity, passion, and the female tact which is all too often ignored in the characters of women. Joyce's Dante Riordan's words and thoughts are true to those of literate twentieth century women.
Although a short-lived character in Portrait, Dante Riordan, in a brief amount of time emits an apparently important and mysterious aura, the aura of a woman. Judging from the studies of twentieth century linguists, Joyce's brief representation of Dante through speech is nearly flawless. To more lucidly understand this, one must carefully examine some of the instances at which Dante speaks in her conversation with Mr. and Mrs. Dedalus, Charles, and Mr. Casey, and re-examine the arguments she makes. Dante is introduced into the dinner table conversation as a silent character. However, when the men's conversation turns to the misuse of the preacher's pulpit, Dante begins her interjections.
All too often, women in literature remain linguistically dormant unless called upon, however, studies conducted in the reality outside the covers of a book have shown that women will interrupt a conversation to contradict a previous speaker, and do so vehemently (Coates, 193). A nice answer for any man calling himself a catholic to give to his priest, (Joyce, 273) states Dante as her first response.
At this point, Dante has drawn herself into the conversation.
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Joyce's realistic portrayal of Dante does not end there, however. In studying the findings of linguists, it becomes clear that during the Renaissance, it was proper for a woman to be silent and a man to be eloquent. However, the increased level of female literacy in the late nineteenth and early to present twentieth century, changed this philosophy, and it is now expected that women be just as, if not more eloquent than men. As Dante continues her conversation, she quotes the Bible in response to the ongoing attacks of the men at the dinner table in the presence of women and a child: Woe be to the man by whom the scandal cometh! It would be better for him that a millstone were tied about his neck and that he should scandalise one of these, my least little ones. (Joyce, 274)
Even today, it is rare in literature to find a woman allude to, let alone directly quote literature as a witty response to a verbal assault. Women
have an instinctive shrinking from coarse and gross expressions and a preference for refined and (in certain spheres) veiled and indirect expressions (Coates, Jesperson, 126). What better way is there to describe Dante Riordan? Her primary reason for involving herself with the conversation from the start is the vile blasphemy at hand. Of her sixteen turns in the conversation, eight of them are devoted to reprimanding the 'language' that she hears from the mouths of the men. To assert the reality of Dante's character even further, look to sociolinguist William Labov. He writes that, in lower and middle-class groups, females are far less tolerant of incorrect grammar and taboo (Labov, 207). This was made pleasantly lucid in the character of Dante Riordan. In light of all of this, it steadily becomes more apparent that Joyce had paid careful attention to real conversational language. In the characters of the men, he captured the competitive attitudes, vulgarity, and lack of tact which are so often marks of men in English speaking societies. But more importantly, through the character of Dante, he captured the fire, the respect, the subconscious submission, and the maternal aversion for taboo that unite to form the psyche of this century's woman. Joyce, in spite of his hatred of the church, designed a character who's few spoken words do all they can to uphold the honor of the imperfect institution, and aside from Mr. Dedalus's final immature remark, Dante has the last word, and in effect wins the conversation. This is literary genius. Developing thoroughly and realistically the character of a non-existent person in the medium of text alone is a monumental task, but one that appears so effortless in Joyce's portrayal of Dante. A problem re mains, however where are all of the other real women in dead white male literature?
1) Bloom, Harold. Modern Critical Interpretations: James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York:Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.
2) Coates, Jennifer. Women, Men and Language. New York:Longman, 1993.
3) Labov, William. Variation in Language in Reed, C.E.O The Learning of Language. National Council of Teachers of English, New York, 1971.