Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Portrait is a story of a boy's journey from childhood to adolescence to manhood; in brief, it is a tale of becoming an adult. It follows Stephen Dedalus from his boyhood days at Clongowes Academy (a Jesuit school for boys) to his eventual decision to leave his family and friends and set off on his own. Stephen is a smart, shy boy, and we learn of his various torments and triumphs at school, as well as his family's struggle with poverty and a continual downward class spiral. Stephen lives in Ireland, spending some time in a small, idyllic town called Blackrock, and then a great deal of his adolescence in Dublin. He goes through a period of darkness during which he spends a lot of time visiting with "ladies of ill repute", shall we say, after which he goes through a spiritual cleansing and even contemplates becoming a priest. He changes his mind, though, and moves away from pure religion to religious-influenced schooling once again. He goes to university (all the while living with his family, who continue to downgrade living spaces and sell off valuables along the way) and has many philosophical and aesthetic debates and discussions with his mates. In the end, his questioning of religion leads to a disagreement with his mother and his eventual departure to discover life on his own.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here
I read this book for "Introduction to Literary Theory" in college, and I despised it then. I liked it a little more this time around, although to say that I enjoyed it would be a stretch. I can see why Joyce fans like it, and why people who enjoy both his style and the whole microcosm of Ireland that he presents would go GAGA for it (what do you wear to cause a ga-ga at ze go-go? a toga full of LONG BEAUTIFUL HAIR!) but as I am neither a Joyce enthusiast nor an ardent lover of obscure Irish references, the book was merely average for me.
- One of the first conversations that Stephen has with his classmates gets him trapped in a question with no apparent right answer. The boys ask him if he kisses his mother before he goes to bed, and he answers yes (they laugh) and then no (they laugh again) and he asks himself "What was the right answer to the question?" I felt bad for little Stephen, and I also marveled that these silly entrapment question games have been around as long as they have. (Would you like your muffin buttered?)
- When Stephen is sick and gets sent to the infirmary at Clongowes, he writes an imaginary letter to his mother:
I am sick. I want to go home. Please come and take me home. I am in the infirmary.
Your fond son,
(a) This is adorable. (b) This reminded me of when I got a stomachache in elementary school and Mrs. DePoff (Poff?) called my mother; the militant, unfriendly nurse who insisted on announcing my weight OUT LOUD even when I asked her not to in front of other students called my mother and asked her to come and pick me up because I had a "tummy ache."
- At Clongowes, they use corporal punishment frequently, mostly "pandying" which is a series of sharp hits on the hand with a stick, sometimes "flogging", which seems to be a more severe form of spanking that may or may not involve a cane. Stephen is usually able to fly under the radar and he's a good student, but when another student knocks him over by accident at the playground, Stephen breaks his glasses, and while he's waiting for his parents to send another pair, his teacher exempts him from schoolwork for a few days. When a prefect comes in and finds Stephen not doing his work, he accuses Stephen of being a schemer and pandies him even after Stephen explains he's been exempt. He describes his hands: "To think of them beaten and swollen with pain all in a moment made him feel so sorry for them as if they were not his own but someone else's that he felt sorry for."
-- This episode stung me both because of its injustice and because, as a life-long glasses wearer (since I was kindly told by SAME nurse above that I had FAILED the eye exam in 5th grade (nonsense! i've never failed a test in my life!)) I can identify with the difficulties presented when you're waiting for a new pair. I once had to wear prescription sunglasses to my Western Civ. class in college, and my professor deManded that I remove them and insisted on insinuating to the entire class that I was simply trying to dramatically cover a very bad hangover.
- The many references to Saint Ignatius of Loyola (v. important to the Jesuit order) reminded me of our "identifications" section on the Western Civ. final. We had read a very small paragraph on St. Ignatius amidst the several thousand pages we covered in studying 300 BC to the early 1900s, and when his name popped up on the final, I puzzled for a few minutes, then, stumped, I happily scribbled: "St. Ignatius -- Friend of Jesus. They were definitely close pals." (Just in case you were wondering, Ignatius was born in the late 1400s. Ahem. Whoops!)
- Stephen reads The Count of Monte Cristo during the book, and fantasizes about turning down Mercedes. I loved this, both because CoMC is one of my favorites and because I first read it at about the same age as Stephen did.
- Two shoutouts to my mom --
(1) In one scene after the many moves, Stephen asks his mother, "How much is the clock fast now?" To which she replies, "An hour and twenty five minutes." If you've ever been to my mother's house, you'll know that it's rare for any two clocks to say the same time, and some get slower throughout the week while others get faster. It keeps you in a constant state of guessing; why indeed should you divine the time so easily?
(2) Stephen and his classmates frequently quote Latin and often talk in what they refer to as "dog Latin", which seems to be a bastardized form of Latin. While I'm sure you would enjoy this, Mom, I found it mostly esoteric and annoying. ;)
- When Stephen tries to have a serious discussion with his friend Cranly, Cranly promptly starts to stuff a fig in his mouth, to which Stephen interjects, "Don't, please. You cannot discuss this question with your mouth full of chewed fig." Hilarious.
- One of my favorite lines in the book is a discussion between an old man and Stephen's father Simon:
- 'And thanks be to God, Johnny,' said Mr. Dedalus, 'that we lived so long and did so little harm."
- 'But did so much good, Simon,' said the little old man gravely. 'Thanks be to God we lived so long and did so much good.'
-- I think we can all aspire to earn this phrase at the end.
Passages I particularly enjoyed:
- What was after the universe? Nothing. But was there anything round the universe to show where it stopped before the nothing place began?
- And from here and from there came the sounds of the cricket bats through the soft grey air. (Haverford had a cricket team, and I used to love the sound of the bats cracking into the balls on Saturday mornings.)
- But when he had sung his song and withdrawn into a snug corner of the room he began to taste the joy of his loneliness.
- He recalled his own equivocal position in Belvedere, a free boy, a leader afraid of his own authority, proud and sensitive and suspicious, battling against the squalor of his life and against the riot of his mind.
- The sunlight breaking suddenly on his sight turned the sky and clouds into a fantastic world of sombre masses with lakelike spaces of dark rosy light.
- Only the morning pained him with its dim memory of dark orgiastic riot, its keen and humiliating sense of transgression.
- The stars began to crumble and a cloud of fine star-dust fell through space.
- Perhaps they had taken refuge in number and noise from the secret dread in their souls.
- There was a lust of wandering in his feet that burned to set out for the ends of the earth.
I'm off to enjoy some Hemingway with The Orb, too, ascends. Yes, I'm quite sure I got that one exactly right.