SETTINGS OF JAMES JOYCE’S NOVELS
. England, which from the twelfth century had controlled portions of Ireland, gained near-complete dominance of the island in the sixteenth century. Irish resentment towards the conquerors was strong, especially when under King Henry VIII the English monarchy became Protestant, while Ireland clung to Roman Catholicism. Irish Catholics became victims of religious persecution in their own country. Unjust agricultural policies also contributed to the difficulties. Most Irish land was owned by absentee landlords and leased to tenant farmers. It was an inefficient system that was in part responsible for a series of Irish famines, the most terrible of which occurred after the failure of the potato crop in 1848. Over a million people died during this famine. From time to time, revolutionary heroes—like the eighteenth-century patriots
Wolfe Tone and Hamilton Rowan admired by young Stephen—aroused Irish hopes for independence, only to be crushed. In Joyce’s youth, confrontation was once again in the air. The Land League, led by Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell, had campaigned ‘ successfully for agricultural reforms. Other groups campaigned for Irish cultural independence by promoting the use of Gaelic, Ireland’s native tongue, rather than the English brought by Ireland’s conquerors. Perhaps most important was the campaign for Irish Home Rule, self-government through an independent Irish parliament. The Home Rule campaign was led by Charles Stewart Parnell. Parnell’s leadership in the British Parliament had succeeded in winning over his colleagues to Home Rule.
Before the bill was passed, however, Parnell’s enemies exposed his personal relationship with the married Katherine (Kitty) O’Shea, with whom he had been living secretly for many years.
The Parnell affair divided Ireland. Parnell’s own party deposed him, the Catholic Church denounced him, and his British backers withdrew their support. Parnell died of pneumonia shortly afterwards, in 1891, when Joyce was nine. (In the scene in Chapter One, the feverish Stephen dreams of his hero’s funeral procession.) Irish politics remained hopelessly tangled after Parnell’s downfall. Some groups still wanted to work for independence by peaceful means. Others believed that violence was necessary. Irish nationalists, like Stephen’s friend Davin, joined a group called Sinn Fein, whose military arm was called
The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Remnants of the IRB later became The Irish Republican Army, known as the IRA. The Sinn Fein’s armed Easter Sunday Rebellion of 1916 against the British was unsuccessful in its attempt to seize Dublin and proclaim a republic. The British outlawed the group in 1918 and sent in troops (“Black and Tans”) to round up remaining guerrilla fighters.
Nevertheless, the Irish Free State (now the Republic Of Ireland) was established four years later; it included most, but not all, of Ireland. The six counties of the northern region of Ulster remained, as they are now, a part of Britain—but violently divided over religious issues. Thus, the long tradition of Anglo-Irish conflict continues to this day. The influences of Ireland on Stephen appear to him as a part of the labyrinth in which he is entangled; he feels that he must escape it. The country is the very opposite of Stephen’s ideal, because the Irish have allowed themselves to be shaped by alien forces and cultures. They are, in this view, victims of two empires, the British, which controls them politically, and the Roman Catholic, which rules them spiritually from Rome. That this is foreign to Ireland’s true nature is made very clear when Stephen, now a Student at University College, enters a house owned by the Jesuits. He senses the history of the place and asks himself, “(Was the Jesuit house extraterritorial and was he walking among aliens? The Ireland of Tone and of Parnell seemed to have receded in space”. Tone and Parnell were Irish nationalists; Stephen will also soon find out that the Dean of Studies is an Englishman. So the Jesuit house is “extraterritorial”; not really part of Ireland at all.
Part of Stephen’s quest is to break through this Irish net of foreign-dominated cultural history and create an art that is free. He has been aware, from a very young age, of the conflict in Ireland because the fierce quarrel that erupts at the family Christmas dinner makes a deep impact on him. It shows the divisions between the Irish regarding their own history and destiny. Dante Riordan supports the Church, which opposed Charles Parnell, the Irish nationalist who nearly brought Home Rule to Ireland. The Church in general opposed Irish nationalism. Opposing Dante are Stephen’s father and Mr. Casey, who argue that Ireland is a “priest-ridden” country; the Church is a harmful influence. As Stephen matures, he does not take sides; he transcends the debate. He will not side with the nationalists because he sees no hope in that path, based on the way the Irish people have treated their own leaders. He tells his friend Davin that “No honorable and sincere man.
has given up to you his life and his youth and his affections from the days of Tone to those of Parnell but you sold him to the enemy or failed him in need or reviled him and left him for another”. Nor does Stephen have any interest in following the Roman Catholic Church, which would merely be to follow a system and a doctrine laid out by an authority external to himself. Stephen does want to do something for his country, but he wants to free it through art, not politics. Or religion. This is clear from his penultimate diary entry, when he goes to “encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”
Settings of James Joyce’s Novels
Joyce fled from Dublin to the mainland of Europe, but Dublin never left him. He wrote about the city for the rest of his life— in Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist, Ulysses, and Finnegan’s Wake. Dublin is more than the backdrop of Portrait of the Artist. It is also the symbol of Stephen’s discontent. The drab, stagnant city is seen as the heart of a paralyzed Ireland that stifles the aspiring young artist. The city’s streets, through which Stephen constantly wanders as he works out his future, are like the labyrinth (maze) constructed by his eponym, the mythical Daedalus. For both of them the only escape is flight.
Stephen’s family starts out living in Bray, an affluent sea side village to the south of Dublin. However’ financial problems force the family into the city, first to the suburb of Blackrock, and then to a series of progressively bleaker dwellings in the city’s shabbier sections. As you might expect, these downhill moves color Stephen’s view of the city and of his life. The Dublin streets reflect his dissatisfaction. There even comes a time when, disgusted with himself, he finds comfort in their foul-smelling filth—they match his own darker moods and self-disgust. The real Dublin of Joyce’s time had its gracious sections adorned by eighteenth-century Georgian brick houses and by many handsome monuments. It also had the natural beauty of Dublin Bay, the outlet of the River Lifer. Stephen is not completely blind to this beauty. In his frequent walks, he goes to the water. It is on the harbor’s seawall, called the Bull that he clearly hears the call of his artistic destiny, and on the Bay Shore that he sees the girl who becomes a symbol of the freedom and beauty he seeks. (Some see the Lifer and the sea as symbols of the “stream” of Stephen’s thoughts and as the sites of his rebirth and baptism as an artist.) But it’s the seamy side of Dublin that haunts Stephen in all its sordid detail: water-logged lanes, putrid puddles, dung heaps, odors of fish, “horse piss and rotted straw.” Despite any momentary feelings of communion, Stephen must reject the “dull phenomenon or Dublin”—and Ireland—as an environment suitable for artistic growth, even though both city and country will remain a rich source of the art itself.