Raising Daedalus: A Close Reading of Joyce’s Portrait

by Harry Heuser

Raising Questions

Many a psychologist and psycho-sociologist, including Freud, Piaget and Erikson, has tried to retrace the observable and universal experiences of childhood in terms of distinct patterns in sexual, cognitive or psychosocial development.  Artists, too, have attempted to explore those first rungs of the ladder of life and pondered their implications in relation to adulthood and maturity.  How can a writer, a novelist, setting out to tell a story, capture those distinguishable steps and stages from infancy to adolescence? The narrative restrictions of the novel with its beginning, middle, and end notwithstanding, to what degree can the adult language be modified to convey the fragmented thoughts of an infant, the reasoning of a schoolboy, or the mental processes of an adolescent?  And which devices can the writer employ to create or recreate such a life on the page?

Selected passages from Joyce’s Bildungs- or Künstlerroman A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man may serve as examples of how gradual changes in diction and syntax can successfully suggest and adequately reflect the mental, social, and sexual development of a young boy.

Oral Pleasures

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.  (7)

From the very beginning, Portrait is above the telegraphic speech of baby talk as it includes both function and content words.  This is in part due to two narrative techniques: the undisclosed third-person narrator who relates the thoughts of the child unless the speaker is clearly identified as Stephen Daedalus (who introduces himself only a little further into the novel by giving his name), as well as the folk tale opening which enables Joyce to cover the earliest stages of the child’s mental and linguistic development.  Thus, both techniques allow Joyce to start ab incunabulis—rather than ab ovo, since the “moocow” tale is told by the father, not the mother—and they immediately establish the cultural and patriarchal building-blocks hurled so early into the linguistic cradle of the unconscious Daedalus in his tradition-harboring nursery.

The complexities of modernist fiction aside, the sentences, although complete, are nonetheless uncomplex (i.e. deliberately simple) and uncompounded.  Their surface structure can be derived directly from their underlying structure, since the constituents, noun phrases (“His father”) and verb phrases (“told him that story”) are not subjected to transformations.  Instead, they are arranged according to the basic syntactic rule that a sentence consists of a noun phrase followed by a verb phrase.  Simple sentences seem to convey simple thoughts here; and the repetition of the noun-phrase-plus-verb-phrase structure certainly adds to the reader’s perception of them as being simple.

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