Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

There is a particular moment in the beginning of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man which I have always loved. Stephen is in class, studying geography and looks inside his textbook to see a list he’d written some point before:


Stephen Dedalus

Class of Elements

Clongowes Wood College


County Kildare



The World

The Universe


Next to this is a joke written by a friend, which turns this list into a snappy, silly rhyme.


Stephen Dedalus is my name,

Ireland is my nation.

Clongowes is my dwellingplace,

And heaven my expectation


 Stephen, still sitting in class, reads these lines backwards and makes the observation that altered in this way, they lose their poetry. And then right after, this:


Then he read the flyleaf from the bottom to the top till he came to his own name. That was he: and he read down the page again. What was after the universe? Nothing. But was there anything round the universe to show where it stopped before the nothing place began? It could not be a wall but there could be a thin thin line there all round everything. It was very big to think about everything and everywhere. Only God could do that. He tried to think what a big thought that must be but he only could think of God.


Portrait is very much about Joyce, a narrative reconstruction of his memories which translate into his version of how he became a writer. Which is why I love that first part and that he sees how the lines, once changed, lose their poetry. A simple enough reflection but one which shows he was already thinking about the importance of arrangement with respect to language. More importantly, this thought leads him to immediately consider his place in the universe, the size and shape of things beyond and outside him. These two observations, stacked the way they are, seem such huge clues to the kind of artist Stephen will become. The questioning of one’s place, of the size of the world beyond the self, all underwritten by a focus on a kind of aesthetic harmony.


And then Stephen hits the God wall. He knows his thoughts are huge and that it’s pretty exciting, even extraordinary, to have these kinds of big thoughts. But he can’t get past the idea that only God has the right to such thinking. So he stops his big thoughts and the passage ends with his amused considerations of what God is called in other languages. This entire passage takes up less than half the page and yet so much of the novel’s theme is laid out. It’s wonderfully done.






7 Responses to “re-reading Joyce, chapter 1”

  1. litlove

    Well done, verbivore! The first thing I’ve ever read that makes Joyce’s work after The Dubtliners sound accessible! This is the novel I’d read, if I had the time to read one.

  2. Stefanie

    I remember that scene! I liked it very much. I used to wrote a similar location list in a diary when I was a kid. It didn’t lead me to the kind of thoughts Stephen had but it did add to my pleasure while reading this passage. You wrote about this passage so beautifully, I can’t wait to hear what else you have to say about Joyce 🙂

  3. Jeane

    I love this book. But I haven’t manage to read any other Joyce; it usually makes my head hurt. Not very literate, am I.

  4. verbivore

    Litlove – I think you would enjoy this one. Very accessible (not that you need that, really) but it shows where he begun to play to with language. I do love Dubliners as well.

    Stefanie – I finished Part I tonight and I can’t wait to move on to Part II, such a great book and so fun to go back to after such a long break from it. It’s all familiar but very new at the same time.

    Jeane – I highly doubt that, quite literate you are indeed! I am planning to read Ulysses next (when, not so sure) and maybe someday will take a peek at Finnegan’s Wake.

  5. Dorothy W.

    Wonderful reading of the passage! I love it when you can see the themes of a book at work in the book’s very beginning — not in an overly-obvious way, of course, but there as a kind of hint.

  6. C.B. James

    That location bit is also in the closing scene to Act One of Our Town by Thornton Wilder. The girl tells the boy how she found a letter with the address street, town, state, country, continent, planet, universe etc. I wonder who published first or if it’s just something lots of kids do thinking they’re the first one to do it.

  7. verbivore

    Dorothy – I think Joyce is particular good at working his theme into these tiny scenes, which makes his novel quite fun to take slowly and look at carefully.

    C.B. – I haven’t read Wilder, now you’ve got me curious. I suspect you are correct, this type of thing is a universal moment in ‘growing up’ as we start to understand our place in the huge order of things. Where I think Joyce is unique is that Stephen doesn’t even allow himself to continue the thought because of who he is and his religious background. It’s a really interesting moment.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: