Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

It’s the small details that make Portrait of an Artist such a joy to read. Like this scene where Stephen sits watching into someone else’s home. You can see the delicious pleasure he takes in being the voyeur (made twice as interesting when the reader realizes she is looking in on Stephen in the same way):


Whenever the car drew up before a house he waited to cach a glimpse of a wellscrubbed kitchen or of a softlylighted hall and to see how the servant would hold the jug and how she would close the door.


I love his emphasis on the movements and gestures of the servant. He doesn’t even have to give us his interpretation of what he sees, it’s enough to know that those small actions are what he’s looking for. Tells us so much about Stephen.


In Part II, Stephen has his first experience with love. It’s unfulfilled (like all first love experiences should be) and Joyce moves us through Stephen’s expectation, disappointment and angry despair in a tumble of rapid lines. He dashes away from the event and off into the night with classic adolescent angst. Racing from the site of his failure, an unthinking, purely physical force. But then he stops, and transforms his physical into poetic:


He stood still and gazed up at the sombre porch of the morgue and from that to the dark cobbled laneway at its side. He saw the word Lotts on the wall of the lane and breathed slowly the rank heavy air.

That is horse piss and rotted straw, he thought. It is a good odour to breathe. It will calm my heart. My heart is quite calm now. I will go back.


This is Stephen’s trick. This pushing of the moment until it breaks apart into its sensory components. This is his artist’s perspective at work. How he will convert the unpleasant to suit his sensibilities.


Part II is also about Stephen as a sexual being, about a natural adolescent longing and then Stephen’s particular fear of sin. Joyce writes quite eloquently about how tortured Stephen feels in relation to his body and its desires. And the chapter ends, rightly, with Stephen visiting a prostitute. Joyce describes their kiss:


(Her lips) pressed upon his brain as upon his lips as though they were the vehicle of a vague speech; and between them he felt an unknown and timid pressue, darker than the swoon of sin, softer than sound or odour.


Darker than the swoon of sin…doesn’t that just perfectly capture the joy and terror of transgression?



8 Responses to “re-reading Joyce – chapter two”

  1. Amateur Reader

    To what extent is Stephen’s intellectual immaturity reflected here? E.g., Stephen sees how the servant holds the jug or closes the door, identifies these gestures as important, but doesn’t know how to describe them. Maybe mature Stephen-the-writer will be able to do that.

    I think this struck me because of your second quote, where he specifically takes time to decompose the odor. We’re seeing the writer’s mind take shape.

    It’s been a long time since I read this book – enjoying your thoughts.

  2. Dorothy W.

    I’m enjoying your thoughts too. It’s fascinating the way Joyce reveals Stephen’s artistic character, in ways that are obvious and subtle. I liked your point about Stephen watching the house and the reader watching Stephen — everyone is implicated here.

  3. Trish

    Your joy makes me feel so much better for my extreme dislike for this book. I’ve read it twice and unfortunately didn’t feel any warmer towards it the second time around. Glad someone loves it. 🙂

  4. Logophile

    I’m really enjoying your thoughts on Joyce! I’ve never actually read Portrait, and I know that these posts will enrich my reading when I finally get around to it.

  5. verbivore

    Amateur Reader – such a good point, I think a lot of Part II and III is about Stephen making “attempts” to add meaning to his life or to understand what’s going on around him, in that sense he is definitely immature and developing.

    Dorothy – it is a lovely scene, especially the part just after which suggests his self-awareness at being different from his family. I like the movement from looking at others, then back to himself with a new perspective

    Stefanie – thanks!

    Trish – Your comment made me laugh. Some things just don’t work do they? I’ve been in your position many a time before.

    Logophile – I’d absolutely love to hear what you think of Portrait if and when you get a chance to read it.

  6. Ann Darnton

    I love the first of your quotes, I think because I recognise something of myself in Stephen. I’m a great city walker and as I pass houses I always start to speculate about the lives being lived behind the facades and what the glimpses that I get tell me about them. Net curtains are a real nuisance!

  7. verbivore

    Ann – I remember a friend of mine once telling me that Scandinavia (or maybe it was Holland) was a great place to be an “outsider looking in” – in the sense that no one closes their curtains and you can see inside houses very easily. I also love to look at what’s going on inside when I pass a house and wonder at the lives being lived just a few feet away.

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