Why ‘Stephen Hero’ is better than ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’

I do not quite believe that Stephen Hero is a better novel than A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Reading Stephen Hero at a significant remove from Portrait convinced me that it could be, for the reason that we get far more frequent and more extensive insights into what Joyce’s actual line on social and national questions might be, but having gone back to Portrait to check I can confirm that the latter is correctly regarded as the better work. 

However, there were a few points that I thought were worth reflecting on, at the risk of falling victim to a tendency within literary studies to treat everything, including what Joyce crossed off the page, as an object of study. This is particularly troublesome to me because in my view, Joyce was not a writer who benefitted from lots of people telling him he could do no wrong.

I have already written about some of my frustrations with Joyce’s elisions of Irish politics and what a shame it is that a truly great Irish novelist, whose writing career aligns with an unprecedented period of social convulsion in Ireland, barely reflects this in his work. It is instead necessary to look to non-fictive writings for direct treatments of the Rising, or wade through layers of irony in the Cyclops episode of Ulysses to figure out what he thought of British imperialism. While glimpses emerge in Finnegans Wake, I would contend that Joyce’s final work has far more to say about Europe and Ireland in the nineteenth century, the Napoleonic wars and incendiary Fenianism, as opposed to the more disciplined manifestation that it had begun to assume at the time Joyce was writing. The section of Finnegans Wake in which Ireland and the cultural revival is dealt with at its greatest length, comes through in the section about Joyce’s prosthesis, Shem the Penman, his grappling with his own impulse to write, his ambivalence with Ireland and flight from nationalist pieties. Again we think of the line in Ulysses in which Dedalus mentions that he is interested in Ireland as it is the place in which his genius happens to have landed.

The idea that Joyce is somewhat aloof from Ireland was, as I understand it, fully entrenched after Richard Ellmann’s biography  represented him as a writer of the metropole, with far more in common with Ibsen and Hauptmann than Yeats or Synge, who left the straightened  Catholicism and myopic cultural nationalism of Ireland behind in order to write in centres of European culture; Paris, Zurich and Trieste. With the rise of post-colonial criticism in the seventies, the idea that Joyce has things to say about Irish society and British domination began to come to the fore. When I studied Joyce in university, it was a very philosophical, post-structuralist and negative Joyce that I encountered there, though this may just have been a function of who was teaching me and where.

All this is part of the reason why I think Stephen Hero is worth reading. In style it recalls the naturalistic approach of Dubliners in which information and visual detail is rendered in a blank and almost dead way, into which we are encouraged to read no small amount of satirical venom but which we would not necessarily be able to pinpoint on the level of the word. On the one hand we have nothing that matches the quality of the section in Portrait in which Stephen has a vision of his personal hell, but it does mean that we get more serious treatments of political ideology and the nature of Irish society at the beginning of the twentieth century. Republicanism, the national movement’s comprehension of liberty, how it looked to France and Switzerland for civic models to emulate, how hurling is regarded as preparing Ireland’s young people for a looming military conflict, are all treated here and I find it really interesting how Stephen Hero troubles the antinomy of Irish Republicanism as provincial / European literature as internationalist, as those writing within the legacy of Ellmann regard it, whether they see themselves as doing so or not.

It is at the same time difficult to say that A Portrait would really miss them as they appear here, given the somewhat rote nature in which these sequences play out. These ideas are introduced in a very breathless manner by one of Stephen’s more naive classmates, Stephen gets the better of them by telling them if they want military training they should join the British Army, or informing them that prominent members of their movement are likely to accommodate themselves with the ruling order to come, ‘the publicans and the pawnbrokers who live on the miseries of the people’ whose business activities furthermore violate Catholic social teaching: ‘One of your professors in the Medical Science who teaches you Sanitary Science or Forensic Medicine os something — God knows what — is at the same time the landlord of a whole streetful of brothels not a mile away from where we are standing’. Everything here remains very much within the tradition of ‘needless to say, I had the last laugh’ of anecdote.

Another example of this is Temple, who is a nationalist and also from outside Dublin. His dialogue is represented with apostrophes and hyphens in some attempt to channel some rural ernacular or other: 

‘—‘Scuse me, sir, said Temple to Stephen across the intervening bodies, do you believe in Jesus…I don’t believe in Jesus’

‘—‘Course I don’t know…if you believe in Jesus. I believe in Man…If you b’lieve in Jesus…of course..I oughtn’t’ to say anything the first time I met you…Do you think that?’ 

The ellipses are Joyce’s and the intention is as clear as it is in Middlemarch or Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South,when more radical factory workers are represented as not really knowing what they are talking about or what’s best for them. 

It should also be said that Stephen Hero has significantly more emotional range, it has far more humour, lust and grief and Stephen feels far more rounded out character-wise as a consequence. While Portrait brings us from early to late childhood, then adolescence and university, Stephen Hero is so focused on Stephen’s years in UCD it qualifies as a campus novel. Stephen and his friends lounge around, fruitlessly debate utopian socialism and talking the particular variety of aimless bollocks you do as a student outside the library, bantering about ‘red-arsed bees’ and how to convince yourself you are the son of God. There is also far more Emma Cleary but there is little here that feels like its missing from Portrait.

I have a vague recollection of some critic describing the section in which Stephen’s younger sister dies as sentimental, drawing a comparison between it and the death of Little Nell, but I personally found the section in which Stephen’s very devout mother explains to her daughter that death is nothing to be afraid of because she will be in heaven with God very powerful and I think does great work in showing how isolated Stephen has become in his attempt to fuse Nietzsche with scholasticism:

‘Life seemed to him a gift; the statement ‘I am alive’ seemed to him to contain a satisfactory certainty and many other things, held up as indubitable, seemed to him certain. His sister had enjoyed little more than the fact of life, few or none of its privileges. The supposition of an allwise God calling a soul home whenever it seemed good to Him could not redeem in his eyes the futility of her life’.

Sections such as these, which represent a small house in which someone is dying, trying to talk to them in a manner that does not broach what is really going on captures very well the feelings of a young man encountering death for the first time. This allows lofty social issues to become more personal; Stephen reads the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on socialism and decides that while commerce is just, rent-seeking is not. In a less virtuoso anticipation of Ulysses’ agenbite of inwit, in which Stephen reproaches himself for abandoning his younger siblings to their lives of deprivation, Stephen also considers the pitiful existences of Dublin’s working class:

‘These wanderings filled him with deep-seated anger and whenever he encountered a burly black-vested priest taking a stroll of pleasant inspection through these warrens full of swarming and cringing believers he cursed the farce of Irish Catholicism: an island the inhabitants of which entrust their wills and minds to others that they may ensure for themselves a life of spiritual paralysis’.

Ultimately Stephen recoils from such judgements in the next paragraph as unfit for one seeking to express themselves freely, a judgement and abdication that is shown to be justified by one such working class subject:

‘—On’y, said she, God bless the gintleman, he uses the words that you nor me can’t intarprit’. 

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