Study Guide

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Language and Communication

By James Joyce

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Language and Communication

Chapter 1

How beautiful and sad that was! How beautiful the words were where they said Bury me in the old churchyard! A tremor passed over his body. How sad and how beautiful! He wanted to cry quietly but not for himself: for the words, so beautiful and sad, like music. The bell! The bell! Farewell! O farewell! (1.2.82)

Stephen has strong emotional reactions to the aesthetic qualities of language, and though he can’t explain it, this "beautiful and sad" line acts powerfully upon him. The repetition of "beautiful and sad," "sad and beautiful" shows us that he just doesn’t have the vocabulary to express his complex response to this moment.

Suck was a queer word. The fellow called Simon Moonan that name because Simon Moonan used to tie the prefect's false sleeves behind his back and the prefect used to let on to be angry. But the sound was ugly. Once he had washed his hands in the lavatory of the Wicklow Hotel and his father pulled the stopper up by the chain after and the dirty water went down through the hole in the basin. And when it had all gone down slowly the hole in the basin had made a sound like that: suck. Only louder. (1.1.16)

Throughout the book, Stephen is arrested by certain words; he is unusually hung up on understanding the true meanings of words. Language, to him, possesses a certain quality of foreignness or mystery.

The Vances lived in number seven. They had a different father and mother. They were Eileen’s father and mother. When they were grown up he was going to marry Eileen. He hid under the table. His mother said:
– O, Stephen will apologise.
Dante said:
– O, if not, the eagles will come and pull out his eyes. –

Pull out his eyes,



Pull out his eyes.


Pull out his eyes,

Pull out his eyes,

Apologise. (1.1.9)

Stephen is a poet, and at this point, he doesn’t even know it. As a small child, he already demonstrates a keen ear and a fascination with language that reveals his artistic sensitivity from an early age.

Eileen had long white hands. One evening when playing tig she had put her hands over his eyes: long and white and thin and cold and soft. That was ivory: a cold white thing. That was the meaning of Tower of Ivory. (1.3.46)

Stephen doesn’t fully understand the religious imagery of "Tower of Ivory" (a symbol for the Virgin Mary), so he appropriates the language to describe the hands of his friend, Eileen.

Chapter 2

…the cry that he had strangled for so long in his throat issued from his lips. It broke from him like a wail of despair from a hell of sufferers and died in a wail of furious entreaty, a cry for an iniquitous abandonment, a cry which was but the echo of an obscene scrawl which he had read on the oozing wall of a urinal. (2.5.10)

For once we see Stephen’s mind overtaken by his body – the cry he utters is a shocking moment of brute expression.

It was too much for him. He closed his eyes, surrendering himself to her, body and mind, conscious of nothing in the world but the dark pressure of her softly parting lips. They 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 pressure, darker than the swoon of sin, softer than sound or odour. (2.5.17)

This quote really could have gone under several different sections, but what we’d like to highlight is the sapping of Stephen’s linguistic powers – when he "surrenders himself" to the prostitute, her kiss effectively blots out his mind, and the best communication we can hope for is "vague speech."

Chapter 4

The phrase and the day and the scene harmonized in a chord. Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the grey-fringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language many-coloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose? (4.3.3)

Stephen returns to his appreciation of the physical world after he decides not to become a priest. As a result, Joyce rewards us with this rich explanation of why Stephen loves language so much. An interesting biographical note – Joyce himself was extremely shortsighted (he eventually went almost completely blind), so this is a personal explanation of the author’s love of language.

A feverish quickening of his pulses followed, and a din of meaningless words drove his reasoned thoughts hither and thither confusedly. (4.2.18)

Again, we see Stephen without any power of expression in a time of distress. Unlike the previous two instances, this "din of meaningless words" has nothing to do with physical lust. Rather, it’s an indignant response of that simply scatters his thoughts for a moment, rather than oppressing them.

Chapter 5

His own consciousness of language was ebbing from his brain and trickling into the very words themselves which set to band and disband themselves in wayward rhythms:

The ivy whines upon the wall,
And whines and twines upon the wall,
The yellow ivy upon the wall,
Ivy, ivy up the wall.

Did anyone ever hear such drivel? Lord Almighty! Who ever heard of ivy whining on a wall? Yellow ivy; that was all right. Yellow ivory also. And what about ivory ivy? (5.1.15)

You know when you look at a word for so long that it ceases to have any meaning? That’s what we thought of when we read this passage. Language, which is so important to Stephen, starts to frustrate him when it loses significance. The topic of controlling (or not controlling) language that we saw earlier also makes an appearance here.

– The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.

Stephen realizes that English will always be the language of the oppressor in Ireland; the Irish people neither created nor accepted it. The problem, then, is what language to speak at all – we later learn that Stephen dropped out of Irish language class.

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