Prigs, Prostitutes, and Pigeons
Three Women in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Professor Nico Israel
Hunter College Graduate School of Education
2 March 2014
…away, away, away: yes, yes, I can’t go on here anymore.
Letter dated 2 February 1922
As the only female character with anything resembling a significant “speaking part” in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the execrable Dante does not seem to have received her fair quotient of critical attention. Which is a shame in a way, because the portrayal of Dante seems of critical importance in setting the stage for the more extended discussions of other important female figures in the novel, such as the “Willie Dear” prostitute central to the closing moments of Part II, and especially the (perhaps) over-analyzed “Bird-Girl” of the episode of singular euphoria that closes Part IV. At the very least, the depictions of the three women can be said to share several tropes and representational attributes, that form a kind of matrix for analysis and interpretation: each is associated strongly with a color, or a group of colors; each can be paired or twinned with one or more character or thing proximate to her in the text; and (arguably) most provocatively, each – and not just the so-called “bird-girl” – is compared explicitly or implicitly, by metaphor or juxtaposition, to birds. We will here, then, explore the representation of these three female characters along these three interpretive axes, using the representation of Dante as our major focus, and see if we can tease out or arrive at any new provocation or meaning in this much-discussed novel.
Dante is introduced to us on the novel’s very first page (I: 21-26), and dominating the first thirty pages of the novel, has a real presence in the text unlike any other female character. First off, she has a name. And what a suggestive doozy of a name: Dante! Between the name and her placement at the “gates” of the novel, can we entirely resist the simplistic identification with Dante’s Beatrice, her, for whom Yeats’ words, a “…beauty like a tightened bow, a kind / That is not natural in an age like this, / Being high and solitary and most stern” (Yeats 94: 8-10) are certainly as apt a description of Portrait’s bitter “priestridden” scold as any we might come up with. Or perhaps, to complicate matters, by way of the odd Lawrentian mis-reading that favors Alighieri’s Paola (Delany, 77), she of Paola and Francesco, suggestive of Dante as a hell-tinged if eternally devout “spoiled nun” (I: 996), unhappily and eternally married to an Ireland Malatesta, all the while yelping after Jesus. Interesting, if not entirely for us to resolve here.
Nearly as soon as we are introduced to Dante, we are introduced to her colors, by way of her two famous brushes, the “brush with the maroon velvet back for Michael Davitt and the brush with the green velvet back … for Parnell” (I: 23-25). In case we hadn’t quite taken that in, we are offered the peculiar hallucinatory apparition of Dante, as Stephen in an apparent fever-dream that immediately precedes the famous Christmas dinner episode, has a vision from his Clongowes infirmary bed of Parnell’s funeral procession, headed by his nurse, Brother Michael.
And he saw Dante in a maroon velvet dress and with a green velvet mantle hanging from her shoulders walking proudly and silently past the people who knelt by the waters’ edge. (I: 713-715.)
Dante’s “green… for Parnell” has typically been parsed in one direction as an emblem of a kind of (naïve perhaps) Irish patriotism and the green flag of so-called “Confederate” Ireland, or in another as a symbol of envy, of Dante’s possible jealousy of the ‘man’s world’ of politics, or even of Parnell’s sexual prowess. But what exactly to make of “maroon for Michael Davitt?” While the colors of the flag of Contae Maigh Eo, Davitt’s county of birth, are green and red, the ground of the flag of Caisleán an Bharraigh, the capitol of Mayo and roughly some five miles as the crow flies from An tSráid, Davitt’s actual birthplace, is maroon. The color maroon is sometimes associated with autumn, and one can work up a contrast with “spring” green, I suppose; Dante’s ultimate preference for maroon representing both her age and a sympathy with a politics and a social order that has become an anachronism. But it seems a stretch. Neither does maroon, unlike say green, red, or blue, immediately conjure a specific emotional state. In the end, this absence of immediate or obvious emotional symbolism suggests that Dante’s colors are meant to be read as largely literal emblems of the religio-political struggle in which she is so passionately invested.
Contrast this with the “long pink gown” (II: 1428) worn by the Willie Dear prostitute, pink being the only color mentioned in the passage describing Stephen’s encounter with her. Or with the emerald, ivory, white, “slateblue” and “darkplumaged dove” (IV: 858-864) that make up the stuff of the bird-girl at the conclusive moment of Part IV, a sudden effusion of color in a single compact paragraph. Not surprisingly, given the consensus reading of Portrait as a kind of bildungsroman, Stephen’s vision has evolved along with Joyce’s use of color. Pink (in early twentieth century Ireland at least) would be the “softer than sound” color of flesh, of lips hither and nether, emblematic of Stephen’s near-sighted, all-consuming if temporary adolescent lust, the boudoir, the breast. Then what to make of the virtual rainbow (pardon the pun) that is the bird-girl? The colors are reminiscent of the blue and white of the flag of County Connacht, which interestingly includes a rampant eagle. But unlike in the case of Dante, it seems a stretch to make such a literal – provincial, if you will – case for this particular palette. Then there’s that transposition of Dante’s ‘green’ into bird-girl’s ‘emerald,’ which is particularly interesting in light of Stephen’s dark night of the soul double invocation in Part III of “the jeweleyed harlots of his imagination” (III: 475) and “harlots with gleaming jewel eyes” (III: 493). Is emerald a different color than green? Or a changed vision of the same color? It’s interesting, too, that the emerald here is from seaweed, and raises the strong possibility that the bird-girl had been harvesting seaweed, a common activity as seaweed was widely used in coastal communities at the time as fertilizer, a food additive and a source for manufacturing iodine (Sexton & Kinealy, 92). This emerald then would be a green that is not just of the flag but of the land, an emerald isle apprehended, in Stephen’s sudden euphoria, as existing in a fulsome cycle of production and reproduction, a color finally gemlike but life-giving and without sin. The girl’s ivory thighs are the pink of whoredom in the light of a new day where nation and religion have been synthesized by sex and experience. A gloriously written little piece of fluff, this passage is: after its fashion, a cheaply Lawrentian epiphany, the universe revealed in a grain of orgasm. But if we do (as I think we should) take the passage as the best and most artful representation of the consciousness of the character Stephen at that moment in his young life, and not as representative of some arcane form of Joycean philosophy or Jamesian psychology, it is an epiphany come fairly honestly, after all, to any horny twenty year-old at the opening of the twentieth century.
I want, for the sake of brevity and in the name of my larger fascination with the queer ornithology of Portrait, to turn only briefly to the question of character twinning with respect to the three female characters under discussion. I am provoked especially by the twinning of the WillieDear prostitute and the spread-legged doll in the prostitute’s easy chair (II: 1431-32). Again, leaning on an overall reading of the novel that privileges the attempted mimesis of Stephen’s consciousness, the doll can represent a pretty thoroughgoing objectification of female sexuality that Stephen will ultimately escape; a choice; a divergence; at one and the same time an emergence into the real, the embrace of an actual blankeyed harlot in renunciation of an imaginary jeweleyed harlot, and a motion away from the punitive vision that sex is something done to women, and towards the resolution that sex is something done with women. I hold out for consideration that the equivalent twinned characterization with regard to the bird-girl is the “medley of wet nakedness” that are Stephen’s male acquaintances on the same strand, which “chilled him to the bone” (IV: 744-45), present as emblematic of Stephen’s renunciation of “corpsewhite” and “pallid” (IV: 745-46) homosociality and his embrace of “pure” and “softhued” (IV: 857-59) heterosexuality. Dante makes for a trickier case. She is literally paired with Uncle Charles, a cipher for whom politics and religion are clearly not suitable holiday table talk. Then there is Brother Michael, in whose presence Dante appears in Stephen’s infirmary fever dream. There is the “drunken old harridan” (I: 1024-25) of Mr. Casey’s spitting story who, one could argue, is as much a ragdoll caricature of Dante’s beliefs as the prostitute’s doll is a caricature of the prostitute’s practice. Finally, there is Mr. Casey himself, Dante’s political nemesis who, “scraping the air from before his eyes with one hand as though he were tearing aside a cobweb” (I: 1128-29) – a gesture eerily similar to that of Stephen’s Jesuit confessor passing “his hand several times over his face” in Part III (III: 1512) – simultaneously apprehends and absolves the crime of Dante’s politically incorrect beliefs. In any of these pairing scenarios involving Dante, a case can be made for how Stephen internalizes and synthesizes the conflict, and ultimately escapes with a deeper, if sometimes seemingly indifferent, new understanding, and how that synthesis fuels his ongoing attempts at “escape.”
Turning, finally, to birds, it is interesting to note in this context that according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the use of the word bird to describe a girl or – in the dictionary’s quaint diction – “maiden,” does not actually have its origins in 1960s Swinging London slang, but dates back as far as the fourteenth century, possibly originating as a misspelling of “bride.” One difficulty in unpacking this famous passage is that the so-called bird-girl is constructed out of so many disparate and incompatible parts: “a strange and beautiful seabird” with “legs … delicate as a crane’s” and the “breast of a darkplumaged dove” (IV: 856-864). On the one hand, perhaps Stephen is still not completely free from the objectification we suggest above was emblematic of the prostitute’s doll. He’s evolved merely into a legs and teats man, and can’t yet see the whole woman for her parts. One could extrapolate further on this theme we suspect from the festishization characteristic of some of Joyce’s more infamous letters to Nora. Stephen may have accomplished an ecstatic and newly adult, in the narrowly Freudian sense, hetero-erotic imagination, but it is one still constrained both by the heterosexual norms of the time and his relative youth and inexperience. Another reading leads generally in the direction of the bird-girl being a reification of Stephen’s newly discovered and explicitly female “soul” (see in particular Stephen’s soul being referred to as “her” at lines 809 and 844), borne out of an “ecstasy of fear” into an “ecstasy of flight” (IV: 784-89), where sky and air are an antithesis of drownding, putrid water, and the female, as the vessel of heteronormative sexual union, becomes the enabler of metaphorical if not literal “flight.” Either way, it’s of a piece with the emotional and intellectual trajectory of the novel, as a journey into consciousness unbound by either “shame or wantoness” (IV: 869). One reading goes so far as to take off from the image of the “darkplumaged dove” to propound a theory of the bird-girl as a secularized and sexualized but not wholly de-sacralized vision of the Holy Ghost (see Dudley).
At first glance, there is nary a bird in sight in Stephen’s episode with his WillieDear. Instead, if bird-girl was more a metaphorical bird than anything more concretely bird-like, WillieDear is bird as simile. Stephen goes to her as a bird: with “stretched out arms” in his “frail swooning form,” loosing a song “strangled for so long in his throat,” his bird-like “heart clamouring against his bosom in a tumult” (II: 1406-27). Pelican-like, she becomes the mother bird, bowing his head to her lips and smothering him in her breast; an act more like a feeding than a sexual union, and as much like a myth “pressed upon his brain” (II: 1455) as an act performed upon his lips or body.
But for me, the profoundly funny and provocative woman-as-bird in Portrait is Dante: the Christmas turkey. A bit far-fetched, perhaps, but amusing: when Simon Dedalus invites uncle Charles to table – “—Now then, sir, there’s a bird here waiting for you” (I: 784) – it is immediately after seating Dante, and it is not entirely unambiguous whether he is referring to it or her. This is followed almost immediately by Stephen’s confusion as to why a pandybat is called a turkey (I: 801), when, as events to follow make abundantly clear, there could be no more hypocritically punishing pandybat in all this little world than Dante. Then there’s the very Joycean device whereby Dante’s outraged declaration
“—Nice language for any catholic to use!” appears to be a response to Dedalus’s innocent question “—Now then, who’s for more turkey?” (I: 864-66.) And how they’ve all gorged on this turkey, these Irishmen and women, stuffing themselves to the gills their whole lives on Dante’s toxic potion of self-righteousness and delusion. So much so, that when Dante avers of Parnell:
“We won! We crushed him to death! Fiend!” (I: 1144)
she means all of them, all of Ireland, sharing the tragic destiny that fate, history, colonialism and bitter sectarianism had conspired to bring to bear on that poor, temperate, sorry island, left effusively mourning its “dead kings” (I: 1148) in a nation where the only good king is a dead king.
Admittedly we have here only scratched a surface, offering a few possible interpretations of a few literary elements with respect to a mere handful of characters in the face of a highly complex text and an incredibly dense history of critical response. Nevertheless, I think the choice to put a tighter focus on Portrait’s female characters in particular is warranted in the name of potential new understandings and fresh insights into both Portrait of the Artist as a novel, and more broadly, into Joyce’s mind, work, and times.
Delany, Paul. “’A Would-Be-Dirty Mind’: D.H. Lawrence as an Enemy of Joyce.” In Beja, Morris; Norris, David, eds., Joyce in the Hibernian metropolis: essays (13th International James Joyce Symposium), Ohio State University Press, 1992. Web: Ohio State University Press Knowledge Bank, https://kb.osu.edu (http://hdl.handle.net/1811/6284).
Dudley, Jack. “What the Thunder Said: A Portrait of the Artist as a Trans-Secular Event. Literature & Theology, 28: 1 (March 2014). Web: oxfordjournals.org.
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Print. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007 
Sexton, Sean and Christine Kinealy. The Irish: A Photohistory 1840-1940. Print. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2002.
Yeats, W.B. The Poems of W.B. Yeats. Print. New York: Macmillan, 1983.