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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
CHAPTER TWO (continued)
The tormented youth is enjoying a rare moment of good cheer. He is in high spirits because he has won a substantial cash prize for scoring high in an examination and for writing an essay.
The prize money was £30 for his "exhibition" (outstanding work) in the exam and £3 for his essay in the annual examination given at all secondary schools in Ireland. You may think £33 a paltry sum. In those days, it was the equivalent of nine months of a teacher's salary. And the academic honor was great.
The money gives Stephen a taste of power and a temporary lift. He brightens the dreary family life by spending freely on food and clothes. He attends the theater with friends, like a man-about-town. He redoes his room with a pot of pink paint-a symbol of rosy hopes.
Why does money seem to cure Stephen's problems? Could it be, as some think, that they are mainly economic? Is Joyce saying that Stephen would have fewer problems if his family hadn't become poor? Joyce himself struggled with poverty long after he left Ireland and was in a good position to be realistic about it.
The orgy of spending ends all too soon, and Stephen's misery returns. Stephen's pot of pink paint was not enough to finish redoing his room, just as his money was not sufficient to solve his problems. Notice in what form the color pink returns before the end of the chapter.
Stephen is again consumed by sexual fantasies. He indulges in erotic activities (masturbation) he calls "secret riots." In Catholic terms, these put him in a state of mortal sin. This is a heavy burden for a still-religious boy. "Brutal words" now spring from him. He contrasts his present state with his earlier, innocent longing for Mercedes and the soft speeches of Claude Melnotte, the romantic hero of The Lady of Lyons by English writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton.
If you are puzzled by the intensity of Stephen's sexual frustration, remember that in late nineteenth-century Ireland, and in other countries, there were strict notions about the immorality of masturbation, illicit sexual relations, or even about close physical contact of any kind.
Stephen again searches himself for answers by walking through the maze of Dublin's "dark slimy streets." In the tradition of the literary realism he admired, Joyce stresses the sordid details of Stephen's walk. Images recur that reflect Stephen's despondency: the maze of the streets and the yellow (decay) gas flames. In a section of town filled with brothels, a young prostitute stops Stephen, takes him to her room, and enfolds the trembling youth in a sensual embrace. He gratefully surrenders at last.
The "magic moment" of romance with a real Mercedes that Stephen longed for earlier becomes in fact a whore's embrace. The white, rose-covered cottage is a tawdry room with an obscene doll. But the prostitute is almost motherly. Her room is "warm and lightsome"; her dress is-like the pot of paint-pink. Is Joyce saying there is hope and romance in the real world? Or is he saying that, symbolically, what Stephen was searching for was not romance but sexual release?
The language of this segment is richly evocative and sensual. Words can make the sordid beautiful. To Stephen, the whore's kiss is "darker than the swoon of sin, softer than sound or odour." The combination of sensations (of sight, touch, sound, and smell), along with the repetitive sound of the letter "s," have led some to call this an overly poetic and overwritten passage. Others find that this poetic language accurately expresses Stephen's desire to find romance to beautify his experience. Do you think Joyce may have purposely overwritten the seduction scene in order to poke fun at Stephen's romantic nature?
The chapter that began in country innocence ends in urban squalor and sin. Stephen has finally given in to his body and acknowledged his passions, an apparent triumph over fear. But, as in his boyish triumph at Clongowes, the sense of victory will be short-lived.