Marginality and exile in Murphy and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Toby Shearwood

This essay looks at two seminal works of the early-twentieth century, considering 'character' and the sense of language as instances of psychological exile. Marginality, it is argued, is an extension of individuality, and the confusion inherent in the self's gradual absorption into society is at the heart of a Modernist sense of alienation.


One of the main principles of Modernist literature is the desire to capture and represent the subjective nature of reality within a text. The authors of texts that qualify as Modernist (such as T.S Eliot, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, John Steinbeck, D. H. Lawrence, and Samuel Beckett, to say the very least) moved away from the boundaries and conceits of popular Realist fiction at the end of the nineteenth century, towards a rather more individualistic, fluid, and interpretive view of the world; particularly in light of the first world war and the birth of psychoanalysis. With stylistic and thematic departures from Romantic and Victorian literature, writers focused on the mundane and everyday, yet simultaneously harking back to and referencing classical or overly complex literature. Many writers looked to philosophers like Descartes for views on subjectivity and fundamental truths. In conjunction with this, concepts of exile and marginality developed and became less literal, encompassing metaphorical or figurative alienation in the world; thus, as writers centered on the mundane - the (later known as) existential despair of people trapped in their own bodies and lives, came inevitably to the fore. The trappings and expectations of society, class systems, national identity, gender stereotypes, history, even literature itself were pushed against and explored in different texts. As the true effect of linguistics on an individual’s comprehension of the world and their psychological makeup became popularised thanks to Freud; literature was used to explore language as a human construct, one held account as a contributing factor to these constricting ideologies.

As a Modernist, James Joyce’s approach to language as a representative tool of isolation and the human condition is in many opinions unsurpassed, and undeniably pioneering; experimental use of narrative techniques have seen his works both lauded as groundbreaking and derided as incomprehensible. Although perhaps not as famous as his later Ulysses (1922) or Finnegan’s Wake (1939), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) is certainly one of Joyce’s more accessible, but no less accomplished works. As a sequence, the technical and thematic progression throughout his career (likened to a different ‘architecture’ for each text) as an author is reflected in continual personal change as a recurring theme in Portrait. Joyce used much of his own life as inspiration, as parallels drawn between the author and central character Stephen Dedalus are not only geographic or educational -respectively Dublin, Ireland; and Jesuit schools then Dublin university college - but also in emotional and psychological introversion.

These parallels are undeniably poignant, particularly in terms of exile and the margins of society. Joyce wrote from a self-imposed physical exile, literarily focused of the inhabitants and nature of Dublin - yet in body traversed the major cities of Europe for most of his adult life. His own life connects with Stephen’s implied destiny at the end of the text, as summarised by Eric Bulson; “In a series of three conversations with Davin, Lynch, and Cranley, he explains why he must break with his nation, home, and church. Voluntary exile is the price Stephen must pay for an artistic life. But in this rejection he paradoxically embraces this same church, society, and nation precisely because he needs to write about his own life experience.” (Bulson: 2006 pg52)

Dedalus’ tale is in essence a Künstlerroman, an artist’s sub-genre of the common literary Bildungsroman; as a vital difference, the former ends with a forceful rejection of the common-place slot in life society has to offer. As shown this is true for Stephen in Portrait - Stephen is different from others; and in order to escape his prescribed role in society he feels he must exile himself. As his name suggests, Eloquent St Stephen the Christian Martyr - is reconciled with the Legendary Greek artificer Daedelus (creator of the minotaur‘s labyrinth), and his son Icarus, perpetual analogy of escape and liberation (and its dangers). In this way, there is a concluding note of control over one’s own destiny. Joyce could be in a way justifying his departure from Ireland, and the church. This in turn is supported by comparisons to Stephen Hero, the posthumously published discarded basis upon which Portrait was based. Amongst massive aesthetic, philosophical, stylistic, and structural changes, the distinction was best summed up; “Joyce transforms the Aristotelian body of Stephen Daedalus in Stephen Hero into the modernist body of Stephen Dedalus in the Portrait. As Joyce’s ‘image’, the latter day Stephen is the Word disincarnate, the agent of an original style, not of embodied virtue or desire.” (Oser:2007 pg69)

It could well be that with this added context, that Stephen’s self imposed exile not just merely justified, but also (as a young man forging his own destiny) transformed into an idealised version of Joyce as a romanticised pioneer. It is no coincidence that Joyce’s first works (in The Irish Homestead, an agricultural magazine) were penned under the pseudonym of this exact character. Perhaps this explains the blurring of lines between autobiography and fiction - Joyce wrote his ‘spiritual biography’ and retroactively changed perceptions of his own life. This last point is also altered in light of Stephen’s appearance as an older gentleman in Ulysses - obviously by that time Joyce intended to alter his character even further.

As previously stated, Joyce manipulates language to convey Stephen’s distance to society, and the changes in his person in the process of becoming a young man - via a very literal and particular progression of syntax vocabulary knowledge and grammar - in each distinctive section of the novel. By highlighting the incomprehension of youth, each epiphany-like step up in understanding has a greater depth of meaning. Stephen is aware he spiritually evolves and in that sense looks to the future; but linguistically, he becomes more aware of retrospective cages of language - “His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face” (pg7) - becomes “though in deference to his reputation for essay-writing he had been elected secretary to the gymnasium” (pg73). In his own words - “The past is consumed in the present and the present is only living because it brings forth the future” (pg255). There lies Stephen’s (and to some arguable degree Joyce‘s) inextricable link between the language of an individual’s past and as present as a viewing lens to the future.

The obsession with language, likely originated from an author and a character strung between two languages and societies - Irish and English (Jacques Lacan would disagree, preferring a psychoanalytic approach as explained in Le Sinthome). Either motive aside, there is a further advanced step to the language used in Portrait, and its effect on alienation and distance between the reader and character. The text purports such a depth of insight into Stephen, one would assume it strange that Joyce decided to utilise a third person perspective. However, by creating an original viewpoint, intently subjective yet still distanced - showing Stephen’s ignorance of certain aspects of life, yet illustrating them in a way that allows a certain ironic distance; Joyce creates a tension between the objective and the subjective. This highlights the isolation of individuality, the filters Stephen perceives through, and his own faults; in a way that first person perspective could simply not do. Language like “His fellowstudent’s rude humour ran like a gust through the cloister of Stephen’s Mind” (pg196) are subtly affected by the distance, giving a gentle mockery of Stephen’s pompousness and self-aggrandising nature. When, at the culmination of his Künstlerroman, there is an acknowledgement of his own ignorance, Stephen’s story develops into a pared back, first person diary form narrative. It can be seen as a maturation and acceptance of his own fallibility and isolation within himself.

The life of the character does not represent exile and marginality solely in this manner - far more obviously, there is a great deal of passion in the passages referring to all consuming fear of god. Lust compels the teenage Stephen to a prostitute, after he is subject to not only a Catholic upbringing, but also a tirade of intense extremist religious sermons declaring the punishments of sin in great detail. This brings great anguish - “His brain was simmering and bubbling within the cracking tenement of the skull. Flames burst forth from his skull like a corolla, shrieking like voices: - Hell!Hell!Hell!Hell!Hell!” (pg128). Religious violence pushes Stephen to the margins, in the sense that he has no knowledge of a way out. He is trapped and controlled by the invisible ideologies created by society, and placed in his mind. That is, until he has enough sense of self to grow away and move on with his life.

James Joyce’s approach to literature was inimitable, but his impact and status as a literary giant is unquestionable. As a Modernist, he clearly influenced an enormous quantity of writers, Samuel Beckett being but one. Beckett, also Irish, from Dublin, was educated within religious schools, then studied at Trinity College Dublin, and as a young man became an assistant and close friend of Joyce. Personal relations aside, Beckett’s inherited modernist (and later postmodernist) tendencies do owe something to Joyce. In Murphy (1938) the strong central character of the title certainly has problems adjusting to the barrier his own self presents in society. Indeed, there is also similar usage of a subjective third person narrative, albeit for an altogether different effect. Subjectivity is relative and convoluted - characters weave in and out of narrative focus as chaotically as the sentence structure moves in loops around itself. The effect is that it builds a general mistrust of the world that is created; the reader is given as much stability as the characters - that is to say none.

The nature of chaos in Murphy is central to the perception of the world by the characters within it. It is their inadequacy to accept or function within the rules created by their society that results in them being isolated and pushed to the sides of society. The characters exist in a confusing nonsensical world, stuck in a conflict with three co-existing ideologies. The nature of polarity, duality, and compromise reoccur consistently - represented in myriad ways. There is light, half light, and dark. There is also conscious, sub-conscious, and unconscious - there is paradise, purgatory, and inferno - that is, solid, liquid, and gas - that is, order, balance, and chaos.

Each of these contradictory states are presented as dependant on one another - as Brian Finney puts it “[in Murphy] love is exile from reality, birth is a form of death, sanity is insanity, activity is non-productive” (Finney: 1994). As a continuation of this, the book as a whole is contradiction, a dark comedy - a tragic farce.

The narration and the dialogue are also consistently contradictory - as Beckett employs puns, allusions, inversion, and paradox. Take a short dialogue between Murphy and Celia - “How can I care what you do?” “I am what I do” said Celia. “NO,” said Murphy. “You do what you are…” (pg26).

Much of the dialogue goes back on itself, reasserting and negating previous points - simple sentence structure is intentionally unconventional. It offsets the reader - our struggle to understand is necessary to help us identify with characters that struggle to communicate how they feel. This works as a novelistic form of Brechtian alienation techniques (aspects of which Becket could well have adapted into his later work as a playwright). It in a way mocks the fallibility of language, show the fluidity of meaning and intent between people, and struggles and problems of true meaning and communication. Also, the strange sentence structure is potentially allusive to insanity or schizophrenia (marginal traits, inherent to exile) - an uncommon perspective, yet a distinctive aspect of modernism. It would seem then, that the inherent chaos within the text is Beckett’s exaggerated take on our own lives, the confusion of individuals in modern society typified in a fundamental struggle to comprehend.

In taking this a step further (in a slightly postmodern reading), I would put forward the argument that the text actually holds a place somewhere between the truly chaotic unconscious (such as T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land) and order and consciousness (such as a realist or more traditional text). Thus Murphy is in the half light, exiled from either extreme; and as chapter six states, he dislikes the figurative ‘half-light‘, due to the effort and will included in having a potential to choose the light. It is possible then his urge toward the dark, for freedom, (to become “a mote in the absolute dark of freedom” pg72) to escape the ‘half-light’ (which is also the world of the novel) is analogous to an urge to escape the text that bears his name. To reiterate, Murphy’s dark psychological compulsions derive from a desire to remove himself from the novel, and society completely. It would make sense that characters would want to escape in a text that is so ‘Hermetically sealed’. One critic saw that particularly in the opening sentence; “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new” explaining how it “perfectly reflects the internal world of the title character, a closed, lifeless system. No authentic life or growth is possible in this world (i.e. nothing ‘new under the sun’), since the sun loses its generative power in both a physical and emotional/metaphorical sense” (Keller:1988 pg51).

Murphy’s release through death (as an escape from fiction) - is supported by the text’s closing chapter, the only chapter within which he is not directly mentioned by name. Continuing this way, it is arguable that Murphy is a character stuck somewhere between awareness and ignorance. He is ‘semi-aware’ of his fictional state, and for him the only way to forget is oblivion, chaos, and ultimately death.

As a character, he is always searching for a fundamental truth, one that he almost grasps - a truth that I believe is the notion that he is fictional. In chapter five it is said - “Murphy never wore a hat, the memories it awoke of the caul were too poignant, especially when he had to take it off.” A birth caul is a naturally occurring thin film membrane that appears fairly rarely, over the face and heads of babies when born. The caul is in most ancient cultures a sign of latent knowing or mystic ability - it is also representative of an edenic pre-birth state of belonging, awareness, and perfection. This could then indicate Murphy’s ignorance of his own potential to become aware, (in this case of his state as a fictional character), and the hat, the caul, reminds him too much and too painfully of unfulfilled potential. Instead of the light, and understanding, he reverts towards darkness and unconscious chaotic oblivion. Rather than comprehend, Murphy’s end is in the dark, - as at the conclusion of chapter 11 “Soon his body would be quiet, soon he would be free… excellent gas, superfine chaos. Soon his body was quiet” (pg 158).

Murphy’s distaste for society, for work, social conventions and sanity puts him on the margins of society. However, it is important to note that despite the character’s glamorization of absence of self and rejection of life, (specifically in relation to death and insanity) that is not necessarily the objective of the text. Murphy’s ultimate end is as ash on the floor of a pub, swept up with spit and vomit. The final judgment is interpretive for every reader - some feel he transcends physical form, he would have desired his remains to be swept away in equity - others see it as a more negative meditation on the futility of life. Whether positive or negative, it is clear - the life Murphy lives results in the ultimate marginalisation, an exile from body, and from self.

Both the texts break ground in their own way, linguistically and stylistically; but when they come to the notion of exile and marginalisation, the outcome is a little more nuanced. It’s possible to read a positive or negative stance on the subject into either - an intentional ambiguity associated with such ‘difficult’ texts. It is another feature of the modernist metanarrative, challenging readers to decide for themselves in an uncertain text, with no clear condemnation or confirmation of characters. The confusion lies in perspective, when exile is a form of rebellion it comes down to interpretation of semantics. This is the subjective nature so many writers strive to catch, showing that the universe has no real clarity or universal truth - as Alfred North Whitehead said of Descartes - it “leads directly not merely to private worlds of experience, but also to private worlds of morals” (Whitehead:1925). The self-exile of characters are a direct result of fighting against a society in which they would be unhappy to function in, and must escape - for better or for worse. It is not the outcome and whether they succeed or fail that is the point; it is that they dare to break away from social norms, they have the confidence to reject an unfulfilling existence for the hope of something more. As is with Icarus, son of Dedalus; even if you fly too close to the sun and fall - at least you flew.

Word count – 2,876


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Toby Shearwood


brightONLINE student literary journal

06 Oct 2011