A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Part 1, Sections 1 (pg. 3-4) & 2 (pg. 4-25)
"Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo...." Part 1, pg. 3
With these words we are thrown into the world of Stephen Dedalus, or more correctly, the world of Stephen Dedalus' mind. The phrase is a part of a rhyme that Stephen's father repeated to him as a very young boy. What comes next doesn't make much more sense: "His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face" (pg. 3), and by the end of the page we have jumped from the moocow story to a song about wild roses, to the observation that when you wet the bed first it is warm and then it gets cold, to a few odd words about Stephen's mother, his Uncle Charles, and a woman named Dante. All these jumps and fragments are Joyce's obvious signal to his readers that this will not be an ordinary story told in the old, reader-friendly way.
So what's going on here? Most novels are organized from a clear-thinking and often adult point of view. All of the random observations and jumps in logic that might go on in a person's mind are ironed out and a fairly straightforward story is told. But think of the way your mind moves when you walk down the street. You might be thinking about your lunch, and then a bus drives by and reminds you of your old babysitter's house, which was by the bus station, then, with your mind back in the past, you might remember your mother and the way she looked when you were ten, then you might pass a cookie shop where the smell takes your mind off of the old babysitter and your mother and over to Christmas at your grandmother's. Joyce tries to capture the randomness of a mind in this novel--a technique called "stream of consciousness" and the result is that it jumps about, rarely finishing a scene, and it is at times quite difficult to make sense of it.
Because we are inside Stephen's mind, the narrative pulls in all sorts of references from what he's read and seen as a boy growing up in late 19th century Dublin. Given a passage like this one we meet on the first page: "Dante had two brushes in her press. The brush with the maroon velvet back was for Michael Davitt and the brush with the green velvet back was for Parnell. Dante gave him a cachou every time he brought her a piece of tissue paper" (pg. 3), we will be properly stumped. What's a brush? Who's Michael Davitt? Who's Parnell? What's a cachou? By referring to the notes we can learn that Davitt and Parnell were two Irish politicians of the time, and that a cachou was a popular cashew candy (the brushes aren't explained). While the passage isn't completely clarified, we get some notion of Dante's character: she has political sentiments and she gives Stephen candies.
Besides reading the book's foot notes, try also to pay attention to the sound of the words. Joyce wrote prose like poetry. He wanted the words to sound beautiful, and sometimes meaning is actually less important than the sound and rhythm of the words. If you let the words take you like music, then the story actually carries you along. You begin to feel like you're really inside of Stephen's head.
Stephen does move from place to place in the novel, but often the setting will shift without any warning. In the very short first section, Stephen is in his nursery. In the second section he is at Clongowes, the preparatory school he's gone to as a young boy. The section starts in the schoolyard, where Stephen is participating halfheartedly in a game of rugby. Then we follow him to a classroom, to the dining hall, the playroom, study hall, the chapel, his room and finally the infirmary, where Stephen goes after he wakes up sick one morning. But these settings are generally less important than Stephen's running thoughts as he is moving about. In fact, young Stephen seems a bit confused about where he is, and he writes the following in his notebook in an attempt to get his bearings:
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
The Universe" Part 1, pg. 12
We begin to get an idea of what sort of boy Stephen is. He is small and weak, and would prefer to be in study hall where it's warm and quiet than out on the rugby field. He misses his parents, and is keeping a count of the days left until Christmas vacation, when he can see them again. Stephen thinks of himself as a smart kid. He and a boy named Jack Lawton seem to be the sharpest students in the class, and Stephen also associates a lot of what he sees with what he's read in books. He does get picked on a bit, apparently he's been pushed into a wet ditch by a class bully, after refusing to trade his snuffbox for the boy's hacking chestnut, and this dip in the ditch sends Stephen to the infirmary. The bully, Wells, later asks Stephen in front of a group of boys whether he kisses his mother before he goes to bed. When Stephen answers yes, Wells makes fun of him. When Stephen changes his answer to no, Wells makes more fun. We get the impression of a young boy who has just left home and has not yet developed a thick skin or the tough-guy talk that will help him escape being teased.
We also learn a lot about Stephen's way of sensing and organizing the world in this section. He is a boy in tune with his senses. He sits in the dining hall covering and uncovering his ears, listening to the noise that roars like a train. He is very sensitive to the feel of the bedsheets, first freezing cold and then wonderfully warm with heat from his own body. He remarks on the cold night smell in the chapel (like peasants, air, rain, turf and corduroy). He sees how the red silk badge on Jack Lawton's shirt looks even redder because Lawton's wearing a blue cap that brings out the red. Of the five senses, only taste doesn't get dealt with much in this section (though it does later in the book). Stephen has acute senses, and his memory is strongly linked to his senses: seeing a green and maroon-colored drawing makes him think back to Dante with her green and maroon brushes. Memories are also very vivid to him.
This sensitivity of Stephen's, along with his bookishness and his tendency to steer clear of typical young boy activities give us the first notion of him as a boy that will grow into an artist. Also, it's worth explaining the epigraph (quote that begins the book): "Et ignotas animum dimittit in artes." The quote means, "And he applies his mind to obscure arts," from an old Latin work, Metamorphoses, by Ovid. The "he" is the mythic character Dedalus, who made wings to escape from a maze called the labyrinth. Dedalus is symbolic of man's ability to transcend worldly problems by his own creativity. In that way he is a symbol of an artist. Stephen shows several signs of an artistic temperament in this section. For example, when he's trying to figure out the answer to a math question, he gets distracted by the thought of roses and is happy to meditate on the beauty of the colors of red and white rather than get back to the practical business of doing his math problem.
Stephen also has a particular tendency to wonder about words, suggesting that writing might be the sort of art he'll eventually pursue. He thinks about the way one word can have two completely different meanings. "That was a belt round his pocket. And belt was also to give a fellow a belt" (pg. 5) He obsesses about the sound of words, like "suck," which has a queer and ugly sound to him. And he gets particularly emotional about the words he reads. At one point he is moved almost to tears by the line of a song, "Bury me in the old churchyard."
Finally, we see in this second section that Stephen is clearly in a world of religion. Clonglowes is run by religious men. His teacher is a priest, Father Arnall, and Brother Michael runs the infirmary. Stephen says his prayers at night with the fear that he'll go to hell if he doesn't, and he equates religion with smarts, "Father Arnall knew more than Dante because he was a priest" (pg. 7).
The section ends with Stephen recovering in the school infirmary. The waves of firelight on the walls take his memory back to the politician Parnell's funeral, where the mourners knelt by the water's edge and mourned their hero's death beside the waves.