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Joyce's Comic Portrait
Britain, Ireland, and Continental Europe
Roy Gottfried. Joyce's Comic Portrait. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2000. ix + 188 pp.
While critics have seen moments of APortrait of the Artist as a Young Man as humorous, they have for the most part subsumed them under the irony that suffuses a novel whose protagonist will, we know, progress past some of the foibles the text displays so poignantly. Working against the telic drive of the Bildüngsroman, Roy Gottfried argues that irony isn't the only kind of humor in Portrait. He probes several scenes in the novel to find instances of comic play, ignored by Stephen, that perforate the most serious material of the text. In painstakingly detailed observations, Gottfried brings to light a "tumbling," directionless humor easily missed when we align ourselves too closely with Stephen's consciousness.
The first two chapters focus on classroom scenes where doubled language and word-play provide comic moments. In Stephen's mathematics class, for example, the instructor scolds a student: "'Well now, Ennis, I declare you have a head and so has my stick! Do you mean to say that you are not able to tell me what a surd is?'" Gottfried makes much of the pun on "stick," reading it as indicative of the doubled possibilities of [End Page 1052] words. He also points out that "surd" itself has two meanings: an irrational number in mathematics and an unvoiced sound in language. "[T]here is something just beyond the surd, something other: the absurd." He further notes that given the second meaning of "surd," it is in a sense impossible for Ennis to "tell [. . .] what a surd is." Gottfried convincingly demonstrates how such confusion in language "enacts the very tumbling and undoing that are the dynamics of comic capering."
Chapter 3 considers how popular publications Joyce read, such as The Dublin Illustrograph and a column by Edgar Wallace in the Daily Mail, provide comic contexts for Portrait. In part of the chapter, Gottfried argues that Joyce's expertise in writing comedy improved as he read Wallace's column. Since Joyce drafted "After the Race" before he began reading the column and "Grace" afterwards, Gottfried uses the two stories to trace a genealogy of Joyce's comic style. He compares the earlier, more "diffuse" description of Jimmy's attitudes toward money in "After the Race" to the "Grace" narrator's jab at Mr. Hartford, who "had never embraced more than the Jewish ethical code." But Gottfried describes the latter as "effectively and vividly comic" and does not comment on its use of anti-Semitic stereotype, which in my opinion lends insipidity rather than vividness to the lines.
The fourth and fifth chapters compare Portrait to the novels that precede and follow it. Within Portrait's elevated register Gottfried locates traces of comic and vulgar language prevalent in Stephen Hero. He then establishes that Ulysses "brings the comic shadows and displacements of Portrait to the fore," showing how humorous details in Ulysses reduce serious elements of Portrait to the stuff of slapstick. In these final chapters, Gottfried lays out in detail an important facet of Joyce's creative process: his tendency to "hoard" details for future comic possibilities.
While Gottfried's argument depends on a working distinction between irony and a less directed comedy, his claim that precise definitions are unnecessary seems reasonable: he's talking about how humor is used in the text, not trying to delineate two distinct kinds of humor. In fact, Gottfried could have stated more explicitly that the two kinds of humor are not mutually exclusive and in fact often occur in the same moments of the text (not just "in the same text"): when other characters joke just beyond Stephen's notice, readers can laugh at the joke (fun) and notice that Stephen, who takes himself too seriously, does not (irony). [End Page 1053]
Gottfried's study skillfully both demonstrates and resists the pressure exerted by the genre and the protagonist to see the novel as a...