Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist in James Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, was the son of an Irish nationalist. The Irish struggle for independence, during the early twentieth century, took place parallel to Stephen’s coming of age. Stephen did not reject Irish culture, but he was lukewarm to the Irish cause. He was alienated from the church and wary of the institutions. Irish history was too narrow for the philosophy of aestheticism that he had adopted.
In the following excerpt, from the novel’s final chapter (Chapter 5), Stephen is having a conversation with Davin, an Irish nationalist who is his friend at the university—Davin says that he is an Irish nationalist, but Stephen is contemptuous of nationalism:
As Davin did not answer, Stephen began to quote:
—Long pace, fianna! Right incline, fianna! Fianna, by numbers, salute, one, two!
—That’s a different question, said Davin. I’m an Irish nationalist, first and foremost. But that’s you all out. You’re a born sneerer, Stevie.
—When you make the next rebellion with hurleysticks, said Stephen, and want the indispensable informer, tell me. I can find you a few in this college.
—I can’t understand you, said Davin. One time I hear you talk against English literature. Now you talk against the Irish informers. What with your name and your ideas . . . Are you Irish at all?
—Come with me now to the office of arms and I will show you the tree of my family, said Stephen.
—Then be one of us, said Davin. Why don’t you learn Irish? Why did you drop out of the league class after the first lesson?
—You know one reason why, answered Stephen.
Davin tossed his head and laughed.
—Oh, come now, he said. Is it on account of that certain young lady and Father Moran? But that’s all in your own mind, Stevie. They were only talking and laughing.
Stephen paused and laid a friendly hand upon Davin’s shoulder.
—Do you remember, he said, when we knew each other first? The first morning we met you asked me to show you the way to the matriculation class, putting a very strong stress on the first syllable. You remember? Then you used to address the jesuits as father, you remember? I ask myself about you: Is he as innocent as his speech?
—I’m a simple person, said Davin. You know that. When you told me that night in Harcourt Street those things about your private life, honest to God, Stevie, I was not able to eat my dinner. I was quite bad. I was awake a long time that night. Why did you tell me those things?
—Thanks, said Stephen. You mean I am a monster.
—No, said Davin. But I wish you had not told me.
A tide began to surge beneath the calm surface of Stephen’s friendliness.
—This race and this country and this life produced me, he said. I shall express myself as I am.
—Try to be one of us, repeated Davin. In heart you are an Irishman but your pride is too powerful.
—My ancestors threw off their language and took another, Stephen said. They allowed a handful of foreigners to subject them. Do you fancy I am going to pay in my own life and person debts they made? What for?
—For our freedom, said Davin.
—No honourable and sincere man, said Stephen, has given up to you his life and his youth and his affections from the days of Tone to those of Parnell, but you sold him to the enemy or failed him in need or reviled him and left him for another. And you invite me to be one of you. I’d see you damned first.
—They died for their ideals, Stevie, said Davin. Our day will come yet, believe me.
Stephen, following his own thought, was silent for an instant.
—The soul is born, he said vaguely, first in those moments I told you of. It has a slow and dark birth, more mysterious than the birth of the body. When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.
Davin knocked the ashes from his pipe.
—Too deep for me, Stevie, he said. But a man’s country comes first. Ireland first, Stevie. You can be a poet or a mystic after.
—Do you know what Ireland is? asked Stephen with cold violence. Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.