I’ve had the nice experience of putting two seemingly different works together and seeing startling comparisons that I hadn’t thought of before. In the class I am teaching on Irish Literature, we had begun the semester with Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. From there we moved through some Frank O’Connor stories, some Yeats poems, and three plays by John Millington Synge. And then as a breather, I showed the film My Left Foot, based on the autobiography of the Dublin poet, painter and writer, Christy Brown.
I have a fond relationship with My Left Foot which began long before the film was released. A friend of mine was living in San Francisco, working as a nurse. She would search the used book shops looking for the odd nugget, and she was always very kind to me. Every so often there would be a T-shirt from some cleverly-named dive bar, an esoteric album that no one knew about it, or a used book she found in her travels. One day, in the mail came a package containing My Left Foot by Christy Brown. I didn’t know the book at the time though it was twenty years old by then, but the worn and ragged dust jacket and the beaming face of Christy Brown on the back announced the joy, the vibrancy, the humor, and the pathos of the story inside.
I remember reading it twice in a short space of time, of lending it to a friend, and then lending it to another, and soon I lost track of it. And, to be truthful, I forgot about it. Until the movie was released and Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance announced to the world that this was someone to watch.
Viewing it this past week, so close to having finished Joyce’s Portrait, however, impressed on me how similar the story of these two Irish artists are. Joyce’s hero–Stephen Dedalus–is a sensitive, young child, bullied a bit at school, helpless without his glasses.
That Christy is also helpless, everyone assumes. Born with cerebral palsy and able to move only his left leg, he spends his early years lying under the stairs watching his family interact with each other—for better or worse. Joyce’s novel also begins with the early interactions of the family. From the hairy face of his father and the nicer smell of his mother when he was an infant to the fierce political/religious argument at Christmas Dinner, the Daedalus family is indeed similar to the Brown family. Particularly in the characterization of the fathers and mothers.
Simon Dedalus and Paddy Brown are hard men, perhaps a bit too fond of the drink. And both young boys, Christy and Stephen, see it as their responsibility to save their families from the fathers’ excesses. The mothers are doting: Christy’s mother innately sure that her son was more than just the vegetable that everyone believed him to be and Dedalus’ mother praying for her son’s soul and protecting him from his father’s increasing wrath.
And it wouldn’t be an Irish tale, if religion didn’t play a part. Father Arnall’s sermon on hell affects Stephen to such a large degree that he believes he might have a priestly vocation. And Christy is taught religion by a priest who comes to the house and who is also fond of describing the fires of hell–and causing young Christy no end of terrors.
Relations with the opposite sex are a stumbling block in both works as well. Sensitive Stephen vacillates from madonna to whore to madonna throughout, while Christy–caged within his crippled body–falls in love easily and is rebuked as often.
But the importance of both works is the creation of the Artist. Joyce’s Dedalus ultimately abandons church, nation and family in order to strike out on his own and “forge …the consciousness of [his] race,” while Christy embraces that world–dear dirty old Dublin and his sprawling family–to find the inspiration of his art. The artistic output–however disparate–is not the point here. The point is the development of an artist within similar constraints and backgrounds, a tale of two young men who travel the same narrative arc in order to discover the art that is within them.
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To one and all, Happy St. Patrick’s Day.