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The Growth of a Young Man in The History Boys and Portrait of The Artist of a Young Man

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Joyce’s and Bennett’s writing have become synonymous with the arduous process of becoming an adult, and, despite the large gulf in time between their works’ publication, use some similar techniques to describe the process. However, Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’ focuses primarily on educational and partially sexual development of students, while ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ concerns the spiritual and moral growth of one protagonist, Stephen Dedalus. The differences between these works emerge especially in concepts of ‘baptisms of fire’ and ‘rites of passage’, both of which prove integral to the development of the authors’ themes. Both of these terms have seemingly ambiguous connotations and are often subject to misinterpretation, particularly in the case of the latter. They have nonetheless been granted simple definitions: for the former, “a painful new undertaking or experience” and for the latter, “a ritual or event marking a stage of a person’s advance through life.” These definitions, despite their euphemistic aura, are undoubtedly applicable to the two pieces and are typical of the bildungsroman genre, to which the two pieces, arguably, belong; but are dealt with in different ways by the two authors.

Within Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, many ideas coalesce in order to achieve the two solid aforementioned techniques. The majority of these ideas centre on the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, and his journey into adulthood and the tribulations the journey creates. Joyce certainly has no qualms about reinforcing this and exhibits it from the very beginning: “Once upon a time…there was a moocow that was coming down along the road and this moocow met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.” This unconventional technique mimics the pure simplicity of a child’s mind and thought processes. It also gives the reader a starting point from which Stephen’s mind will mature: it is as if the author wishes for us to witness the whole process of growing up, therefore, building a link between reader and protagonist. This is the first significant stage of a wholly episodic, staged, novel and the first ‘rite of passage’ displayed by Joyce. This idea is continued throughout the first chapter of the novel, with Joyce presenting the significant passages of Stephen’s life: school, family and friends which are, later on in the novel, juxtaposed with other, more mature, priorities. This means that due to his young age, Stephen is merely a listener and observer in these opening pages and the text is dominated by the voices of his family, who argue about religion and politics and, ultimately, introduce Stephen to the themes that will blossom in later chapters. An example of this is Stephen Dedalus’s introduction, albeit a methodical one, to religion: “Say his own prayers and be in bed before the gas lowered so that he might not go to hell when he died.” This quotation exhibits an injection of Stephen into a typically Irish rite of passage, religion, a theme that will reappear and torment the protagonist in later pages and, in Joyce’s eyes, was an integral part of growing up in 19th Century Ireland.

In contrast, Bennett chooses to begin ‘The History Boys’ at a more advanced time in a child’s life: he does not echo Joyce’s starting of the growing-up process from the very first rite of passage, but instead chooses to open his play with a monologue concerning events of which the reader is completely ignorant, which is in the manner of a frame tale. However, Bennett does imply the whole context of the play: “School. That’s all it is. In my case anyway. Back to school.” This quotation, with its short statements, injects a sense that the character speaking, Irwin, has been greatly affected by the school and that it has become an integral part of his life, which could be construed as him having been involved in the rites of passage involved in education: this is realised later on when the audience becomes aware of the subtle progression that takes place in Irwin. This heightens the contrast between the two pieces because, although ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ is partially set within a school, it becomes clear that ‘The History Boys’, will, unlike Joyce’s piece, centre around school and its exams, while Joyce focuses his piece upon religion and morality. This centering on key settings continues into the realms of rites of passage and baptisms of fire, with them being largely connected with their appropriate theme.

Within the first section of ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, Joyce chooses to introduce a defined, easily recognisable, baptism of fire for Stephen Dedalus, during which the protagonist is subjected to brutal treatment by a figure of authority: “A hot stinging tingling blow like the loud crack of a broken stick… scalding tears were driven into his eyes…a cry sprang to his lips, a prayer to be let off…his body shook with a palsy of fright and in shame and rage he felt the scalding cry come from his throat. It was cruel and unfair.” This sequence of events, conveyed aptly with a similarly brutal vocabulary, seems to act as a detrimental catalyst to Stephen’s emotional and moral progression: after this point he becomes confused about, and tries to ascertain, the true meaning of his punishment and starts to question his faith in both adults and God. This idea is shown in a later quotation: “His soul had arisen from the grave of boyhood, spurning her grave clothes.” This quotation shows just how momentous this event was in Stephen’s life and how, throughout the novel, he is oppressed by the memory of it. On the other hand Bennett chooses not to display a clear, original baptism of fire, opting instead for a multitude of episodes to evoke one, particularly in the Oxbridge interview process and the accompanying pressure placed on the pupils: “Look I’m s**t at all this. Sorry.” This defeatist comment from Rudge exemplifies the tortuous nature of an entrance into the adult world. It contrasts with the easy confidence of other pupils, and shows that Bennett, by utilising a spectrum of characters, is trying to induce a sense of realism into the play. This heightens the sense that the ‘History Boys’ involves a routine, organised struggle as opposed to the irregular one employed by Joyce. It also confirms Joyce’s novel is a singular experience, while Bennett’s play is a multiple one.

In ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, Joyce focuses solely on the growing of one individual and conveys this by including the reader in Stephen’s interior monologue: “Through this image he had a glimpse of a strange dark cavern of speculation but at once turned away from it, feeling that it was not yet the hour to enter it.” In this quotation, the author portrays Stephen as regarding himself as immature, unformed, and, therefore, unable to tackle elements of thought and intellectualism, an insecurity which is an element of growing-up, a rite of passage. Through this use of a single character, it is clear that Joyce wished to create an ulterior, higher, level of reader involvement and empathy and thus humanising the protagonist: “The yellow dripping has been scooped out like a boghole and the pool under it brought back to his memory the dark turf-coloured water of the bath in Clongowes.” This quotation, which contrasts with the intellectual discussions of previous pages, adds a greater dimension of realism to the protagonist. Above all, Joyce wanted to portray the emergence of ‘the artist’, for example, as Jonathan Murooney states in ‘Stephen Dedalus and the Politics of Confession’: “Stephen’s portrait is at the same time the portrait, as Joyce conceived it, of the Irish artist’s attempt to navigate out of cultural subjection into a possibility of economic and intellectual freedom.” This, perhaps, relates to Joyce’s naming of his protagonist Dedalus (from Daedalus), who, in classical mythology, built the maze in which the Minotaur resided, which contrasts with the escapism of Joyce’s Dedalus.

Bennett’s play, set in more ‘enlightened’ times, the 1980s, instead uses no specific person with which the audience can measure the tribulations of the rites of passage undertaken. However, one character, Posner, does bear some resemblance to Stephen Dedalus. Throughout the play, the audience becomes aware of a very particular range of problems experienced by Posner: “I’m a Jew. I’m small. I’m homosexual. And I live in Sheffield. I’m f***ed.” This quotation exemplifies Bennett’s characteristic sense of humour, but also shows the author making a serious comment upon the class and social systems that the boys will have to overcome, which is also shown by Bennett’s full spectrum of characters: black, white, Jewish, Christian, Muslim and homosexual, a rather convenient ethnic mix for early 1980s Sheffield. His use of language in this extract is also reflective of its importance. He uses short, sharp statements one after another, which stick distinctively in the audience’s mind and which are then coupled with the humour of the last statement and prove to be very memorable. Using this technique, Bennett is able to explore the rites of passage particular to different groups of people: “Jewish boys often are, a role though nowadays that is more and more being taken over by the Asian boys, intelligence to some degree the fruit of discrimination.” This, ultimately, means that dealing with race is a very important rite of passage in ‘The History Boys’.

This multicultural theme is not prevalent in ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, due to its time and setting, but the theme of nationality is explored thoroughly by Joyce. At the beginning of the novel, Stephen Dedalus’s home is dominated by political discussion: “No God for Ireland! he cried. We have too much God in Ireland. Away with God!” This argument and its repercussions have a profound effect on Stephen, who, due to the conflict raging in his mind, then begins to mistrust his own race and country, but eventually reaches a conclusion: “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” This, with its usage of metaphor, shows that Stephen has finally become aware of his role in the world and, ultimately that he has finally reached adulthood and has now a sense of purpose, which contrasts with the ambiguous conclusion of ‘The History Boys’. Many have suggested that the tendentious opinions of Stephen reflect those of his creator and have even gone as far as to infer that his piece is semi-autobiographical – an idea shared with the ‘History Boys’ and one with doubtful foundations.

The ideas of religion and morality are of paramount importance to the two authors. In ‘The History Boys’, Bennett, with a great deal of satire, uses particular characters which are moral and immoral to heighten the entertainment value of his play and, more importantly, to illustrate the confused feelings of an adolescent pertaining to both himself and the adults around him: “Are we scarred for life, do you think?” This question from a pupil shows the profound effect and scepticism the strange array of adults has induced in them. And for the teachers, particularly Hector, for whom the process of the boys’ rites of passage is also a toll: “What made me piss my life away in this god-forsaken place? There’s nothing of me left. Go away. Class dismissed. Go.” This outburst is made even more poignant by the fact that the speaker is usually a sparkling inspiration to the boys and, therefore, implies a sense of contrast, almost of juxtaposition between Hector’s, and most of the adult’s, emotions. Also, the reader is struck by the unusual vulgarity of Hector’s speech, “piss my life away”, which suggests a sense of regression in his usually erudite use of language. It is a wholly realistic approach by Bennett. Joyce, however, chose to portray Stephen’s religious ‘awakenings’ and inclinations in the form of epiphanies, sudden manifestations of the meaning of life. The most blatant, and interesting, of these moments is that which occurs during a sermon on hell: “Every word of it was for him. Against his sin, foul and secret, the whole wrath of God was aimed. The preacher’s knife had probed deeply into his disclosed conscience and he felt now that his soul was festering in sin.” This, as well as exhibiting the profound influence the sermon has on Stephen as an unformed intellect, shows an idea of extreme guilt and the strength of the preacher’s words, symbolised as a knife. Joyce’s use of words such as “festering” and “wrath” confirm this idea. These thoughts of confusion and self-pity are typical rites of passage.

Both authors are successful in recreating the process of growing up, with Joyce focusing mainly upon largely religious, earth-shattering moments and Bennett with the almost formulaic “tried and tested” methods (the university applications) pertaining mainly to the process the passing and acquisition of knowledge: “Pass it on boys. That‘s the game I wanted you to learn. Pass it on.” This quotation, appearing at the end of the play, is the perfect summary of the whole process of which the boys have been a part. These sometimes oblique ideas form an integral part of these works and are also presented in a similarly composed and, ultimately, successful way: a sentiment seconded by many critics and contemporaries of both Joyce and Bennett.

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Growing Up in ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ and ‘The History Boys’. (2018, July 29). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from
“Growing Up in ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ and ‘The History Boys’.” GradesFixer, 29 Jul. 2018,
Growing Up in ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ and ‘The History Boys’. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 28 Sept. 2021].
Growing Up in ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ and ‘The History Boys’ [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 Jul 29 [cited 2021 Sept 28]. Available from:
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