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The Politics of the Dinner Table in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

Throughout Joyce’s writing, food is used as a means to aid characterisation, describe a given encounter and develop narrative as well as a means to point to underlying complex cultural and political histories. The novel Ulysses (1922), for example, tells the story of a day in the life of Leopold Bloom as he wanders the streets of Dublin; a day in which food looms large linking appetite, bodily function and identity.1 In Joyce’s earlier coming of age novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) a scene staged around Christmas dinner provides a pertinent example of the author’s use of the meal and the dining table as a means to consolidate character relationships, and frame political discussions identifying both meal and dining table as a space of psychological and political debate.

In the following extract Christmas dinner is served and a debate ensues about the politics of the day. This is the first Christmas dinner that the lead character Stephen Dedalus, newly returned from boarding school, is invited to sit at the adult table. Dedalus leads grace and then a discussion ensues across the table about the involvement of the Catholic Church in Irish politics centred on the fight for Irish independence, spearheaded by Charles Stuart Parnell and the interjection of the Catholic Church into politics when Parnell’s affair with a married woman was discovered. The debate quickly divides the diners. Joyce parallels the political discussion with the consuming and denial of food, a theme that continues throughout Joyce’s writing but begins with this scene in Portrait. This is both political and gendered. The men around the table lead in voicing their Nationalist views, while the women, defending the Catholic Church are positioned in a place of defence. Mirroring these positions the men “eat hungrily” while “Mrs Dedalus laid down her knife and fork” unable to eat in the midst of argument. This consumption and refusal of food connects with Ireland’s wider history that has been witness to a troubled relationship with food in terms of both its availability and use, through denial, as a tool of political resistance.2

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

All blessed themselves and Mr Dedalus with a sigh of pleasure lifted from the dish the heavy cover pearled around the edge with glistening drops.

Stephen looked at the plump turkey which had lain, trussed and skewered, on the kitchen table. He knew that his father had paid a guinea for it in Dunn's of D'Olier Street and that the man had prodded it often at the breastbone to show how good it was: and he remembered the man's voice when he had said:

—Take that one, sir. That's the real Ally Daly.

Why did Mr Barrett in Clongowes call his pandybat a turkey? But Clongowes was far away: and the warm heavy smell of turkey and ham and celery rose from the plates and dishes and the great fire was banked high and red in the grate and the green ivy and red holly made you feel so happy and when dinner was ended the big plum pudding would be carried in, studded with peeled almonds and sprigs of holly, with bluish fire running around it and a little green flag flying from the top.

It was his first Christmas dinner and he thought of his little brothers and sisters who were waiting in the nursery, as he had often waited, till the pudding came. The deep low collar and the Eton jacket made him feel queer and oldish: and that morning when his mother had brought him down to the parlour, dressed for mass, his father had cried. That was because he was thinking of his own father. And uncle Charles had said so too.

Mr Dedalus covered the dish and began to eat hungrily. Then he said:

—Poor old Christy, he's nearly lopsided now with roguery.

—Simon, said Mrs Dedalus, you haven't given Mrs Riordan any sauce.

Mr Dedalus seized the sauceboat.

—Haven't I? he cried. Mrs Riordan, pity the poor blind. Dante covered her plate with her hands and said:

—No, thanks.

Mr Dedalus turned to uncle Charles.

—How are you off, sir?

—Right as the mail, Simon.

—You, John?

—I'm all right. Go on yourself.

—Mary? Here, Stephen, here's something to make your hair curl.

He poured sauce freely over Stephen's plate and set the boat again on the table. Then he asked uncle Charles was it tender. Uncle Charles could not speak because his mouth was full; but he nodded that it was.

—That was a good answer our friend made to the canon. What? said Mr Dedalus.

—I didn't think he had that much in him, said Mr Casey.


—A nice answer, said Dante, for any man calling himself a catholic to give to his priest.

—They have only themselves to blame, said Mr Dedalus suavely. If they took a fool's advice they would confine their attention to religion.

—It is religion, Dante said. They are doing their duty in warning the people.

—We go to the house of God, Mr Casey said, in all humility to pray to our Maker and not to hear election addresses.

—It is religion, Dante said again. They are right. They must direct their flocks.

—And preach politics from the altar, is it? asked Mr Dedalus.

—Certainly, said Dante. It is a question of public morality. A priest would not be a priest if he did not tell his flock what is right and what is wrong.

Mrs Dedalus laid down her knife and fork, saying:

—For pity sake and for pity sake let us have no political discussion on this day of all days in the year.3

End Notes

Go to footnote reference 1.

For further discussion on the role of food in Joyce see, Miriam O’Kane Mara, ‘James Joyce and the Politics of Food’, New Hibernia Review, Vol. 13, No4, 2009. 94-110.

Go to footnote reference 2.

This complex history takes us from the 1846 Irish potato famine, interpreted as the product of Anglo-Irish exportation of food at the expense of Irish starvation, to the 1980s political hunger strikes by prisoners in Northern Ireland.

Go to footnote reference 3.

This extract is taken from James Joyce, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, London: Penguin Books 1992. 28-34.

Elisa Oliver

Elisa Oliver is co editor of FEAST. She is currently working with the Joyce Centre Dublin for an event in the autumn exploring the role of food in Joyce’s characterisation of Dublin. Please check the events page for further details or subscribe to our mailing list for future update.