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Module C: ‘Exploring Transitions’

The Story of Tom Brennan and Related Text

J.C. Burke’s “The Story of Tom Brennan” and James Joyce’s “A Portrait of
the Artist as a Young Man” demonstrate the effects of transition on one’s
understanding of the self and others, through the use of motifs and through the
modulation of prose style.

The use of short, imperative sentences earlier on in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young
Man adds a sense of urgency and tempo to the prose; this reflects the level at which
the young protagonist comprehends the world – everything serves a utilitarian
purpose; he is more concerned with doing than with thinking. Examples of this are
abundant up until Chapter 2, in which the protagonist’s, and thus Joyce’s, styles start
maturing. Two particular examples are “go and fight your match” and “let us have the
story anyhow”. The former is in the context of young students fighting at Stephen’s
first school, the latter in that of the debate scene. The use of the dismissive “anyhow”
preceded with the instructive “let us have”, renders the young Stephen’s view of
adults. This view changes with his transition into adulthood.

Stephen’s senses grow as he transitions from childhood to young adulthood; this is

evident in the use of motifs accompanying his personal growth. The motifs of water,
music, and colour escort him through the course of the novel, his views on them
evolving as he progresses. A motif in Tom Brennan is ‘night’; this recurs in the
flashbacks of the accident scene. The image of himself in a knot expresses his anxiety
at his sister revealing his story, and his release from anxiety and self-doubt is signified
by the image of a breeze sweeping his arm whilst he is in a car.

Stephen’s first interaction with water is when Wells pushes him at school.

“He shivered as if he had cold slimy water next his skin. That was mean of Wells to
shoulder him into the square ditch…”

Stephen’s senses, and thus the narration style, are still binary and absolute, not yet
having espoused a more emotionally flexible, poetic aesthetic; the water must be
either hot or cold; Wells must be either nice or mean. His mother was “a nice mother
but she was not so nice when she cried.” The narration here is in third person; Joyce
sympathises with Stephen and adopts his dichotic view of the world, foreshadowing
their merge later on in the text, which in turn marks Stephen’s coming to age.

Stephen’s own aesthetic becomes highly romantic and abstract; his art is to be free of
“excrement or a child or a louse”. The novel written by Joyce, however, is laden with
unromantic happenstance short-lived realities; often, Joyce passively mocks Stephen’s
youthful ambition, thereby mocking himself as a young man. The structure of the
novel itself elucidates this revision of his precursory views on life, and thus his
deepened understanding of himself and others, ripened over time.
Water appears for the second time in the city of Dublin.

“ The multitude of corks that lay bobbing on the surface of the water in a thick yellow
scum, at the crowds of quay porters and the rumbling carts and the ill-dressed bearded
police- man.”

This time, the water motif is paired with the colour motif; the water is a thick yellow
scum, yellow being a symbol for languor and poverty. Stephen, at this stage in his
life, is discovering his own talents; he identifies himself as an artist, an intellectual
beyond the extent of the general public, in his case his family and other children at
school. The image of the multitude of corks floating in a thick yellow scum
allegorises the mass of general mediocre philistines occupying his life. The ill-dressed
bearded policeman is an analogue of Stephen’s father (“he had a hairy face”), a figure
of family, and therefore institution and aesthetic restraint.

His father, an authoritative figure, seeks earlier on in the text to protect his innocence;
Stephen is shielded from his growth with ephemeral stories of ‘moocows’ and firm
regulation over what not to do: he was “never to peach on a fellow” for example.

The third notable surfacing of the water motif is in the sermon Stephen attends, in
which he learns of hell.

“It would rain for ever, noiselessly. The water would rise inch by inch, covering the
grass and shrubs, covering the trees and houses, covering the monuments and the
mountain tops. All life would be choked off, noiselessly”...“noiselessly floating

The water in this scene is an allusion to the Genesis flood; the maximalist description
conveys his current fear of hell. His current standpoint on hell is cast out of his
previous relationship with music (his “nice mother” would play on “the piano the
sailor’s hornpipe for him to dance”), and the bond established between death and
noiselessness (“noiselessly floating corpses,” and “all life would be choked off

The final appearance of the water motif, marking his escape from institution and his
newfound artistic freedom, is in the epiphanic beach scene concluding Chapter Four.

“The tide was near the turn and already the day was on the wane.”

The turning tide is a metaphor for his final leap of growth, his turn away from
priesthood to a new life as a poet. The day on the wane forebodes the end of the
novel, the close of his transition. The motif of music also marks this moment of
transition, for example he “lay down there that the peace and silence of the evening”.
The coupling of silence with peace, with respect to the previous silence and death
(and therefore hell), marks a change in his outlook on hell. The epiphany confirms the
pursuit of his creative life, at the expense of going to hell. The Tom Brennan
equivalent of this beach scene is the final encounter with Chrissy, in which the
protagonist “came back, forever”.