Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes" and James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man"

The following sample essay on Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” and James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”. When attempting to formulate concrete lists that define the usages of language, one of the first usages that frequently arises is ‘language to inform’. Another frequently mentioned usage is ‘language to persuade’, and the list goes on for far longer than this besides. Along with various forms of media, as well as human speech itself, religion is no stranger to the use of language (written and spoken) to its own advantage.

When combined with the ‘language question’, which is constantly up for discussion in Irish history, the issue becomes further convoluted.

There is much to be said about how James Joyce and Frank McCourt treat these issues in their respective novels (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man [hereafter referred to as Portrait for brevity] and Angela’s Ashes), even though this is by no means the principal topic of either novel.

The main discussion shall centre on the language of religion and how both authors present it, but for some of the paper, the importance of the Irish language itself in a religious context shall be given due attention.

In terms of language and Christian belief, one particular list begins thus: ” Sentences expressing commands, injunctions, exhortations, wishes etc. , such as ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God’, ‘Let us love one another’ and so on.  Sentences expressing moral views, such as ‘Brethren, these things ought not so to be’, ‘It is not good for man to be alone’ etc.

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” The remaining points highlight sentences expressing factual truths, sentences expressing analytic truths, and sentences that inform the reader about the supernatural and metaphysical.

The concerns of Joyce and McCourt, though, appear to be with the first two types (more detailed examples of exactly how will soon follow). The focus of Angela’s Ashes is primarily McCourt’s schooldays, during which time the principal tenets of Christianity are drummed into them in the form of “commands, injunctions, exhortations, wishes etc. ” – mainly in application to heresy, both written and spoken (‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain’ and so on). Equally, there are a great many instances of this in Joyce’s novel.

The list delivered above by J Wilson, however, seems rather basic and not as detailed as others, such as the following list and diagram courtesy of Mr G. B. Caird: “We use words: to talk about people, things and ideas [informative]; to think [cognitive]; to do things and to get things done [performative and causative]; to display or elicit attitudes and feelings [expressive and evocative]; and  to provide a means of communal solidarity [cohesive]. The first two clearly belong together… we shall call these two uses ‘referential’.

Similarly the third and fourth uses belong together under the general heading ‘commissive’, since we involve ourselves in or commit ourselves to the actions, attitudes and feelings to which we give utterance. Use Virtue Vice Referential Informative Truth Falsehood Referential Cognitive Rationality Fallacy Commissive Performative Validity Invalidity Commissive Expressive Sincerity Insincerity Cohesive Rapport Discord The various uses and abuses of language operate sometimes in isolation, but far more often in combination. ”

The crucial difference between the exemplars presented by the two theorists is not in the greater detail that Caird gives, but in the fact that Caird recognises the capacities of abuse that religious language can facilitate as well as those of positive use. It is my belief that examples of all five categories that he lists can be found in the novels to be explored here, albeit under several sub-categories. It is this approach (loosely based on Caird, but with sub-categories) that I will be using to examine the language of religion as well as its relation to the use of Irish in the church.

The first ‘sub-category’, as it were, which neither theorist mentions explicitly but I believe to be found copiously in both novels, is that of language as a threat. Admittedly, Caird almost gets there, asserting that “when we reach the point at which words are used as weapons, it is inevitable that there should be a clash between the referential use of language, whose object is truth, and the emotive use, whose object is victory. ” Of course, the sheer number of examples means that not all will be mentioned here.

The first of the most significant comes in Portrait, where a preacher is speaking to Stephen Dedalus, among others, about the devils that they will meet in hell if they do not act in a Christian manner. “Such is the language of those fiendish tormentors, words of taunting and of reproach, of hatred and of disgust… O, my dear little brothers in Christ, may it never be our lot to hear that language! “Not only does the preacher use his words to dissuade the boys from bad behaviour, he also layers the threat by emphasising the dreadful heresy that comes from the mouths of devils.

The theme of heresy – which could perhaps be dubbed another ‘sub-category’, and which is an important product of both spoken and written language in a religious context – is a thread that runs throughout both novels, particularly in McCourt’s case. He recounts one incident when, after saying to a priest that Emer’s wife won him “in a pissing contest”, heard from another child who had apparently read it in a book, the priest urges him to “turn your mind from those silly stories” because “books can be dangerous for children”5 – presumably to direct the children to ‘safer’ forms of the written word, such as the Bible.

Earlier in the novel, McCourt’s younger brother is rebuked for using the word “shitty” (“you could go to hell using a word like that” [McCourt, 40]) and in Portrait, similarly, Dante reproaches those at the dinner table with the words “nice language for any Catholic to use” [Joyce, 35]. If people are deliberately heretical, then it is probably most closely described by Caird’s point 4 (language to express and evoke emotion and feeling). However, there are plenty of circumstances where people are apparently heretical without knowing it. Some of the examples already given could easily fall into this category.

Mr Tate also accuses Stephen Dedalus of having “heresy in his essay” [Joyce, 89], and it is implied that Stephen was unaware of the nature of his words. The implication is that as a religious person one should only use language for good, thus allowing a form of censorship to continue. Heresy, though, it could be argued (and this can be applied to any communication to which people take offence), is largely defined by levels of society who want other levels of society to feel a certain way; or at best, this definition is highly dependent on the person reading the heresy or offensive words.

This leads neatly to the notion, addressed by both authors, that religious language is ambiguous. Whether this is done expressly or unintentionally is another matter and would take this essay too far into the realms of philosophy and issues related to censorship. Mr J Prescott points out that “the young Dedalus [becomes] aware of a deficiency in the language”6, and this is largely applicable to both novels. Perhaps crucially, it is not only the children in the novels but also the adults who are painfully aware of this ambiguity.

After McCourt’s first Communion, his grandmother feeds him an enormous Communion breakfast, which he promptly vomits up into her back garden (along with, one assumes, the Communion wine and wafer). His grandmother sends him to Confession, where the priest tells McCourt to “tell your grandmother to wash God away with a little water” [McCourt, 144]. Upon his return his grandmother asks him, “Ordinary water or holy water? ” On replying that he didn’t know because he hadn’t asked and the priest hadn’t said, McCourt is promptly sent back to the confessional to find out.

This amusing anecdote is highly illustrative of the onus placed on the church to ‘get things right’ and the faith that Catholics placed in the language of religion perhaps more than in the religion itself. As McCourt grows up, he slowly discovers that adultery is not just impure thoughts, words and deeds (as drummed into him at school), during an illicit library session, where, among other things, he looks up the word ‘virgin’ in the dictionary and reads a book of Chinese essays on love (which results in him being promptly ejected from the library).

This is perhaps a baser example than Dedalus’ discussion of the definition of the Latin word ‘claritas’ [Joyce, 242], but in both cases, the ambiguity is slowly dissipated and the ideas behind the opaque language of religion become far clearer. Both authors use other languages as metaphors to further illustrate this point. Towards the end of Portrait, Dedalus describes a conversation with Ghezzi, which “began in Italian and ended in pidgin English” [Joyce, 283], which in itself denotes the confusion and transience often associated with the language of religion (not to mention language in general).

Both novels make great use of Latin (and in particular, memorising it ritualistically without necessarily memorising the meaning) to much the same end. This obsessive quality associated with Latin can also be found in many of Seamus Heaney’s language poems, demarcating Latin as something deeply associated with Ireland and Irish language in general as well as the language of the church. One critic, though, dismisses Latin as merely “a starting point rather than a model”7 – this seems greatly erroneous in light of all of the Latinate references in both texts and the way this is made to tie in with Irish. This quotation from Angela’s Ashes seems fairly representative of how both authors choose to demonstrate this line of reasoning: “We have to know them [the prayers and creeds] in Irish and English and if we forget an Irish word and use English he goes into a rage and goes at us with the stick.

If he had his way we’d be learning our religion in Latin, the language of the saints who communed intimately with God and His Holy Mother, the language of the early Christians, who huddled in the catacombs and went forth to die on rack and sword, who expired in the foaming jaws of the ravenous lion. Irish is fine for patriots, English for traitors and informers, but it’s the Latin that gains us entrance to heaven itself. It’s the Latin the martyrs prayed in when the barbarians pulled out their nails and cut off their skin inch by inch. ”

The reiteration of Latin, Latin, Latin relates directly to other anecdotes in both novels: McCourt’s father taking the part of priest to make sure he knew the responses for Mass in Latin; Dedalus admiring at how the prefect of the chapel’s memory seemed to “know the responses” [Joyce, 19] – both instances proving highly performative, giving further credence to Caird’s model of religious language. Despite this emphasis on Latin, though, the effects of religious language on Irishness (and vice versa) is far more complex than it may first appear.

Initially a utilitarian approach was favoured, with English becoming the favoured language for the pulpit and for religious instruction at the end of the eighteenth century. Daniel O’Connell (also known as ‘The Liberator’ or ‘The Emancipator’), a prominent political leader in the first half of the nineteenth century, also turned his back on Irish for reasons of expediency, despite having been brought up to speak Irish, declaring that he was “sufficiently utilitarian not to regret its gradual passing”8.

It seems fair to say, from McCourt’s writings, that people in Ireland (even in the early 20th century, which is where his memoirs are set) were suffering from receiving mixed messages from the church and from their elders: “They hit you if you can’t say your name in Irish, if you can’t say the Hail Mary in Irish, if you can’t ask for the lavatory pass in Irish… One master will hit you if you don’t know that Eamon de Valera is the greatest man that ever lived. Another master will hit you if you don’t know that Michael Collins is the greatest man that ever lived.

Mr Benson hates America and you have to remember to hate America or he’ll hit you. Mr O’Dea hates England and you have to remember to hate England or he’ll hit you. If you ever say anything good about Oliver Cromwell they’ll all hit you. ” [McCourt, 85] Every movement, however slight, had political implications and religious semantics ingrained within it, tangled further by the administration throughout history, who seemed to delight in moving the linguistic goalposts.

Various strategies from the Gaelic League and the Old English clergy dictated the use of spoken Irish rather than classical Irish, since “their concern was to teach religion, not language”9 (in the case of the latter) and pushed the link between true religion and the native language (in the case of the former). The effective founder of the Gaelic League, Eoin MacNeill, had no doubt that these were deeply interfused, observing that “When we learn to speak Irish, we soon find that it is what we may call essential Irish to acknowledge God, His presence, and His help, even in our most trivial conversation. 10” For Eoin MacNeill, the use of Irish wasn’t simply about sustaining the use of a minority language or even about being at loggerheads with the English. His statement on the issue implies that he felt closer to God when he prayed in Irish, which in turn also implies the possibility that religious language could potentially be the culprit for stirring emotion, particularly in Stephen Dedalus’ case, rather than religion itself.

When the words ‘mulier cantat’ are sung by the woman in the church, it is “the soft beauty of the Latin word” [Joyce, 278] that proves almost hypnotic for Cranly and Stephen rather than the religious undertones (also see Joyce 193). Immediately following this passage, Stephen becomes angry at almost having been seduced by religion itself, when he knows it was only the language’s beauty doing its work: “The verses passed from his mind to his lips and, murmuring them over, he felt the rhythmic movement of a villanelle pass through them. The roselike glow sent forth its rays of rhyme; ways, days, blaze, praise, raise.

Its rays burned up the world, consumed the hearts of men and angels … The earth was like a swinging swaying censer, a ball of incense, an ellipsoidal ball. The rhythm died out at once; the cry of his heart was broken. His lips began to murmur the first verses over and over; then went on stumbling through half verses, stammering and baffled; then stopped. ” This almost religious reaction to a non-religious event is common throughout Portrait and later proves ironic as this religious element clings to Stephen like a residue, even when he is attempting to break away from religion.

This is perhaps what Caird meant by the expressive, emotional, evocative element of religious language. To (one would guess) a similar end, Joyce also habitually uses religious metaphor – not just in Portrait (“how could a woman be a tower of ivory or a house of gold? ” [Joyce, 40]), but also in one of the short stories featured in Dubliners, “The Dead”, to name but two examples: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. “11 The use of hieratic language in non-hieratical matters seems to be a favourite technique.

Alongside that of religious metaphors, Joyce and McCourt both raise issues of naming in relation to religion. It is difficult to concisely express the significance that this has without getting into complex discussions of whether naming need be semantic. In McCourt’s novel, this mainly concerns his encounters as a boy with Mrs Leibowitz, a Jewish woman. In the two instances concerned, she comments on the name of his little brother Malachy in the first (“nice Chewish name” [McCourt 29]) and on their pronunciation of ‘challah’ in the second (“Malachy calls it pull bread but Mrs Leibowitz says, No, it’s challah, and teaches us how to say it.

She shakes her head. Oy, you Irish. You’ll live forever but you’ll never say challah like a Chew. ” [McCourt, 38]). The author himself is also named after St Francis of Assisi, a common practice. Joyce’s treatment of the issue is more semantic: “God was God’s name just as his name was Stephen. Dieu was the French for God and that was God’s name too; and when anyone prayed to God and said Dieu then God knew at once that it was a French person that was praying. But, though there were different names for God in all the different languages in the world… still God remained always the same God and God’s real name was God. ”

Joyce implies here that religious language is not important, because all languages apparently lead to the same God; whereas Eoin MacNeill clearly disagreed, in his endorsement of the use of Irish for prayer. However, critics point out that “historically, Joyce stands precisely at a juncture where Catholic nationalism disregards its rural and Gaelic culture in favour of an engagement with British democracy and its very different codes and discourses”. He is bound, therefore, to reflect such confusion in his work and even to attempt rebellion therein, by homogenising all languages and implying that they will all reach God in the same way.

Equally, when Stephen is at the university, Latin is used as a joke-his friends translate colloquial phrases like “peace over the whole bloody globe” into Latin because they find the academic sound of the translation amusing. This jocular use of Latin mocks both the young men’s education and the stern, serious manner in which Latin is used in the church. These linguistic jokes demonstrate that Stephen is no longer serious about religion. The two central texts on which this paper concentrates are positioned at a key crossroads of Irish literature.

It is hardly surprising that the two authors give such diverse messages in their works regarding the language of religion itself, for the history of the use of language in the church is nothing short of convoluted. Ireland imposes a set of oppressive binaries, namely in the form of religion and nationalism, from which the authors can escape only through the ambiguity of language. Both authors portray confusion in this area, with Stephen Dedalus in Portrait ironically using rather hieratic language as he attempts to elevate himself and his life above and beyond what religion can provide. McCourt, however, is more philosophical as the language of religion becomes clearer with age, pointing out that the ambiguity of language is used in a great many other contexts, such as the euphemistic terming of death as ‘going to sleep’.

The two authors successfully demonstrate how language is an instrument of control as well as of communication, with linguistic forms allowing significance to be conveyed and distorted; they also successfully demonstrate how hearers can be both manipulated and informed, and (in some cases) manipulated while they suppose they are being informed. 3 The many fluctuations between Irish, English and Latin in the church’s history of this period leave many question marks over religious language for both authors. Ultimately, though, the language of religion is ultimately manipulated for personal or political gain – either by the church, to stop their children ‘leaving the flock’; or, in the case of Joyce, by the protagonist Stephen Dedalus, in order to justify his desertion of religion altogether.

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Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes" and James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man". (2017, Nov 30). Retrieved from

Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes" and James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man"
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