A Song of the People

June 17, 2019 by Essay Writer

Song had always been an aspect of life and literature. Dating back to the first epics of Homer, music has been understood as an important achievement. Since then, song has not only become a plot point in some stories, for example the tale of Orpheus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but also the medium through which those stories were told. For centuries, music has been evolving through introductions of new instruments or new voices and in turn, song has impacted the people and cultures in a dramatic way. Over time, it has turned into a force that narrates and dictates social status and relationships. This power can be seen in the way the motif of song changes from one great literary work to another. Music in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man exposes the gaps in social classes, while in Toni Morrison’s Paradise it is used as a social catalyst. This motif exemplifies the change of the century in terms of ideology as it moved from modernism to post-modernism.

Song is a very important aspect of culture, especially in the twentieth century where it arguably saw the most change with the introduction of numerous new genres of music. However, the early 1900s were very limited in this regard. Not only were there a few genres, they were extremely exclusive. The prime example of this would be opera. This from of music was, and in some cases still is, reserved for the elite members of society (Gras and Vliet). Another musical variety, one that is very prominent in James Joyce’s novel, is religious music, which is exclusive by nature. Finally, folk music is reserved for the everyday folk (Ellis). This brief description of early twentieth century song serves as the foundation of the overall theme of music and how it is represented in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. To elaborate, the world in the novel is shaped by these forms of music. They draw the borders that separate the different social classes into their own spheres. They promote a type of isolation by exposing the gaps in the social pyramid. Stephen Dedalus is a perfect example of this theme in motion because throughout the text he embodies all of these genres and transcends the social pyramid, all the while drifting further and further away. The artist’s, or the modernist’s, perspective is to isolate one’s self from society and the motif of music is what allows Stephen to achieve this seclusion.

We are introduced to Stephen Dedalus in the beginning of the story, and music is also first introduced as a motif. In these early stages of the book, Stephen is a young child and therefore his immersion into the world of music is still basic. It can best be compared to the aforementioned folk genre because it is in his child-like vernacular and it lacks any form and structure commonly attributed to more refined and traditional forms of music (Ellis). In continuation, his first foray into this world consists of him repeating Dante’s words as if they were lyrics:

Pull out his eyes, Apologise, Apologise, Pull out his eyes. Apologise, Pull out his eyes, Pull out his eyes, Apologise. (Joyce, 6)

He turns to this type of music because he does not know any better. Stephen is a child so he cannot have any profound ideas or opinions about the world around him, except those he hears from his family. But it is not only Stephen; his family embodies the spirit of folk music because they fit the mold; they are a middle class family with strong opinions about the government (Ellis). That in and of itself isolates them from other members of society. They can still maintain relationships with others but it has to be with others like themselves. It would be nearly impossible to imagine people in the upper class elite engaging with this type of music. From the beginning, through song, we are made aware of a gap in the social structure.

As Stephen grows up he begins to acknowledge the paths he can take in his life. One of these roads is a religious one, which he contemplates during the retreat. This section of the book introduces another genre of music described above: Christian music. At several instances throughout the text, especially during the retreat, there is mention of the holy mother “whose beauty is not like earthly beauty, dangerous to look upon, but like the morning star which is its emblem, bright and musical” (Joyce, 102). There are several more instances where this phrase is repeated, both in mass and in prayer. Later, the religious undertones in music get more potent. At one point he is enchanted and enlightened by some heavenly power, which invoked within him a song of deeply divine influences (Joyce, 191-192). By definition, religious music only appeals to certain sects of people. The novel reduces it even further by focusing specifically on Christian music. By embracing this exclusive world, Stephen distances himself from other social spheres. At this point it is difficult to even tell whether or not he still harbors any feelings for the joyful, simple styling of folk music. Nevertheless, this section of the novel highlights a growing problem: mainly, it exposes yet another division between social sectors without providing—or even striving for—a remedy. By diving even deeper into this religious realm, Stephen begins to question whether anything he did was right. As a matter of fact, the previously referenced song starts “[are] you not weary of ardent ways,” (Joyce, 191), which, given the context, implies that Dedalus is regretting his past sexual relations. He becomes even more distant from his surroundings by attempting to devote his life to religion as the reader become consistently more aware of the gaps in the social pyramid.

As the novel progresses, Stephen becomes enveloped in his own world. He studies and evolves his ideology all the while growing more distant from the outside world. This brings into focus the last genre of music mentioned above: opera. Stephen gets his first taste of this play as a teen when he is actually performing in a theater in front of a large crowd. First, he mentions how the audience is being “ushered in…with ceremony” (Joyce, 64). Then he goes on describe the location of the theater as being secluded from the rest of the school. This goes to show how upscale the setting was. Unlike the previously discussed folk songs and religious gospels, this form of music is enclosed in its own space and it excludes unwanted guests, mainly those who cant afford it. Stephen’s interest with theater and opera grows as the story progresses, illustrated by the numerous instances of Latin lyrics and singing. As his incursion into this world continues the reader is made increasingly aware of the isolation these town-hall performances inspire. After all, when one thinks of this genre of music one can’t help but imagine old and aristocratic, white people shoveling into a beautifully decorated amphitheater as it separates them from the working classes (Gras and Vliet). To further understand why this exclusion exists one must familiarize himself with the hard and careful work necessary to create a successful show (Britannica). But what separates opera from the other forms of music described is that the former is extremely profound, which is where the similarities to Stephen arise. Both set themselves apart from their respective contemporaries because they embody great ideas and that is where the isolation originates. Only by examining opera music is the reader made aware that there is a division between upper and lower classes. And only by examining music is the reader made aware of Stephen’s true aspirations as it is ultimately the sweet singing of a young woman, in perfect Latin, that inspires him to seclude himself into his studies. At the end of the novel, Stephen sinks further into isolation, to the point where his relationships exist only in memory.

The theme of isolation was influenced greatly by Joyce’s interest in the modernist philosophy: an ideology, which tries to reinvent the world through art, by distancing itself from history (Malone). It is this premise that ultimately creates, or at least exposes, the dissonance in the social structure. Furthermore, through its mission, this attitude gave a new meaning to music. There were new conventions assigned to song in order to set it apart from its predecessors. In turn, it took on a new meaning and a greater power, which is represented in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and explored in this essay. These factors are what allow James Joyce to strive for a binarism between the artist and the rabble.

It is not until post-modernism enters the philosophical arena that we get another perspective on this matter. After all, it is the mission of this ideology to deconstruct signifiers, or words that hold significant power in society, and reduce them to their face value (Barrett). In continuation, Joyce’s assertion that there is a difference between the artist and the rabble is put under scrutiny. All in all, in post-modern literature ideas fostered in the early twentieth century are questioned and the issues faced by the modernists are put under in a new light. For example, music, which acts to illustrate social gaps in Joyce’s novel, takes on a whole new role in Toni Morrison’s Paradise where it is lost in the background as a simple social catalyst. To elaborate, the motif does not exist in the spotlight, it is reduced to a minor plot point but it retains its potency for the very reason that it is not highly regarded. It is commonplace and this subtlety allows it complete its function of unity, of a second, universal language.

By the time Paradise was published, at the end of the twentieth century, music had become a very different animal from what it was a hundred years prior. In such a small span what was a handful of genres turned into an entire anthology of sound. Various new genres penetrated the public sphere—way too many to describe in the same detail as those in the opening of this essay. Furthermore, the alteration in style ushered in an alteration in substance. The way people treated music had transformed since the time of Joyce and in turn, the way music affected people changed accordingly.

One thing to note about song is that in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man it had a certain structure; it followed a certain set of conventions to mirror those of the modernist ideal (Malone). It was more concerned with form rather than emotion. On the other hand, in Paradise, emotion is the only thing that exists. Toni Morrison makes that very clear through the character of Piedade, the woman “who sang but never said a word” (Morrison, 264). Her songs symbolize a certain freedom that we are accustomed to today. She could express what she felt through music rather than talking because music is a universal language. Truly, you don’t need to know the lyrics to a song most of the time to discern whether it’s happy or sad. Usually one can tell the difference through the tone or mood. But the character goes deeper than that. Piedade serves another important function, as Connie notes:

Her voice made proud women weep in the streets. Coins fell from the fingers of artists and policemen, and the country’s greatest chefs begged us to eat their food. Piedade had songs that could still a wave, make it pause in its curl listening to language it had not heard since the sea opened. Shepherds with colored birds on their shoulders came down from mountains to remember their lives in her songs. Travelers refused to board homebound ships while she sang. (Morrison, 284-285)

What this shows is that music incited unity amongst all kinds of people, something that we didn’t encounter in the previous novel. Piedade’s song does not distinguish between audiences and people do not discriminate against her. It is truly a universal language. Unlike Stephen, neither Connie’s mother nor anyone who listens to her songs wishes to escape society. On the contrary, they are embracing it. And Piedade is not an anomaly. Freedom is a very important thing to the people of Ruby, whose leaders have strived for liberty for years. Music gives them the power, not just to the people of the all-black Oklahoma town but also to the African-Americans all through the country. Just like in the case of Piedade, they are imbued with a universal language that gives them a place and an identity in the world (Floyd Jr.). Along those lines, the boundaries that seemed to separate people in the times of Joyce are vanishing in Ruby. A prime example of this would be in the context of religious music. Once a highly exclusive practice is now being penetrated by the outside, as the narrator notes “The Oven whose every brick had heard live chords praising His name was now subject to radio music, record music—music already dead when it filtered through a black wire trailing from Anna’s store to the Oven like a snake” (Morrison, 111). No longer is there a division among these lines. Song is constantly being deconstructed by the post-modern ideal, in order to bring it to a level accessible to anybody. There is no meditation or focus on any one genre of music within the text; they are all somehow represented. And they all act as this language that defines the struggle or the joy of the people.

How does this happen? What allows music at this time to have such a universal effect on society? It is a phenomenon, which was not readily available during Joyce’s time: the radio (Willis). We are introduced to this device as a staple of the Cadillac and something very important for its occupants. Mavis notes:

Now the radio was across a field, down one road, then another. Off. In the space where its sound ought to be was . . . nothing. Just an absence, which she did not think she could occupy properly without the framing bliss of the radio. (Morrison, 42)

This passage echoes ideals of post-modernism. Mavis feels a void because through this ideology all words become empty. Empty in order to create a feeling of acceptance and non-discrimination. In this case, the radio becomes a very powerful object. One of its most important prospects is its omnipresence. It doesn’t only exist within the Cadillac. And not only is it found in most other cars of the era, it’s a common feature of most homes. Furthermore, it was even portable, as Divine recalls “[He]… bought her a battery-powered radio she adored” (Morrison, 147). But it goes deeper than that. Radio wasn’t just available everywhere, it was available to everybody. Even at its most basic level, it was a topic of conversation, another character that would lend itself to the discussion if need be. It would report news, give advice, give sermons and most importantly play all kinds of music. With range capable of international travel it truly brought the world together with neither judgment nor prejudice.

Perhaps the greatest impact music had on society in the latter half of the twentieth century is absent from Paradise, although admittedly it would not make much sense given the context of the novel. To put it simply, song gave people the power to transcend the social structure, regardless of origin. Rags-to-riches stories are fairly common in the world of music, especially when you once again consider the plight of African-Americans (Hess). Overall, the innovative genres that arose during this period gave people of various talents, from all walks of life a chance to be, as Andy Warhol put it “world-famous for 15 minutes.” Through the Internet and widespread media, art is becoming more commonplace and universal, and that is the great thing about it. It cannot be overstated how important it is that art, song, becomes available to everyone, everywhere. It is one of the greatest unifying languages available to us. It acts to dismantle the social pyramid in the effort to remove the borders that separate people. Music plays the role, as noted in the introduction of the essay, as a social catalyst within Toni Morrison’s Paradise and the world it imitates.

Song has left a magnificent impression on civilization during its lifetime. It has been a medium for us to let out our innermost feelings. It has been a tool to tell stories. It has been a way to spread a message. And in recent history it has been an instrument of unity. Music has broken free from the modernist ideals and conventions of isolation, illustrated in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, towards more accepting and temperate notions of harmony in Paradise. And as the world heads toward an uncertain future we can always rely on music to provide a commonality to all individuals from all nations as a universal language, a song of the people.


Barrett, S. (2011). Postmodernism’s Brief Moment in History. Anthropologica, 53(2), 323-327. http://search.proquest.com.remote.baruch.cuny.edu/docview/921024315

Ellis, I. (2010). Resistance and relief: the wit and woes of early twentieth century folk and country music. International Journal of Humor Research, 23(2), 161-178. http://go.galegroup.com.remote.baruch.cuny.edu/ps/i.do?action=interpret&id=GALE%7CA230483410&v=2.1&u=cuny_baruch&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&authCount=1

Floyd, S. (2008). Black Music and Writing Black Music History: American Music and Narrative Strategies. Black Music Research Journal, 28(1), 111-121. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25433796

Gras, H., & Vliet, H. (2004). Paradise Lost nor Regained: Social Composition of Theatre Audiences in the Long Nineteenth Century. Journal of Social History, 38(2), 471-512. http://muse.jhu.edu.remote.baruch.cuny.edu/journals/journal_of_social_history/v038/38.2gras.html#top

Hess, M. (2005). Hip-hop Realness and the White Performer. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 22(5), 372-389. http://ehis.ebscohost.com.remote.baruch.cuny.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=b6212968-b537-44a0-a6df-f39f3084a50e%40sessionmgr14&vid=2&hid=8

Joyce, J. (2007). A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Norton Critical Edition ed.). New York: Norton.

Malone, D. (1978). Toward a History of Modernism. Comparative Literature Studies , 15(1), 83-96. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40468064

Morrison, T. (1998). Paradise. New York: A.A. Knopf. Weinstock, H. & Hanning, B. (2013) Opera. In Encyclopedia Britannica. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/429776/opera

Willis, E. (1966). The History of Radio. Sage Jounrals, 50(1). http://bul.sagepub.com.remote.baruch.cuny

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