An Artist’s Perspective on an Artist
Artists such as Lily Briscoe from To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf and Stephen Dedalus from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce are equally affected by the ways in which society interprets their art. They embody these two authors’ perspectives on what it means to be a true artist. These two characters receive sharply contrasting messages from the society around them, which in turn affects how they view their art and what effect their art will have on the world.
Each artist receives starkly different treatment from society. Stephen is an intellectual and sensitive person, even as a young boy. Although he has multiple siblings, he is the one that his parents send to the expensive Clongowes Wood College. Initially, he is an outcast, but by the end of his education, he has proven himself to be both smart and capable of standing up against injustice. Stephen’s time at Belvedere College further illustrates his intellectual superiority. He earns the reputation of being one of the smartest boys at school and his classmates and teachers respect his intelligence. A consequence of this positive reinforcement is that it gives Stephen confidence to be his own, isolated person and to eventually leave Ireland to pursue his art. “I do not fear to be alone…And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake” (Joyce 218). Because of the encouragement and respect he has received from his classmates, priests, and society as a whole, Stephen can summon the courage to face the world alone for the sake of his art.
This is nearly the exact opposite of the reactions Lily’s art receives. Mrs. Ramsey does not take her seriously and Lily knows it. According to the people around her, Lily’s role in society is to get married and take care of her husband and household. No one in her life seems to encourage her the way the people in Stephen’s life encourage him. Mr. Tansley is Lily’s biggest critic and nonbeliever, “Whispering in her ear, “Women can’t paint, women can’t write…”” (Woolf 48). These lines recur in Lily’s thoughts throughout the novel, clearly weighing on her. Whether she is being explicitly instructed or she simply recalls it from her memory, Lily is constantly reminded of her duty to marry and stop painting,. The consequence of this is that she lacks the confidence Stephen has and feels very differently about her art than Stephen feels about his. She also seeks connections to the world around her in a way that Stephen does not. Stephen doesn’t seem to desire these (nonsexual) connections because he is confident in his life choices.
These two characters view their art and the effect it has on the world in extremely different ways. Stephen has numerous criticisms of Irish society and sees his writing as a way to point out these faults and hoping to change them. In the closing lines of the novel, when Stephen is leaving to become an artist, he reflects on his choice, stating, “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” (Joyce 224). He wants to be the voice of Ireland and to be a voice of his culture, exposing both the good and bad aspects of it. According to the Oxford English Dictionary this use of “uncreated” could have the traditional meaning of not being made yet, but it could also mean “self-existent or eternal.” The second definition would mean that the conscience of Stephen’s race already exists and that he is the person who is finally able to define it. Stephen is still a spiritual person who believes in a higher being and Faulkner could very well be referring to this second meaning. Regardless of which meaning the author intended, it is clear that Stephen has high hopes for his writing and seems to truly believe they will make a difference to Ireland, and possibly to the world.
Lily views her painting in the exact opposite way that Stephen views his writing. While Lily is consumed by her work, thinking about painting even when she is not at her easel, she never likes to share her work with other people. William Banks is the only person she lets see it, and even that makes her brush shake. Woolf describes Lily’s interaction with Banks, “She did not, as she would have done had it been Mr. Tansley, Paul Rayley, Minta Doyle, or practically anybody else, turn her canvass upon the grass, but let it stand” (Woolf 17-18). This nervousness and lack of confidence is in stark contrast to the sureness that Stephen feels. Lily does not have the same lofty hopes and fantasies about her art that Stephen has in his writing. She thinks her art “..would be hung in the servants’ bedrooms. It would be rolled up and stuffed under a sofa” (Woolf 158). Lily does not have the delusions of grandeur that Stephen exhibits. “It would be hung in attics, she though; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter?” (Woolf 208). Not only does Lily not share Stephen’s fantasies, but her lack of ambition does not seem to concern her. She never aspires to be the voice of her people and that is perfectly alright with her. Something within Lily drives her to paint, rather than hopes of fame and fortune. The last words of the novel convincingly articulate Lily’s feelings about the purpose of her work: “I have had my vision” (Woolf 209). She has completed her painting, and now she feels a sense of connectedness with the world around her, regardless of what ends up happening to the painting.
The positive reinforcement that Stephen gets from the people around him affects his feelings about his art as well as his confidence when he is isolated from Ireland, the Church and his family. The negative reinforcement that Lily feels from society sharply contrasts with Stephen’s experience. Society changes Lily’s feelings about the purpose of her art and the effect it will have. In the end, painting makes Lily feel more connected to the world, while Stephen’s work takes him into voluntary exile. Therefore, these two characters’ work is shaped by the way society views them and the role that art has in their lives.
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