Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Review of James Joyce’s Book, a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Stephen Dedalus’ Quest for Self-Determination
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce is a semi-autobiographical account of Joyce’s childhood and upbringing. The novel is heavily involved in the character study of Stephen Daedalus, a young Irishman whose struggles with growing up are portrayed in the novel. There are many large events that shape Stephen’s life, many of which occur in the closing section of each of the novel’s five chapters. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a story of Stephen Dedalus’ quest for self-definition, which can be seen through an epiphany scene at the end of every chapter.
Chapter One ends with Stephen learning important lessons about punishment and heroism. Stephen’s thoughts about crime and punishment are first introduced when boys in his year begin to talk about some boys who were caught smugging (committing homosexual behaviour) in the square. At first Stephen doesn’t believe the story (“He wanted to ask somebody about it” (2337)) but soon turns his mind to the boy’s punishment. Parallels between the smugging boys punishment and the political situation in Ireland can be drawn in this case, as the boys ask “[are we] to be punished for what other fellows did?” (2338) and, if they are, they “won’t come back. … Let us get up a rebellion.” (2338) Stephen is further taught about punishment when he is wrongly punished in class for being a “lazy little schemer” (2342). This scene draws an interesting parallel to later in the novel: now Stephen is punished for something he didn’t do, while later he is afraid he will be punished (but never is) by God for sins he does commit. Stephen’s unfair punishment leads him to go talk to the head of the school, after which he is celebrated by his schoolmates: “They made a cradle of their locked hands and hoisted him up among them and carried him along till he struggled to get free.” (2347) This marks the first time Stephen is portrayed as a heroic character, and specifically a moral hero, which sets him on his path of morality. Despite being seen as a hero, Stephen still feels burdened (“till he struggled to get free”), and this heroism does not make him less of a social outsider. Overall the ending of Chapter One sets Stephen on the path he will travel the rest of the novel, and emphasizes him beginning to find his moral grounds.
Chapter Two ends with Stephen dancing with worldly pleasure and sin. The final section of Chapter Two has Stephen cashing in his literary prize money (whose value, £33, alludes to Christ’s age at crucifixion: 33 years old) and then going on a spending spree: “He bought presents for everyone, overhauled his room, wrote out resolutions, marshalled his books up and down their shelves, pored upon all kinds of price lists” (2372) Through all of this spending Stephen is trying to purchase a happy and harmonious family, but all this leads to is him mixing up spiritual and worldly matters in his mind, coming close to committing the sin of simony (which, interestingly, is similar to his father’s name Simon). Stephen continues this mix up through his incapability to see the incompatibility between his actions and his beliefs. He states that he “cared little that he was in mortal sin, that his life had grown to be a tissue of subterfuges and falsehood.” (2373) Stephen fantasizes about both the Virgin Mary and prostitutes in the ending of this chapter, showing again the confusion in his mind. Clarity begins to come to him in the final line of the chapter, as he “[feels] an unknown and timid pressure, darker than the swoon of sin, softer than sound or odour” (2375) when he finally gives in to the physical pleasures of a prostitute. The ending of this chapter continues to define Stephen’s moral standing, and the final line indicates to the reader that Stephen may soon begin to realize the sins he has committed and their degree of wrongness.
The ending of Chapter Three is one of the most major turning points for Stephen Dedalus in the novel. He begins to see the sin and error in his ways and begins to try and receive forgiveness for the sins he has committed. The final section of this chapter begins with Stephen beginning to retreat into himself: “He went up to his room after dinner in order to be alone with his soul” (2396). With this action and those that follow, Stephen changes from a passive listener to the sermon of the last section to an active participator in his spiritual fate. Stephen begins to question his past actions, asking himself “Could it be that he, Stephen Dedalus, had done those things?” (2397) and he realizes that “He had sinned. He had sinned so deeply against heaven and before God that he was not worthy to be called God’s child.” (2397) At this realization Stephen goes to find a chapel at which to confess, as he feels unable to confess to his own priests. He admits that it has been “A long time” (2401) since he had last confessed, and the priest tells Stephen to “Pray to our mother Mary to help [him]” (2401-2402) After confession, Stephen makes a decision that he thinks at the time will affect the rest of his life: he decides to become a priest: “Another life! A life of grace and virtue and happiness! It was true. It was not a dream from which he would wake. The past was past. –Corpus Domini nostri. The ciborium had come to him.” (2403) Stephen’s decision to fully embrace a religious lifestyle shapes his actions in the rest of the novel, and this epiphany perhaps has the largest effect out of all the transforming experiences shown in Portrait of the Artist.
In the final section of Chapter Four, Stephen’s life begins to take a different turn as he muses on his past, the present, and his future. Women continue to be a force in Stephen’s life, but the Virgin Mary becomes less of a force on his thoughts, as he only looks at her coldly as he passes by a statue of her on his walk. His focus instead switches to that of a girl standing before him in the stream and focuses heavily on her looks: “Her thighs, fuller and softhued as ivory, were pared almost to the hips where the white fringes of her drawers were like featherings of soft white down.” (2418) Stephen admits that “He [is] alone. He [is] unheeded, happy and near to the wild heart of life.” (2418) As Stephen’s classmates call out to him with Greek sounding versions of his name, he changes his thoughts from Christianity toward paganism. This can be symbolized by Stephen’s focus shifting from his first name (from St. Stephen) to his last name (Daedalus, a Greek god). Stephen’s mission toward self-determination has not been able to be completed through Christianity, which is a possible reason for his faith seeming to wane at this time. During this section Stephen also prophesizes on his own life’s past, present, and future, and attempts to fit them all together. Through this Stephen realizes that the art he creates will not only be beautiful, but it will be an entire existence onto itself. Stephen decides that he will not only create art, he will create himself as he becomes an artist.
The final chapter of Portrait of the Artist ends with Stephen becoming the narrator as the reader experiences the final parts of the story through his journal entries. Stephen’s quest for an identity and self-definition is emphasized by this change to journal entries. For the first time in the novel, Stephen is not quoting anyone or trying to emulate the voice of another. The writing in this section is also less polished than in previous sections, showing how the reader is finally seeing Stephen’s raw voice. The ending of this chapter is marked by Stephen finally meeting with his object of affection, Emma: “Met her today pointblank in Grafton Street.” (2469) Through this meeting Stephen begins to see women as actual humans, unlike the idealizations he had previously seen them as. He begins to have emotions other than lust toward women: “I liked her today. A little or much? Don’t know. I liked her—and it seems a new feeling to me.” (2472) The novel ends with Stephen telling his journal that he will be moving into his new life as an artist: “So be it. Welcome, O life! 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.” (2472) His use of the phrase “uncreated conscience of my race” makes it clear that Stephen wishes to be an artist who uses his own individual voice and not the voices of those he mimicked before. Stephen makes another reference to his last name’s namesake Daedalus in the final line of the novel, “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.” (2472) The “old artificer” referenced is Daedalus, and Stephen embraces Daedalus’ role as the master craftsman in his new role as an artist. By this final epiphany of Stephen, he has given up his religious lifestyle to fully pursue what he sees as his true calling: to be an artist.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man follows Stephen Dedalus through many years of his life as he searches for his own voice. By the end of the novel it is clear that he can finally speak as himself without quoting other people, so it seems as if the epiphanies Stephen experiences throughout the novel have served their purpose. Now that Stephen has found himself, he may truly begin to live a life of inner peace, and follow his discovered calling of being an artist.
The Depiction of the Stephen Dedalus’ Story in A Portrait of The Artist As a Young Man
James Joyce’s novel, “A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man,” chronicles the adventures of Stephen Daedalus as he navigated adolescence in and around the Irish city of Dublin during the late 19th century. He uses his experiences with religion, family, and sexuality to try and figure out his place in the world.
Stephen starts the novel in a prestigious boarding school where he learns of God and the raging political turmoil around him. What frightens him is how little he care about either subject, instead finding interest in his thoughts and studies. As Stephen moves from home to home and from school to school, he tries repeatedly to find an organizational body to belong to, but continuously leaves. After a particularly long period of debauchery, Stephen finds the church and almost becomes a priest, before once again leaving the group he had sought to recede into his own thoughts. After dropping out of university, the young Stephen realizes that he may never fully understand himself or find his place in society, but decides to make a concerted effort to do so for the sake of his art.
When first published, both the public and the literary scholars of the day saw the novel as radical. Joyce’s use of stream-of conscious and cotemporary language was something entirely new to the literary world, and the depictions of faith contrasted with debauchery angered the predominately Catholic Ireland. With time however, the novel has become a benchmark of the modernist literary movement and is more revered than feared. It can also be seen as one of the earliest examples of the autobiography, as many of Stephen’s adventures paralleled Joyce’s own adolescence. Joyce would later refine his style with “Ulysses,” which is considered his magnum opus and possibly the greatest novel of all time. While “Portrait” may seem like just a series of random events experienced by a protagonist, James Joyce uses symbolism and theme to simply yet elegantly dissect a future artist to prove that it is the small and mundane events in life that shape us into the people we are.
One thing that makes “Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man” such a dense and tedious read is the fact that it is grounded very much in the time that it was written in. Every single page is covered in footnotes elaborating on references made in the text. Often, the novel is accompanied by a section of further readings that compliment the time. Often that section is almost as long as the novel itself. What all this is getting at is that due to the novel being so grounded in its time, Joyce never uses heightened language or fancy syntax. His literary language is that of his characters, which is in turn is that of the current time and place; never fanciful, and never needing to be. For example, the following is an example of a fight had between Stephen’s father and his scullery maid, Dante, over the death of a recent labor party leader. “’He’s a devil to all of us!’ Dante cried, her face red with blood. Calm, and with a composure unlike that of the scullery maid, the father replied ‘Then take him to Dublin and burn him! Burn him!’ ‘You dirty bastard. You don’t know the right of the world!’ Dante shot” (Joyce 24).
In many novels from this time, fights involved extremely flamboyant gestures of prose, and a flurry of figurative language. Here, the fight is very intense, intimate, and very grounded in the time it is trying to represent. Because of this, it has much more of an impact, and it is easier to how it impacted a young Stephen. The fight was just like any other quarrel, and the mundane nature of it all draws back to the novel’s main argument that art is influenced by the small and intimate, not the tenacious and bombastic.
While the syntax and diction used by Joyce is informal, he still manages to add another level of literary depth to the novel through his use of symbolism. Throughout Stephen’s life, he encounters many reoccurring images. Women, music, water, and surprisingly cows. In the very first page of the novel, the reader is introduced to these symbols. “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo… His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face” (Joyce 1).
Already in the first page, hair, women, cows, and water in a glass influence Stephen, symbols that will repeat throughout his life. Joyce never flat out yells out “there’s a symbol!” They fade into the background, connecting the mundane and personal moments that influence Stephen’s maturation into the artist he is to become.
While James Joyce may not use the romantic language popular in the works of his contemporary’s, Joyce used colloquial and informal diction of the time to his advantage which, coupled with his subtle use of symbolism, help reinforce his argument that the little things in life are what truly shape us into who we become.
While “Portrait of an Artist As A Young Man” has many themes, such as the need for Irish Independence and the role of artists in modern society, Joyce’s most prevalent theme is the development of one’s individual consciousness. The character of Stephen Daedalus is portrayed throughout the novel from the ages of around 12 to his early twenties. During this time, his consciousness is influenced mostly by two things, Stephen’s interactions with his family, and his search for his niche in society.
Stephen comes from a broken family. His father is constantly moving his family from city to city due to his debt problems; his mother never confronts the problem, and his brothers and sisters largely ignore him. Even so, his father’s voice does bring him some comfort. This comfort coupled with the neglect from his family leaves Stephen ample time to think. After one particularly mundane morning of ignorance Stephen observes, “The consciousness of the warm sunny city outside his window and the tender tremors with which his father’s voice festooned the strange and happy air drove off all the mists of the night’s ill humor form Stephen’s brain” (Joyce 77). Through this peek into Stephen’s consciousness, the reader can see how he compensates for the lack of familial interaction, instead focusing on nature and sound in its most basic form. These influences are what really drive his conscience to become one of artistic thought and literary merit.
The other large influence on Stephen’s conscience is his struggle to find a place where he belongs. Throughout the novel, he tries to find his place in boarding school, city life, prostitution, university, and most importantly, religion. In all of the aforementioned cases, he never finds a fit and is pushed back into the search for a purpose. He comes closest to finding a place in religion. After a year of sexual escapades, Stephen turns to the Catholic Church. He devotes about a year of his life to the church and is eventually asked to join the priesthood. His initial excitement turns to resentment when he has a breakthrough thinking, “ He was destined to learn his own wisdom apart from others or to learn the wisdom of others himself wandering among the snare of the world” (Joyce 142). This is a seminal moment in the development of Stephen’s conscience, as this proclamation becomes his defining statement for the rest of the novel. He moves to sacrifice the feeling of belonging to a group for the chance to continue to experience a series of mundane events, day by day, and gleaning from it what he may.
The development of a conscience is the most prevalent theme within “A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man,” with Stephen’s development of his own conscience being influenced by his relationships with his family, and his constant search for a group to identify himself against (Grendel anyone?). His ultimate decision to reject other’s influences in order to form his own opinions form the simple world around him becomes one of the most important decisions in the book, one that embraces the mundane and realized the development of an artist.
“The fellow laughed; but he (Stephen) felt that they were a little afraid. In the silence of the soft grey air he heard the cricket bats from here and from there: pock. That was a sound to hear but if you were hit then you would feel a pain. The pandybat made a sound too but not like that. The fellows said it was made of whaleboneand leather with lead inside: and he wondered what was the pain like. There were different kinds of pains for all the different kinds of sounds. A long thin cane would have a high whistling sound and he wondered what was the pain like. It made him shivery to think of it and cold: amd what Athy said too. But what was there to laugh at in it? It made him shivery: but that was because you always felt like a shiver when you let down your trousers. It was the same in the bath when you undressed yourself. He wondered who had to let them down, the master or the boy himself. O how could they laugh about it that way?” (Joyce 39).
This section of narration comes very early on in the novel, and occurs after Stephen hears that a few boys who have committed acts of thievery and homosexual activity will be paddled and possibly expelled. After his group of friends laugh at this, the author enters into Stephen’s mind in one of the best examples of stream-of-consciousness writing in the novel. Stephen’s train of thought wanders of on tangents created by his thoughts, and dwells on some thoughts more than others. This dwelling is represented by the use of the repetition of phrases such as “he wondered what the pain was like” and “It made him shivery.” This thoughts and feelings Stephen has start very focused and then bloom into very broad questions about society, before wrapping up neatly with the original question about laughter and comfortableness, and they each affect his five senses differently. It may seem like a whirlwind sensory experience, but in reality, Joyce has captured what really happen in the human mind as it reacts to its surroundings. This passage illuminates how influential mundane events can be on life, as the questions that spring from this open up door to whole other issues, shaping one into the person they will end up becoming.
“The tragic emotion, in fact, is a face looking two ways, towards terror and towards pity, both of which are phases of it. You see I use the word arrest. I mean that the tragic emotion is static. Or rather the dramatic emotion is. The feelings excited by improper art are kinetic, desire or loathing. Desire urges us to possess, to go on to something, loathing urges us to abandon, to go away from something. These are kinetic emotions. The arts which excite them, pornographical or didactic, are therefore improper arts. The esthetic emotion (I use the general term) is therefore static. The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing” (Joyce 180).
This excerpt is from part V of the book. Stephen is now in his early twenties, as evidenced by the fact that he is no longer learning information, but bestowing it. In this particular instance, Stephen is explaining to his classmate, Lynch, the difference between emotions and the art that inspires them. While readin this and the surrounding passages, I found myself disagreeing with Stephen’s disdain for what he calls “improper arts;” the arts that inspire feelings of loathing and desire. Stephen seems so locked into the idea that arts should not excite, but inform. He can only see the negatives in loathing and desire. Often, desire can be a good thing. Desire is often what motivates people to do great things. The possession of knowledge and heath are two of the greatest drives for desire that have produced the most important revolutions known to man. Loathing is less exonarable, as loathing has produced some of the worst aspect of mankind such as war and genocide. However, to say that is stems exclusively from art that excites seems very narrow-minded to me. Art that informs can often radicalize someone who was neutral, while art that excites can often stope someone from committing heinous acts.
“The English lesson began with the hearing of the history. Royal persons, favourites, intriguers, bishops passed like mute phantoms behind the veil of names. All had died: all had been judged. What did it profit a man to gain the whole world if he lost his soul? At last he had understood: and human life lay around him, a plain of peace whereon antlike men labored in brotherhood, their dead sleeping under quiet mounds. The elbow of his companion touched him and his heart was touched: his own voice full of quietude of humility and contrition” (Joyce 110).
This excerpt comes from part three of the novel. Stephen is in his teens and is learning about history when he has two major breakthroughs. He decides that the way to happiness is through a sense of community, and that the brotherhood of man will always provide for him. He also decides that ones actions on earth are not worth the while if their soul is damned to hell. Both of these decisions tie back into Stephen’s continuous search for a purpose and a sense of belonging in the world. It is these two epiphanies that start Stephen’s lengthy period in the church. He spends more time working for the church than in any school or club he has been in to that point. Late on in the novel, Stephen is offered priesthood and has a mental breakdown, ultimately abandoning the church. If one were tor reread this passage after finishing the novel, knowing full well that both of these epiphanies would not serve Stephen long, they would see this passage as a textbook example of how our worldview and priorities change as we grow in age and in knowledge.
“When you first wet the bed it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oilsheet. That had the queer smell.
His mother had a nicer smell than his father. She played on the piano the sailor’s hornpipe for him to dance. He danced.
Uncle Charles and Dante clapped. They were older than his father and mother but Uncle Charles was older than Dante. Dante had two brushes in her press. The brush with the maroon velvet back was for Michael Davitt and the brush with the green velvet back was for Parnell” (Joyce 1).
We end at the story’s beginning. The first page of the novel is seen through the eyes of Stephen when he is probably about two or three years old. The observations he makes on the first page seem rudimentary: Dante has two brushes, the oilsheet smells funny, Uncle Charles is older than Dante. However, if you go back and read the previous three excrepts in this order-I, III, II-then you notice one of Joyce’s most important literary choices in the novel. Stephen’s observations become more and more advanced and ense as the novel progresses. The novel essentially chronicles the inner processes of Stephen’s mind in real time as he grown up. Often narrators have the same mental capacity no matter there age during the entre novel. The mental progression that parallels the age progression in “Portrait” shows the genius of James Joyce’s writing style. This mental progression is a rarity in novels across time and is one of the most convincing reasons for why this novel was so revolutionary and will be studied for centuries to come.
The criticisms that were hurled at “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” for its revolutionary writing style and realistic depictions of both public and home life have now dissipated, and it is clear to see why. The novel’s use of implicit symbolism and repeating motifs break the notion that it is the large bombastic events in our lives that shape our actions and our character.
James Joyce takes the shards of glass broken by his radical use of literary devices and uses them to weave a wholly new exploration of theme, and how it is the little events and interactions in life that contribute the most to our personality and worldview. He further emphasizes this with revolutionary literary techniques such as the constant use of stream-of-consciousness writing to explore Stephen Daedalus’ most inner thoughts, and the real-time mental progression of Stephen that illuminates how these inner thoughts warp and change as a result of outside influence and internal questioning.
Thought the novel as a whole may seem like a slice-of-life story with no real weight, Joyce wields a literary scalpel to dissect a future artist and prove once and for all that it is the David’s of our lives, not the Goliaths, that have the most profound impact during adolescence.
Esthetic Analysis of the Bird-Girl Scene in A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man
The Structural Capabilities of Water and Air in the “Bird-Girl Scene”
In Book V of A Portrait of A Young Artist, Stephen Daedalus decides to explain his personal theory of esthetics to his friend Lynch, analyzing perception (primarily sight, but including hearing and touch)and articulating the elements which form a perceptual experience. He then explicates the modes of expression through which the individual responds to his or her experiences. “Experience” is here understood to include affect and how emotion (or ‘feeling’) is formed within the subject who “experiences” his or her world by perceptual means. Stephen is also explicating “experience” in terms of ‘esthetic’ perception in particular, meaning that he is interested in the “experience” of ‘true’ beauty – otherwise understood as the ‘work of art’ or product of the artist. By explaining these modes of expressing experience, Stephen presents himself as if he ‘knows’ all there is to ‘know’ about perception and the experience of that perception, including esthetic “apprehension” proper. Yet Stephen does not really seem to understand beauty or art except through theory. In fact, my hypothesis is that in just one Book prior to Book V (referring to IV), Stephen ironically undergoes a true esthetic experience yet fails to recognize it as such.
This scene, known as “the bird girl scene”, illustrates the problem of defining the nature of any one “experience”, given that sensory perception (the mode of perceiving or perception), emotion, and affect can be ‘felt’ altogether, in a way that seems simultaneous (when they are not) or can seem to occur simultaneously (when they in fact are). Primary symbolism – such as how water functions in the bird girl scene, and how the juxtaposition of “the world”, a flower, and “a glimmer”, connote the intermingling and interactive forces that “happen” to the individual who experiences (as in an agentive entity which acts upon the individual), but which also relies on the individual him or herself to actually create the experience of sensory perception, affect, and emotion. Joyce plays with these intermingling entity-creations throughout A Portrait, using opposing elements, concepts, objects, or sensings, such as water and fire (flame; rivers, rivulets or sea); the world, a flower, a glimmer; beauty and truth; and colors (such as emerald green and white or ivory), to name a few examples. The connotations of these sound-images move in and out of corporeal/incorporeal states for Stephen, suggesting that the boundaries between affect, emotion, and perception are fluid. Stephen ultimately fails to correlate his experiences with his theory of perception because of this variability of experience which yields textures, sounds, and smells that change in shape and consistency, which produce (or compel the individual, by his or her own interest, to create) ideas about existence and being-in-the-world.
In A Portrait, I consider that Joyce utilizes water and air – at least in the scene of the bird girl – to represent these conceptual elements. Hence Joyce juxtaposes the two even within the same instance, using them to give this ‘moment’ of esthetic perception a certain tactile tension, structuring the affect or atmosphere in a way that implies a direct correlation to the felt turbulence of the interior experience: “He was alone and young and wilful and wildhearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish water” (433). The wildness of air and the salty, possibly dirty water, described as “waste” and paired with the alliterative construction “wilful and wildhearted” and previous description (wherein Stephen feels “a new wild life singing in his veins” and “He was unheeded, happy and near to the wild heart of life”) implies, by the repetition of the sound “w” and its word, “wild”, that the atmosphere is somehow entering Stephen, affecting him and thence affecting his experience of the moment. Water and air is therefore pivotal to the scene insofar as they characterize Stephen’s perception.
Stephen notes in Book V that the first thing to occur in the realization of three different phases of “artistic apprehension” in the perception of a ‘work of beauty’ (“wholeness, harmony, and radiance” (479).). He states that the first instance of this moment (wholeness) involves the fact that the object of our perception is presented to us “either in space or in time. What is audible is presented in time, what is visible is presented in space” (479). The focus in this section on the distinction between water and air relates directly to this idea, which is just one reason as to why the environment in which he perceives the bird-girl incorporates water and air as a sharp visual and tactile contrast. Water, after all, extends horizontally, spatially; it flows in what might be considered a linear trajectory, cutting through land and in every way contrasting the air directly above it. The moment he sees the bird girl, in fact, both Stephen and she stand in the stream of a river; the sea is visible from where they stand, which she “alone and still” gazes at. On the one hand, the girl seems tethered to the environment as if birthed from it, the phrase “[h]er long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh,” (433) suggesting a connection to the water that is umbilical.
Air, meanwhile, implies ascension; the girl’s wings therefore are in no way vestigial to Joyce’s purpose. They reference the mythology behind Stephen’s name, but they also reference the bildungsroman structure of A Portrait on its own. Thus we have a repetition in the text of the word “drift” in a specific association with “clouds” and by extension, air: “The water of the rivulet was dark with endless drift and mirrored the highdrifting clouds. The clouds were drifting above him silents and silently the seatangle was drifting below him; and the grey warm air was still” (433).
This status wherein they each occupy both air and water, implies that the bird girl is, firstly, an extension of Stephen himself, and secondly, the cause of Stephen’s esthetic outburst as well as a signal that the ‘outburst’ is going to happen. My first point follows from the other, as reference to the text shows: “The personality of the artist passes into the narration itself, flowing round and round the persons and the action like a vital sea.” Stephen’s selfhood flows around the bird girl, creating her at the same time as pushing forward to formulate this “vital sea”. “The dramatic form is reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round each person fills every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible esthetic life” (483). Thus, Stephen ‘births’ the bird-girl in this way; the the emerald tether links her to his immediate thoughts while she looks beyond his present thoughts and personality to his future self.
Throughout my analysis of the Stephen-Lynch conversation and the bird girl scene, I take this notion to claim that Stephen does not really understand esthetic experience at all; a fact which rests mainly on the point that to do so includes denying his own agency or complicity in the moment of perception. While Stephen believes that “The esthetic image in the dramatic form is life purified in and reprojected from the human imagination”, meaning that only once the materials of sensory perception are inside oneself can the individual process his or her own experiences, thenceforth coming to “know” the “experience”. He seems to connect the ‘esthetic image’ in the “dramatic form” (he evidently refers to the epic construction of A Portrait itself) to the personality of the individual artist, considering the artist to imbue esthetic experience – which is created by the individual him or herself – with nothing other but him or her own being [in the “narrative” form]. Thus, like the narrator of A Portrait (or should we say Stephen?) the artist “remains within or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails” (483). Stephen, indeed, does appear indifferent throughout the test – a fact most obviously illustrated by the third person narration by which the text is relayed. That being said, Stephen elucidates a concept of an artist who never creates, except inside his head. Essentially, for Stephen, everyone is an artist – a fact which, if true, holds some real problems for defining what the artist who creates a physical (tangible) project is. But it also yields the question of how much Stephen can be said to actually experience the things he “experiences” if he remains so distant. The consequence, I believe is that Stephen becomes unable to properly register what esthetic experience ‘feels’ like.
My contention is that Stephen’s theory reveals – by its contextual situation between the bird girl scene and a moment wherein he glimpses his “beloved”, Emma Clery, at some distance – that he is unable to recognize that his vision of the bird girl at a distance is directly related to his love-at-a-distance for Emma Clery. The fact he turns and runs away from his vision of the bird girl is also telling: just as he appears unable to approach Emma, he is unable to face the girl with wings. The bird girl, like Emma, exists in the same time and space as Stephen, but threatens to fly away after her vision has passed with disinterest over his body and onto other possible experiences – that vast sea which opens upon the horizon. This is why the bird girl is described as “an envoy from the fair courts of life,” and why either Stephen or the narrator – it is not clear – equates her heart to a bird’s: “her life as simple and strange as a bird’s life, gay in the morning, restless all day, tired at sundown? Her heart simple and wilful as a bird’s heart?” (485).
Thus, Stephen avoids ‘real’ esthetic experience. He closes his eyes in the bird girl scene, (“He closed his eyes in the languor of sleep”(435)), just as he closes his eyes during his interaction with the prostitute in Book II (“He closed his eyes, surrendering himself to her, body and mind, conscious of nothing in the world but the dark pressure of her softly parting lips” (353).). Esthetic experience, beyond that which he creates almost solely in his own mind, is too strong for him. Thus, he avoids it to the point that he cannot compare even the guidelines of his own theory during an important experience – his mind shuts down, he becomes “peaceful”: “His mind, empty of theory and courage, lapsed back into a listless peace” (484). Joyce paints for us a boy growing into a man that fails to an epic degree – as epic as the emotions which he fails to register properly. He is, as a consequence, unable to truly understand what it means to take from his personal experiences and put it into art.
The Depiction of Decision-making and Suffering
Icarus decided to fly too high. Stephen decided to sin. Icarus decided to fly too low. Stephen decided to pursue a more selfish path. Icarus fell. Stephen grew. Icarus’s story is a warning for any man with too much hubris. Stephen Dedalus, from The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, soars like Icarus and surrenders to temptation but in the end decides to grow in the face of suffering before he can fall. A person’s decision when they are faced with suffering leads to their growth or their surrender, this suggests that a person’s development is determined by their decisions.
Stephen’s decision to surrender to temptation and end the suffering of sexual frustration leads him into the identity of a sinner. Stephen does not feel free in his suffering. His faith and fear of committing sin smothers him, so when he finally surrenders he can finally feel some form of freedom, “…as he suffered the agony of its penetration…and the cry that he had strangled for so long in his throat issued from his lips. It broke from him like a wail of despair from a hell of sufferers…” (100) His occasion to surrender to his suffering from sexual frustration fuels his continuous surrender to this sin. The pleasure outweighs his faith as he descends into sin. “He was in another world: he had awakened from a slumber of centuries.” (100) He surrenders to his suffering and this ignites a passion greater than his faith and restraint could offer. He has essentially surrendered into the world of hell but hell has more passion than earth and so he indulges. “…all but burst into hysterical weeping. Tears of joy and relief shone in his delighted eyes and his lips parted though they would not speak.” (101) Stephen is like a boy again, full of wonder, and he lets go of his emotions like he did as a boy. He lets his emotions take over and physically show. “He closed his eyes, surrendering himself to her, body and mind, conscious of noting in the world but the dark pressure of her softly parting lips…he felt an unknown and timid pressure, darker than the swoon of sin, softer than sound or ordour.” (101) Stephen finds himself completely immersed in his new state of pleasure and surrender. He feels relief and a greater passion than he could have ever thought possible. Which, keeps him in the world of surrender to the sin of sex.
Stephen’s decision to go to university instead of priesthood is, however selfish, growth. This decision lets him grow into his newfound identity as an artist rather than a man shackled to sin and faith. He exclaims once he makes his choice, “The university! So he had passed beyond the challenge of the sentries who had stood as guardians of his boyhood and had sought to keep him among them that he might be subject to them and serve their ends. Pride after satisfaction uplifted him.” (165) Stephen faces a challenge to grow out of submission to priests and into the freedom of university. Although this means his family suffers, he develops great personal growth. “The end he had been born to serve yet did not see had led him to escape by an unseen path: and now it beckoned to him once more and a new adventure was about to be opened to him.” (165) Stephen escapes the suffering under his faith. He instead sees the freedom of not knowing what will happen. Stephen thinks as he crosses a bridge, that trembles with all of his and passing priests’ weight and steps, “…to tell himself that if he ever came to their gates, stripped of his pride, beaten and in beggar’s weeds, that they would be generous towards him…” (166) The instability of the bridge and the bridge itself symbolizes his ambivalence towards his decision to reject priesthood. As he crosses the bridge he deals with the exciting reaction to the decision to the examination of his future. He must question his own future’s stability.
Stephen decides freedom for growth over stability with the priesthood. “His heart trembled; his breath came faster and a wild spirit passed over his limbs as though he were soaring sunward” (169) Stephen resembles Icarus, soaring towards the sun, but he must make the conscious decision to grow rather than fly so far he can only fall and surrender. “Yes! Yes! Yes! He would create proudly out of the freedom and power of his soul, as the great artificer whose name he bore, a living thing, new and soaring and beautiful, impalpable, imperishable.” (170) Stephen takes this challenge to not only grow but to soar with his new freedom. And he seems conscious of his ties to the myth that could end in his ruin. He knows that his freedom and growth is worth the risk of the fall.
Stephen’s decision to leave university is at first a surrender, but ultimately a growth. His hesitation over the idea to leave illustrates a surrender, “A sense of fear of the unknown moved in the heart of his weariness, a fear of symbols and portents, of the hawklike man whose name he bore soaring out of his captivity on osierwoven wings…” (225) This is potentially an occasion to surrender to his namesake’s fate, however Stephen makes it into a challenge to grow into the artist that he wishes to be. Like the artist that his namesake was. Stephen connects with birds not only because of his parallel to the myth of Icarus, but to their patterns, “Then he was to go away for they were birds ever going and coming, building ever an unlasting home under the eaves of men’s houses and ever leaving the homes they had built to wander.” (225) The birds are free, they are free to move and wander. They are free to grow and discover while men are set in their unchanging reality. Stephen sees himself as a bird in his challenge to grow in his new freedom, and decides full heartedly. “…I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use-silence, exile, and cunning.” (247) His chance to grow as an artist despite modest means is not wasted. Stephen refuses to waste his chance and makes his decision clear. Stephen does not back away from his final decision to have his freedom as an artist. “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the realty of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” (253) Ultimately, his decision is not a surrender, but a challenge to grow in the face of little comfort but complete freedom.
Icarus and Stephen soared. The difference between them is Icarus fell and Stephen grew. How they dealt with their suffering and eventual freedom illuminates their development as people because their decisions either lead to their death or their rebirth. Stephen and Icarus may both be full of hubris, but Stephen decided to channel that into personal growth and Icarus decided to channel that into an exhaustion of his freedom. Their suffering lead to their decisions about their freedom. Stephen decided not to fall.
The Psychological Transformation and Artist’s Journey
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is, if nothing else, a record of the psychological journeys of Stephen Dedalus as he progresses from child to adult, unlearned rural boy to intellectual student, sinner to saint to artist. Stephen’s level of devotion and intensity, regardless of the object of these feelings, seems to increase following each transformation, culminating in his “desire to press in my arms the loveliness which has not yet come into the world” (273). William James, the early 20th Century American psychologist, examined real-life experiences similar to those of Stephen Dedalus conversions, religious transformations, saintliness in his classic book on the psychology of religion, The Varieties of Religious Experience. James provides insight into Stephen’s motivations, approaches, and actions by using philosophy and psychology to analyze religion, especially Christianity, and its effect on the human psyche. Of particular interest are James’s discussion of conversions, especially when viewed in the light of Stephen’s move from the depths of sin to the height of fanatical asceticism, following by his full embracing of art and beauty as the true object of his desire. A careful analysis of James’s works will illustrate whether Stephen’s religious awakening was a true spiritual experience or simply a response to the pressures of his environment.
From an early age, Stephen Dedalus shows a strong devotion to systems or orders that are imposed from without, be it by family, church, or country. As he grows older, Stephen begins to shed these constricting social bonds one at a time, undergoing a number of conversions that change his direction in life, of which the most important are his sudden change into a fanatically religious ascetic and his final transformation into the Artist. Stephen’s religious epiphany occurs after hearing a lecture on hell from Father Arnall at the University’s retreat honoring St. Francis Xavier. Realizing that his soul is “festering in sin,” Stephen turns to God, and weeps “for the innocence he had lost” (150). After confessing each and every last sin, Stephen finally feels the weight of guilt lifted from his shoulders and rededicates his life to God. He becomes a strict ascetic, denying himself any pleasures of the flesh or mind and constantly praying. However, after being asked to become a priest, Stephen discovers that his true goal in life is Art, and deserts his ascetic and religious lifestyle.
William James undertakes to study the extraordinary phenomenon of conversion, “by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right superior and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities” (Lecture Nine). He relates the studies of Professor Starbuck of Stanford, who undertook a statistical analysis to determine the causes of conversion. Starbuck concludes that, “Conversion is in its essence a normal adolescent phenomenon, incidental to the passage from the child’s small universe to the wider intellectual and spiritual life of maturity” (Lecture Nine), adding that the normal age for such experiences ranges from fourteen to seventeen. Commonplace in these conversions are sense of incompleteness and imperfection; brooding, depression, morbid introspection, and sense of sin; anxiety about the hereafter; distress over doubts, and the like.
James then writes of Professor Leuba, who focuses on the moral aspect of conversion rather than the theological. Religion, Leuba states, is merely a word that has come to mean the “conglomerate of desires and emotions springing from the sense of sin and its release,” that is, a man’s religion has no effect on his spiritual conversions. He uses several cases of the conversions of drunkards that were obviously not doctrinal, simply situations in which one has an absolute need of help from God and receives it. This moment of salvation need not be connected to an institutional religion to be valid.
So, how do these theories provide insight into Stephen’s conversions? His first conversion, into a devout Catholic, fits neatly with the theories of Starbuck. Stephen is 16, falling in the range of 14 to 17. While sinning, Stephen is aware of his wrongdoing “He had sinned mortally not once but many times and he knew that, while he stood in danger of eternal damnation for the first sin alone, by every succeeding sin he multiplied his guilt and his punishment” (110), showing a recognition of sin, and doubt of the hereafter. “A cold lucid indifference reigned in his soul” (110), as Stephen undergoes periods of brooding, depression and morbid introspection. Starbuck remarks that the results in every adolescent conversion are the same, a happy relief and objectivity, and following his sudden conversion, Stephen exclaims, “Another life! A life of grace and virtue and happiness!…the past was past” (158). Seeing Stephen’s conversion adhering almost exactly to Starbuck’s previous experiences, it seems natural that Starbuck’s conclusion, that is, conversion is a normal adolescent phenomenon that may or may not have long-term effects, applies to Stephen’s situation as well, and this is supported by Stephen’s later behavior.
Stephen’s second conversion, from devout ascetic to passionate artist, takes place after he is offered a place in the order. Stephen has a vision of “a winged form flying above the waves” and realizes that his future lies not with the Church, but in his ability to create from within himself. This conversion follows more closely with the theories of Leuba than those of Starbuck. Stephen’s first conversion, to ascetic Catholic, is almost entirely driven by a sense of sin, corresponding to Leuba’s “feeling of unwholeness.” Leuba considers these types of conversions invalid, as they are driven by a sense of doctrinarian and control by the church, whereas true conversions are free of such “doctrinal theology.” Stephen’s conversion to artist is completely free of church influence, driven solely by his innermost feelings and desires. At the moment that he needs guidance from God the most, he is overcome by a feeling of ecstasy that leads him to his true fate “to “create proudly out of the freedom and power of his soul, as the great artificer whose name he bore” (184). Leuba states that a conversion “starts with the absolute need of a higher helper, and ends with the sense that he has helped us,” succinctly describing Stephen’s experience. This conversion, unlike his last, is truly driven by Stephen’s true feelings and desires.
The final differences in the two conversions lie in their origin, or type. Following his writings on Starbuck and Leuba, James discusses the two different types of conversion: Volitional, in which the convert actively seeks to change, and Self-surrender, in which the change comes into effect in and of itself. While both types of conversion are valid, James finds Self-surrender to be more effective in the long term, because Volitional conversion emphasizes the “imperfect self,” while Self-surrender conversion is lead by the subliminal forces of the “better self in posse.”
While visiting the prostitutes, Stephen is aware of the depths of sin he had fallen in to, and the destructive effect his constant sinning is having on his life. When he hears the topic for the retreat, “Stephen’s heart had withered up like a flower of the desert that feels the simoom coming from afar” (116). Following the lectures, he goes to his room, prays to God for forgiveness, and goes to confession. In other words, he actively seeks to change his life, which shows the Volitional nature of his religious conversion. In contrast, Stephen is content with his life as he enters his second conversion. He is simply strolling along a beach, contemplating life, when the ecstatic vision of the “winged creature” comes upon him and changes the course of his life. This artistic transformation was in the realm of Self-surrender, because the circumstances of the conversion were beyond Stephen’s control.
As a doctrinal-based, Volitional conversion, Stephen’s change into a devout and ascetic Catholic was bound to falter, as most adolescent conversions do. His second conversion, however, has a greater chance of truly changing Stephen’s life because it is solely based his subconscious desires, his “better self.” This dedication to art is revealed in Stephen’s next to last diary entry, as he writes, “Welcome, O life! 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” (276). Stephen has realized that to truly experience life he must embrace the desires of his “better self” by casting off all the constraints forced upon him by society and himself.
The Deep Symbolism of Water Metaphor
A series of transformations defines every human life. Whether physical, psychological, religious, or sociological, alterations mark progress on the journey of maturation. This idea plays a central role in James Joyce’s debut novel, which follows the development of Stephen Daedalus as he transforms from a troubled young man into an artist. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce employs water as a motif to explore the transformation of Stephen’s soul.
Regarded as the most versatile chemical compound on earth, water easily switches energy states and dissolves an uncountable number of substances. Fittingly, Joyce uses water as a symbol of Stephen’s changing soul in the novel. By describing what state the water is in, what it looks like, or substances mixed with the water, Joyce can effectively mirror the state of Stephen as his coming-of-age story progresses. Throughout the novel, Joyce hints that water represents Stephen’s soul. For example, while discussing philosophy with the dean of his university, Stephen mentions that a man named Epictetus once said that, “the soul is very like a bucketful of water” (Joyce 187). From this statement, one could infer that the water in the bucket represents experiences, and every drop of water in the bucket helps define that bucket, just as every experience helps define the human soul.
Indeed, experiences do define Stephen’s soul throughout the novel. Especially in the first half of the book, water is utilized with a depressing connotation, which reflects Stephen’s beaten-down state. Notably, the ditch at Clongowes represents Stephen’s time there. When pushed into the ditch by an abusive student, Stephen vividly describes it, saying, “How cold and slimy the water had been! A fellow had once seen a rat jump into the scum” (Joyce 11). Stephen’s sickness later in the chapter correlates with this moment, combining to represent how Stephen’s soul responds to the restrictive and unhappy environment. Water is described in a similar fashion once Stephen moves to Dublin, where he observes, “the multitude of corks that lay bobbing on the surface of the water in a thick yellow scum” (Joyce 66). The yellow scum brings to mind the atmosphere of malaise in Dublin, and the depression Stephen feels there.
As one of the key motifs in the novel, water plays a major role in two of Stephen’s most significant turning points. While listening to the fire-and-brimstone sermon in chapter 3, Stephen vividly imagines a second great flood coming to destroy all life, envisioning, “noiselessly floating corpses amid the litter of the wreckage of the world” (Joyce 117). Just as the flood would consume all life on earth, the sins of Stephen’s past were threatening to overtake his soul. This instance was the beginning of Stephen’s temporary transformation into a pious man. Following this transformation, Stephen experiences his defining epiphany. While at the ocean, Stephen juxtaposes a beautiful, peaceful ocean scene with descriptions of powerful, newfound life. For example, Stephen, “wondered at the endless drift of the seaweed. Emerald and black and russet and olive, it moved beneath the current, swaying and turning…the grey warm air was still: and a new wild life was singing in his veins” (Joyce 170). By combining both water, fire, and bird motifs in this section, Joyce illustrates Stephen’s transformation into an artist, turning a dead soul into a soul full of fire and vitality.
Interestingly, the beautiful ocean imagery is sharply contrasted with something not quite as pleasant. Shortly after his epiphany, Stephen bleakly describes his dinner with his family, saying, “He drained his third cup of watery tea to the dregs… the yellow dripping had been scooped out like a boghole and the pool under it brought back to his memory the dark, turfcolored water of the bath at Clongowes” (Joyce 174). The water imagery here illustrates an important point: while Stephen’s soul has been been transformed into one of an artist, family and society still shackle him. The description above references Clongowes, bringing Stephen’s soul full circle, back to the discontentment and unhappiness he felt at the start of the novel. To truly release the artist inside of him, Stephen must escape Ireland by flying over the water that isolates him from freedom.
By way of using water as a motif, James Joyce creates a vivid depiction of Stephen’s changing soul. Over the course of the novel, Stephen transforms from being dead inside to a free and joyous artist, full of life and vitality. Through Stephen, Joyce constructs a theme that resonates with anyone who has struggled to truly find themselves. Just as transformations define Stephen’s journey, they also define each individual human’s journey to discover their identity and individuality.
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.
The Role of Epiphany and Joyce’s Perspective on it
The word “epiphany”, literally meaning “showing forth”, is originally a Biblical term, referring to the festival commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, often called the “Magi”, usually celebrated on 6th January, or Twelfth Night. On this day there is a Church feast celebrating the coming of the “three Kings of the Orient” to worship the baby Jesus. The word, however, is adapted by James Joyce to encompass his artistic vision, first expressed in the Preface to the “Dubliners”, and then defined in more detail in “Stephen Hero”, his first autobiographical story, almost destroyed by him, and then published as a fragment after his death. In “Stephen Hero”, Stephen, planning a book of epiphanies, tells us that “by an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments”. An epiphany, therefore, in Joyce’s sense, “shows forth” the full reality of what is seen and observed, but not in logical, analytical form. The reality appears to the mind in a flash of inspiration, triggered by an ordinary conversation or incident.
All Joyce’s writings, including his early ones like “Chamber Music” or “Dubliners”, is thought to consist of a series of epiphanies. What makes “A Portrait of the Artist” different from these is that before “A Portrait” was published, Joyce’s works consisted of essentially isolated epiphanies. “A Portrait” is the first work which incorporates in it a sequence of related epiphanies in the form of a coherent narrative, though in this novel he nowhere refers to “epiphany” by name. He only illustrates its use as not only as a significant literary technique, but also as an important philosophical concept, which would later become not only the cornerstone of Joyce’s own mature works, but also of Modernism in general. In Joyce’s practice, the term actually has two meanings – one, that epiphany reveals the truth, the intrinsic essence of a person or something that is observed; and second, that it is a state of mind, a heightened spiritual ecstasy, which he calls “the memorable phase of the mind itself”. The first puts emphasis on the object, whose reality is revealed by an epiphany; the second puts emphasis on the observer, for whom the epiphany can be a state of heightened consciousness. As such, knowledge becomes something subjective and intuitive, not merely a rational process. In fact, as Stanislaus, Joyce’s brother, records, epiphanies can also include dreams, since Joyce, taking his cue from Freud, considered dreams to be a sub-conscious re-shaping of everyday reality. Both meanings can be illustrated in the various episodes of “A Portrait”.
Where the first meaning is concerned, the emphasis being on the object, a good example would be that incident in Chapter II, where Stephen’s romantic picture of cows grazing in a sylvan setting receives a jolt when he visits Stradbrook. The vivid details of the “filthy cowyard”, with its “foul green puddles and clots of liquid dung and steaming brantroughs”1, bring home to him the distinction between his idealistic vision of cows (symbolizing his country Ireland), and the foulness of reality.
An epiphany with its second meaning also occurs in the second chapter, when Mr. Dedalus, Stephen’s father, reveals what is obviously regarded by Stephen as a betrayal of sorts by the rector of Clongowes, Father Conmee. He had wonderful ideas of his own heroism in going to the rector to complain about being wrongfully “pandied” by the prefect of studies, Father Dolan. This larger-than-life opinion about himself is rudely broken when his father comes home and relates the incident of meeting the rector in Dublin, when the rector spoke of the child Stephen in the following terms – “I told them all at dinner about it and Father Dolan and I and all of us had a hearty laugh together over it. Ha! Ha! Ha!”2. Epiphanies like these are not only used to bring out a sudden realization of the truth in the hero, but also in the reader.
Another epiphany is the ecstasy of spirit that Stephen experiences after the retreat, when his soul realizes that it can yet be saved through repentance. An example of “a sudden flash of insight” occurs in the fourth chapter, when Stephen, almost acquiescing to the director’s offer of priesthood, suddenly sees a quartet of young men dancing and singing down the road. The very colourfulness of their clothing, their lilting music, their dancing steps, and their simple enjoyment, brings to Stephen’s mind in a flash of insight, their contrast with the colourlessness, coldness, and emotionlessness of priesthood, and makes him realize in a moment that priesthood is not going to be his vocation, even though he had been attracted to that profession from his childhood.
Often these two meanings coincide in a single moment of intense ecstasy – as in the finest epiphany of the novel in the conclusion to Chapter IV – the picture of the young girl wading in the sea –
“A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful sea-bird …….. She was alone and still, gazing out to sea; and when she felt his presence and the worship of his eyes her eyes turned to him in quiet sufferance of his gaze, without shame or wantonness”3.
In one moment the girl becomes for him the embodiment of beauty of art, and in a flash of insight Stephen recognizes his artistic vocation. His “enchantment of the heart” is expressed clearly in his wild delight and ecstatic language. The two aspects of the epiphany coalesce to bring the fourth chapter to its rapturous climax.
On the other hand, because of its subjective nature, an epiphany can also be unreliable, as we see in Chapter III, when, after the retreat, Father Arnall’s lectures manage to convince Stephen that his only correct course is to repent and return to the Church. In Chapter IV this acceptance is rejected, and he realizes his folly through an epiphany.
The epiphany also has a deeper, more philosophical significance – the concern with time; and Stephen himself draws attention to this in his diary towards the end of the novel – “The past is consumed in the present, and the present is living only because it brings forth the future”4. Clearly, Stephen’s view is that each moment is the cumulative product of past decisions and actions, and brings about the future by the same process. A prime example of this is the epiphany in the tram, when, while standing with Emma on the tram steps, he remembers his past moments on “the hotel grounds” with Eileen. This moment also anticipates the future, because he will not only remember this moment later, but also because it will subconsciously influence his later life, when Emma will become an archetype of feminine virtue and unattainable sexuality. This is embodied in the present by his inability to kiss her.
In “A Portrait of the Artist” Stephen does not refer to the word “epiphany” directly, but he does define a very similar phenomenon in his aesthetic theory, when he discusses the various stages of apprehending a work of art. After referring to the “wholeness” (integritas) of a work of art, he perceives its “rhythm” (consonantia), and finally realizes its radiance (claritas). The notion of “epiphany” does not necessarily imply any moral or aesthetic content, and reveals only truth, but it has a lot in common with the process of “claritas” – something which Stephen has great difficulty in elucidating. After trying to explain it as “radiance” and “whatness”, he finally uses the phrases “luminous silent stasis” and “enchantment of the heart”5. These connect it with the definition of “epiphany” in “Stephen Hero” as a form of highly rarefied spiritual manifestation.
There has been plenty of criticism expressing doubts about the effectiveness of the epiphany in novel-writing. One of the main reasons for such doubt is that, in order to deepen their impact, the epiphanies generally have an abrupt, even melodramatic ending. Also, these epiphanies may sometimes appear isolated in the plot line, making the novel seem episodic and ununified.
Against these charges, the partial truth of which cannot be denied, we can say that the drawbacks are to a great extent cancelled by their advantages. In “A Portrait of the Artist”, moreover, the presence and consciousness of Stephen is a potent unifying factor. The epiphanies in this novel also become an important vehicle for binding together themes, motifs, and symbols which run throughout the novel.
1) James Joyce : “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (Penguin Books, 1992, London), p.66.
2) Ibid, p.76.
3) Ibid, p.186.
4) Ibid, p.273.
5) Ibid, p.231.
The Imagination as the Creative Force
Imagination is the individual’s ability to create mental images through his perception of reality. It is an indispensable artistic tool that allows humans to express themselves creatively; it separates us from other living creatures. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus struggles through adolescent life in order to discover his true vocation. In this novel, imagination is the invisible force that compels Stephen to take initiative in life. As the story progresses, the role of imagination is evident in Stephen’s four distinct transformations. “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 275). His imagination is the implement that allows Stephen to finally create his own conscience and, via self-understanding, finally become an artist.
Stephen’s first major transformation occurs when he confronts the rector at Clongowes Wood College. Stephen thinks it unjust that Father Dolan punished him for idleness when he was actually excused from his assignments. His determination to right the injustice against himself is only possible through his imagination. After shrinking from his cause, Stephen is emboldened: “He though of the baldy head of the prefect of studies with the cruel noncoloured eyes looking at him and he heard the voice of the prefect of studies asking him twice what his name was” (Joyce 56). This diminutive and negative description encourages Stephen to take action. After imagining Father Dolan, he becomes confident and successfully requests the rector to correct the mistake. This initial victory, the first in a series of events that lead to Stephen’s freedom from society, takes place largely because of his active imagination.
As Stephen continues to grow and understand more about the society around him, he encounters new obstacles that he must overcome to reach his calling. The irony is that Stephen sets himself up for these challenges; both the ups and downs of his life are due in part to his own decisions. One such trial involves the Dublin prostitute, where Stephen loses his innocence but learns of the folly of sinful life. “The equation on the page of his scribbler began to spread out a widening tail… It was his own soul going forth to experience, unfolding itself sin by sin, spreading abroad the balefire of its burning stars and folding back upon itself, fading slowly, quenching its own lights and fires.” (Joyce 110)
As Stephen imagines his scribbler, he thinks about its relation to his own sinful life. He pictures the various sins he has committed and also discusses lights and fires. This foreshadows his abandonment of this life for the religious one; the recurring symbolism of fire convinces Stephen that this immoral life is not for him. Stephen’s imagination of its consequences leads him to this conclusion. When Stephen decides to quench his sexual needs, he is once again allowing himself to progress through a stage in life. However, the imagination plays a crucial role here as he decides to leave behind the sinful life that many people choose and continues to search for his vocation.
After indulging in sin, Stephen Dedalus becomes repentant and decides to live his life religiously. The religious retreat with Clongowes terrifies Stephen; he believes that a vengeful God will condemn him for his sins. The main factor here is Father Arnall’s speech. He speaks of fire and brimstone, emphasizing that those who sin will not be forgiven unless they instantly atone for their wrongdoings. “Hell is a strait and dark and foulsmelling prison, an abode of demons and lost souls, filled with fire and smoke. The straitness of this prisonhouse is expressly designed by God to punish those who refused to be bound by His laws” (Joyce 128). Although this description is from Father Arnall’s imagination, it still compels Stephen to act. He is convinced that the sermon is meant specifically for him and decides that he can change. After listening to this dreadful description, Stephen’s picture of himself burning in the hellfire scares hjim into taking action: “There was still time. O Mary, refuge of sinners, intercede for him! O Virgin Undefiled, save him from the gulf of death!” (Joyce 135) Stephen acknowledges that he has sinned and decides that he should amend his life. After confessing and living piously for a period of time, Stephen once again abandons an institution and moves on with his life. He decides that the religious vocation is not his either; his rejection of both faith and the pleasures of the world through these imaginative lessons now pave the way to Stephen’s awakening.
The final metamorphosis that Stephen undergoes shows why the name of the novel is A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He has finally taken on the Daedalus persona and become a mature artist. “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead” (Joyce 276). Stephen’s tribute to his namesake, the great artist who escaped from his own labyrinth by imaginatively crafting a flying device, is a final testament to Stephen’s acceptance of his role as an artist in society. He imagines himself soaring away from the entrapments of sin and religious service: “His throat ached with a desire to cry aloud, the cry of a hawk or eagle on high, to cry piercingly of his deliverance to the winds. This was the call of life to his soul not the dull gross voice of the world of duties and despair, not the inhuman voice that had called him to the pale service of the altar” (Joyce 184).
Stephen’s avoidance of the snares of life is only possible through his imagination, which is evident in his final discovery: “A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird… and when she felt his presence and the worship of his eyes her eyes turned to him in quiet sufferance…” (Joyce 186). The female figure represents aesthetic beauty; she is the epitome of what Stephen considers art. After imagining this ideal woman, Stephen finally understands his calling. He has transcended the confines of society and ultimately decides to leave behind his home, family, and religion to pursue art.
Through the various stages in Stephen’s life as a young man, he becomes more and more informed about the world around him. His imagination propels him through these experiences; it constantly pushes him to make choices, whether good or bad. Stephen learns that indulging himself in sin is not befitting of his character, nor is becoming a strictly religious priest. He finds his place as an artist, a man free of all such constraints. The decisions that he makes correlate with Stephen’s destiny and eventually lead to his career as an artist. Without his creative talent, Stephen would not have progressed through life in this fashion, and it is possible that he would not have become an artist either.
Analysis of the Symbolic Layer of the Novel
The stream-of-consciousness novel is a twentieth-century innovation, which aims to depict the totality of experience through the human consciousness. This necessarily means a retreat from the direct portrayal of social interactions, and a reduction of the outside world to a mere object of the subjective awareness of the hero. Unlike the narration of objective circumstances, this individual awareness is shapeless and un-dramatic, and is unable to contribute its own form and order to the novel. This form and order must necessarily be imposed by the novelist, because the impression of an unconnected stream of thoughts which this kind of novel aims to produce must have an artistic unity, which is an indispensable necessity in any artistic creation. The most important device used by the stream-of-conscious novelist for attaining such unity is the employment of a system of symbols, which connects the diverse threads into an integrated whole, and imposes a thematic unity to the unconnected strands of thought.
James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” is not the classic stream-of-consciousness novel, as is his “Ulysses” or “Finnegan’s Wake”, but the system of symbols on which it is developed is as important as in the other two novels. Without this system the hero’s mind would be a very loose integrator, imposing only structural unity and not a strong thematic unity to the novel.
A symbol may be defined as anything which signifies something else, and the significance of which becomes evident through mental association or tradition. Symbols have a range of references which relate to various levels of human society, from religion and culture to emotions and beliefs. M.H. Abrams in “A Glossary of Literary Terms” classifies symbols into “conventional” or “public”, and “private” or “personal”1. The former have developed in the consciousness of an entire culture through several generations, and include symbols like the Cross or the Rose or the Lamb. The latter are symbols whose associations and meanings are developed by an individual author, and must be understood in the context of his work alone. Symbols may also be made to stand alone, or be a part of an entire system of related symbols running through the text. Both these types are very common in stream-of-consciousness novels, and often such novels stand on such symbols systems. For example, Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” uses the symbols of the lighthouse throughout the novel as a unifying agent, while individual symbols are strewn intermittently all through. Likewise, Joyce’s “Ulysses” uses the myth of Odysseus and his journey as the main symbol.
In “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, too, both types of symbols are used. The primary symbol is best seen in the most important epiphany in the novel – the one where Stephen looks on at a girl wading in the sea at the end of Chapter IV. Here, the chief impression that emerges from the description of this girl is that she is bird-like – “She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful sea-bird”2.
It is this bird-imagery that pervades the novel from the very beginning, and continues till the end, symbolizing whatever is beautiful and free in the consciousness of Stephen. Emma, the epitome of his ideal woman, is also like a bird – near the end of the novel, when he brings himself to feel sympathetically about her, and then he describes her as “simple”, “strange” and “wilful”. A bird can also evoke connections of aspiration, and a reaching out for the unattainable – as we see in that wonderful account of Stephen standing in the colonnade of the library, looking at the numerous birds wheeling together in the sky, preparing to make their way back to where they had come from. Their flight makes him think of his own plans of flying away over the seas, away from his country Ireland, to the continent, to concretize his ambition of becoming an artist.
The bird-image is also linked to that other major symbolic figure in the novel, from whom Stephen Dedalus gets his name. The Dedalus of myth is also a winged figure – “the hawk-like man whose name he bore soaring out of captivity on osier-woven wings”3. The very name of Dedalus brings to his mind the image of a bird, and also that of art –
“Now, at the name of the fabulous artificer, he seemed to hear the noise of dim waves and to see a winged form flying above the waves and slowly climbing the air…… a symbol of the artist forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpablw imperishable being”4.
Stephen’s alienation from his family, especially his father, results in a search for a father-figure – a person who will be his mentor in his search for a vocation. This search comes to rest on the mythical Dedalus, whom he begins to consider his real father, the father of the spirit, not merely of blood. On the other end is his biological family, to whom he stood “rather in the mystical kinship of fosterage, foster-child and foster-brother”5. Dedalus, “the great artificer”, flying away from captivity, becomes a symbol of his own release from the captivity of his nation, language, and family, and of a life devoted to art, to a total expression of the self. What is implied in this symbol, but not fully understood by Stephen himself, is that he becomes at that moment, Dedalus’s son Icarus, who, in the myth, attempted to fly, but not being as wise as his father, lost the feathers of his wings to the melting heat of the sun, and drowned in the sea. He had tried to fly too high, without following his father’s advice about following the middle path – and the question hangs in the balance about whether Stephen himself is not attempting to do the same. Is Stephen going to be the Dedalus he wishes to be, or is doomed to become another Icarus?
One other image becomes as well-knit a symbol as that of the bird in the novel – the symbol of the Rose. We actually come across this image in the very first page of the book – “O, the wild rose blossoms / In the little green place”; which the infant Stephen corrupts in his lisp in the very next line – “O, the green wothe botheth”6. The significance of this line is clarified much later, when Stephen is sitting in the classroom of Clongowes, looking at and musing about the rose-like badges pinned to the shirts of the boys around him. The red rose is the badge of the house of Lancaster, and the white is that of the house of York – the two houses in the school, named after the English Wars of the Roses (1453 – 85). Soon after, unable to do the sum given to the boys, he falls to thinking about all the different colours of roses besides the ones represented in the badges of his school – so many beautiful colours: pink, cream, lavender. However, in spite of the wonderful variety of colours of roses, one cannot find a green rose, like the one in the song he had sung as a child. Perhaps, he also thinks, one can have a green rose if he searches well enough in the world! The Green Rose, therefore, becomes a symbol of the unattainable, something not to be found in reality, but which can be realized in the imagination, through art. Also, being related to the Wars of the Roses, the green rose can also be linked to the political theme that runs so strongly in the novel. Green, being the colour of Parnell’s Home Rule Party, can also refer to the much-wronged and also much-admired leader of the Irish people in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In fact, Parnell plays a very important background role in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”.
Repeated references to certain ordinary things turn them into distinctive elements in the design, and have a symbolic effect. These repeated references are called “motifs”. Good examples of such motifs are the colour symbolism used in the novel – colours such as maroon and green, or white and ivory. Maroon and green are used repeatedly in connection with Ireland politics, beginning with the colours of the brushes in Dante’s press, standing for Michael Davitt and Parnell, or the green and red combination of the Christmas decorations in Stephen’s house. The colour white, departing from its usual connotations of purity or virtue, represents coldness and lack of emotion, particularly in connection with priests and religion. Rather, the colour ivory or cream is represented as a warm colour, being related with emotion and vibrant life.
Another important motif is that of the cow, another symbol of Ireland. The novel itself begins with “Baby Tuckoo” (Stephen) meeting a cow while “walking down along the road”7, in the story that his father tells his little son – meeting it headlong, as it were, in a manner of confrontation. Confrontation with national ideals and nationalism is an important part of Stephen’s life as portrayed in the novel. The cow, or Ireland as succour, is also briefly hinted at in the beginning of the second chapter, when Stephen is shown to accompany his friend Aubrey Mills in the milk-cart, delivering milk from house to house. Often, they were taken in the milkcar to see the cows grazing in the fields of Carrickmines – a pleasant sight, which the boys enjoyed. However, when autumn came, the cows were kept in a filthy cowyard at Stradbrook, “with its foul green puddles and clots of liquid dung and steaming brantroughs”, a sight which “sickened” Stephen’s heart. His attitude to his country is paralleled with his attitude to the cows –
“The cattle which had seemed so beautiful in the country on sunny days revolted him and he could not even look at the milk they yielded”8.
Quite as significant is the repeated reference to heat and cold in the novel. Beginning with the wetting of the baby Stephen’s bed in the very beginning of the novel, when he first feels warm and then cold, it continues throughout the first chapter in the uncomfortable coldness of the “square ditch” in which Wells pushed Stephen, leading to the heat of the fever which this incident resulted in. It finally culminates in the third chapter in the heat of Hell, and the fourth chapter in the coldness of priesthood which was offered to him.
All these symbols and motifs act as the unifying agents in a novel which would otherwise have consisted as loose images and experiences in the consciousness of the hero.
1) M.H. Abrams : “A Glossary of Literary Terms” (Bangalore, Prism Books, 1993), p.206.
2) James Joyce : “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (Penguin Books, 1992, London), p.185.
3) Ibid, p.244.
4) Ibid, p.183.
5) Ibid, p.105.
6) Ibid, p.3.
8) Ibid, p.66.