Decisions 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.
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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 […]