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.
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