sions toClassical MythologyA Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man: Themes Developed Through Allusions toClassical MythologyJames Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a novel ofcomplex themes developed through frequent allusions to classical mythology. Themyth of Daedalus and Icarus serves as a structuring element in the novel,uniting the central themes of individual rebellion and discovery, producing awork of literature that illuminates the motivations of an artist, and thedevelopment of his individual philosophy.
James Joyce chose the name Stephen Dedalus to link his hero with themythical Greek hero, Daedalus. In Greek myth, Daedalus was an architect,inventor, and artisan. By request of King Minos, Daedalus built a labyrinth onCrete to contain a monster called the Minotaur, half bull and half man. Later,for displeasing the king, Daedalus and his son Icarus were both confined in thislabyrinth, which was so complex that even its creator could not find his way out.
Instead, Daedalus fashioned wings of wax and feathers so that he and his soncould escape. When Icarus flew too high — too near the sun — in spite of hisfather’s warnings, his wings melted, and he fell into the sea and drowned. Hismore cautious father flew to safety (World Book 3). By using this myth in APortrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Portrait of the Artist), Joyce succeedsin giving definitive treatment to an archetype that was well established longbefore the twentieth century (Beebe 163).
The Daedalus myth gives a basic structure to Portrait of the Artist.
From the beginning, Stephen, like most young people, is caught in a maze, justas his namesake Daedalus was. The schools are a maze of corridors; Dublin is amaze of streets. Stephen’s mind itself is a convoluted maze filled with deadends and circular reasoning (Hackett 203):Met her today point blank in Grafton Street. The crowd brought us together. Weboth stopped. She asked me why I never came, said she had heard all sorts ofstories about me. This was only to gain time. Asked me, was I writing poems?About whom? I asked her. This confused her more and I felt sorry and mean.
Turned off that valve at once and opened the spiritual-heroic refrigeratingapparatus, invented and patented in all countries by Dante Alighieri. (Joyce246)Life poses riddles at every turn. Stephen roams the labyrinth searching hismind for answers (Gorman 204). The only way out seems to be to soar above thenarrow confines of the prison, as did Daedalus and his son. In Portrait of theArtist, the world presses on Stephen. His own thoughts are melancholy, hisproud spirit cannot tolerate the painful burden of reality. In the end, he mustrise above it (Farrell 206).
At first, Stephen does not understand the significance of his unusualname. He comes to realize, by the fourth chapter, that like Daedalus he iscaught in a maze:Every part of his day, divided by what he regarded now as the duties of hisstation in life, circled about its own centre of spiritual energy. His lifeseemed to have drawn near to eternity; every thought, word and deed, everyinstance of consciousness could be made to revibrate radiantly in heaven…
(Joyce 142)Throughout the novel, Joyce freely exploits the symbolism of the name (Kenner231). If he wants to be free, Daedalus must fly high above the obstacles in hispath.
Like the father Daedalus and the son Icarus, Stephen seeks a way out ofhis restraints. In Stephen’s case, these are family, country and religion. In asense, Portrait of the Artist is a search for identity; Stephen searches for themeaning of his strange name (Litz 70). Like Daedalus, he will fashion his ownwings — of poetry, not of wax — as a creative artist. But at times Stephenfeels like Icarus, the son who, if he does not heed his father’s advice, may diefor his stubborn pride (Litz 71). At the end of Portrait of the Artist, heseems to be calling on a substitute, spiritual parent for support, when herefers to Daedalus as “old father, old artificer.”(Joyce 247),(Ellman 16). Evenat Stephen’s moment of highest decision, he thinks of himself as a directdescendant of his namesake Daedalus (Litz 71).
Stephen’s past is important only because it serves as the fuel of thepresent. Everything that Stephen does in his present life feeds off the myth ofDaedalus and Icarus, making him what he is (Peake 82). When he wins socialacceptance by his schoolmates at Clongowes, he does so by acting deliberately inisolation — much as Daedalus in his many endeavors: “They made a cradle oftheir locked hands and hoisted him up among them and carried him along till hestruggled to get free” (Joyce 52). When he reports Father Dolan to the Rector,he defends his name, the symbol of his identity (Peake 71):It was wrong; it was unfair and cruel: and, as he sat in the refectory, hesuffered time after time in memory the same humiliation until he began to wonderwhether it might not really be that there was something in his face which madehim look like a schemer and he wished he had a little mirror to see. But therecould not be; and it was unjust and cruel and unfair. (Joyce 47)The myth’s pattern of flight and fall also gives shape to the novel.
Each chapter ends with an attempted flight, leading into a partial failure orfall at the beginning of the next chapter. The last chapter ends with the mostambitious attempt, to fly away from home, religion, and nation to a self-imposedartistic exile (Wells 252): “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for themillionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soulthe uncreated conscience of my race.”(Joyce 247). By keeping his audience indoubt as to whether Stephen is Icarus or Daedalus, Joyce attains a control thatis sustained through the rhythm of the novel’s action, the movements of itslanguage, and the presiding myth of Daedalus and Icarus (Litz 72).
Stephen Dedalus is not Joyce’s alter-ego, but another paralyzed victimof the Dublin environment (Kenner 229). Stephen’s environment is what confineshim to a world lacking in creativity and innovation: “He wandered up and downthe dark slimy streets peering into the gloom of lanes and doorways, listeningeagerly for any sound. He moaned to himself like some baffled prowling beast.”(Joyce 93). Stephen’s ultimate rebellion is a classic example of a youngperson’s struggle against the conformity demanded of him by society (Grose 242).
The young Stephen possesses a childish faith in his family, his religion, andhis country. As he matures, he comes to feel these institutions are attemptingto destroy his independent spirit. He must escape them to find himself (Ellman15).
Stephen alone continually discards the scripts or plans he has beenhanded. Dutiful son, docile student, repentant priest — he refuses all ofthese titles in the name of creativity. Stephen’s ancient namesake did much thesame, rejecting the classical society of ancient Greece, and opting for a moreunconventional life as an artist (Brandabur 161). Stephen’s spiritual struggleis one involving the acceptance or rejection of this ordered other world(Farrell 207).
Stephen’s rebellion is directed against numerous opponents. One is hisfather, Simon Dedalus. As Stephen discovers that his father is a drunken,ineffectual failure, much in contrast to the Daedalus of myth, he rejects hisauthority:Stephen watched the three glasses being raised from the counter as his fatherand two of his cronies drank to the memory of their past. An abyss of fortuneor temperament sundered him from them. His mind seemed older than theirs: itshone coldly on their strifes and happiness and regrets like a moon upon ayounger earth. No life or youth stirred in him as it had stirred in them. Hehad known neither the pleasure of companionship with others nor the vigour ofrude male health nor filial piety. (Joyce 89)Even though Stephen may envy his father somewhat, he is constantly trying toprevent himself from accepting even the most casual and insignificantsuggestions of his companions and his environment (Peake 78).
Stephen also rejects the bonds of a religion that restricts his naturalimpulses. From the beginning, the consciousness of Stephen Dedalus is dominatedby the presence of the church and its priests (Adams 235). Catholicism imposesa burden of guilt that weighs him down. He must “admit” and “confess” and”apologize” (Joyce 2) even when he feels innocent. By rejecting Catholicism,Stephen is also rejecting his devoutly religious mother. Stephen needs an arenaadequate for his talents, seeing no future for himself unless he rebels,contradicting the long-standing customs of his country (Farrell 207).
Stephen’s rebellion is also directed against his native land. Dirty,backward Ireland destroys any of its children who show creativity; it is, hesays, “a sow that eats her farrow.”(Joyce 176). His classmates attempt toreform Ireland through political action and promotion of native literature.
Stephen rejects these attempts as futile and backward-looking: “Old phrases,sweet only with a disinterested sweetness like the fig seeds Cranly rooted outof his gleaming teeth.” (Joyce 227). Instead, Stephen abandons Ireland andlooks toward the continent (Farrell 208).
To be complete, Stephen must fill the void created by his rebellion, andcreate his own character. Sadly, the result is the character study of anarrogant, unhappy egotist, an intensely self-absorbed young man. An egotist isinterested only in the self, and is intensely critical of other people and theworld. This can be said of Stephen, who feels superior and finds it hard tocare for others, even for his own family (Litz 72). It is equally hard for himto accept affection or love from others:His lips would not bend to kiss her. He wanted to be held firmly in her arms,to be caressed slowly, slowly, slowly. In her arms he felt that he had suddenlybecome strong and fearless and sure of himself. But his lips would not bend tokiss her. (Joyce 94-5)From his early school days on, Stephen is at the edge of group life, observinghimself. As he grows older, he becomes even more absorbed in his own ideasuntil he finally withdraws from his familiar surroundings (Brandabur 159).
In contrast, it is also Stephen’s acceptance of his own sinfulness thatsets him free. Guilt and fear of punishment keep him in a sterile, pale worldof virtue where he is always hounded by the pressure to confess, admit, orapologize (Drew 276). By committing a mortal sin of impurity and falling fromgrace like Adam from Paradise, like Lucifer expelled from Heaven, or even likeIcarus from freedom, he is thrust back into the earthly world of the senses, aworld that releases his creative powers (Booth 227):Could it be that he, Stephen Dedalus, had done these things? His consciencesighed in answer. Yes, he had done them, secretly, filthily, time after timeand, hardened in sinful impenitence, he had dared to wear the mask of holinessbefore the tabernacle itself while his soul within was a living mass ofcorruption. How came it that God had not struck him dead? (Joyce 131)Stephen will sin again and again, but instead of confessing he will write.
Stephen’s metaphoric descent into hell, like his ascent into an aesthetic heaven,is private, uniquely vouchsafed him by a higher power (Pope 114). Stephen isthe son of Dedalus, and what the son of Daedalus did was fall. It seems clearthat Stephen sees himself as a figure who, even if he heeds his father’s advice,will eventually fly too high and fall (Kenner 231).
Living in the earthly world, Stephen fears many things. He has a fearof water (also giving allusion to Icarus’ demise) since he views it as an emblemof his own futility. Ironically it is the seaside epiphany, where he sees abeautiful young girl, which awakens him to the demands of life (Litz 68): “Shepassed now dancing lightly across his memory as she had been that night at thecarnival ball, her white dress a little lifted, a white spray nodding in herhair.”(Joyce 213) Once Stephen can no longer remain at ease in the role of anartist, he can begin to be human (Brandabur 164).
Stephen’s pride is also a cause of his isolation. From the beginning,pride — a mortal sin — keeps him away from others (Drew 276). He yearns for”order and elegance” in his life. He feels superior to his family and to hispeers. He feels superior to his country, and consequently attempts to improveit (Hackett 203). In the end, pride drives him to lonely exile. IncreasinglyStephen denies his actual family in Dublin so as to assume kinship with hiseponymous family in Greece:Began with a discussion with my mother. . . Said religion was not a lying-inhospital. Mother indulgent. Said I have a queer mind and have read too much.
Not true. Have read little and understood less. The she said I would have tocome back to faith because I had a restless mind. This means to leave church bybackdoor of sin and reenter through the skylight of repentance. Cannot repent.
(Joyce 243)In essence, Stephen becomes less and less Dedalus, and more and more Daedalus(Ellman 16). Is Stephen’s pride justified by his talent? Is it merely selfish?Has pride driven him to a fall, as it did Icarus and Lucifer? Joyce usesuncertainties like these to involve his audience in the changing themes of thenovel.
In Portrait of the Artist, a mature artist looks back over his youth,perceiving what was significant to his development, estimating what was vitaland what was transitory in that evolvement (Peake 56). Using this to hisadvantage, Joyce extends and intensifies Stephen’s alienation, for theoverpoweringly monotonous and constrictive society in which he resides providehim the best conditions under which he can best work (Beebe 163).
Thus, by observing and graphically depicting what confines man, how manovercomes this confinement, and how man lives once he is free, James Joycediscusses the motivations and the outlets for human expression. Like Daedalusand Icarus, Stephen Dedalus assumes the role of a persecuted hero, who mustovercome his personal weaknesses and the oppression of his environment to gainspiritual enlightenment.
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