Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man


Stephen Dedalus is born of a woman, created of the earth; pure in his childhood innocence. From this beginning stems the birth of an artist, and from this the novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce recounts Stephen’s story. His journey is followed from childhood to maturity, and thus his transformation from secular to saintly to an awakening of what he truly is. The novel evolves from simple, childlike diction, to sophisticated, higher ideas and thoughts as Dedalus completes his transition into an artist. In the beginning, Dedalus sees the world in an almost sing-song nursery rhyme sense, with a “moocow” coming down the road. By the end of the novel, Dedalus is mature and worldly; a man who stands tall and who feels confident with “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.” (238). Through the use of the symbols of woman and earth, and white and purification, Joyce gives his novel depth and wonder. These symbols follow an array of transformations, changing throughout the novel much like Stephen himself.

The figure woman goes from the mother figure, to that of the whore, and finally to the representation of freedom itself. As a child, the image of the mother figure is strong. It is nurturing and supportive, that of “a woman standing at the half-door of a cottage with a child in her arms . . .” (10) who shelters and protects and makes Stephen afraid to “think of how it was” to be without a mother. As Stephen grows, however, like any child his dependency of him mother begins to dwindle, as does his awe for her. He begins to question his relationship with her and she is suddenly seen as a dirty figure, beginning the transformation of Stephen’s image of women; from that of mother to whore. He first begins to questions the purity of his mother, his creator, his earth, when confronted by class mates, who taunt and confuse the innocent act of kissing his mother. He suddenly wonders, “Was it right to kiss his mother or wrong to kiss his mother? What did that mean, to kiss? You put your face up like that to say good night and then his mother put her face down. That was to kiss.” (24) However, later in the novel the image of the pure and novel mother appears once more, but not in the figure of Stephen’s own mother. Rather, it is in the image of the Virgin Mary: the ultimate symbol of purity, nurturing, and creation. She is the giver of life to man as earth is to nature, creating the tie between earth and women: the bearers, the creators of life. Jesus, “He was born of a virgin pure, Mary the virgin mother.” (110) Why can’t the rest of man kind born as pure?

The figure of the whore physically begins with Stephen’s first sexual encounter. From childhood he has heard of women like that of the whore, their names unspeakable at the dinner table, mistresses of highly noted figures. “But what was the name the woman had called Kitty O’Shea that Mr. Casey would not repeat?” (36) Stephen, however, is unaware and unable to comprehend this symbolic image until he reaches the real, physical whore who was “dressed in long vivid gowns” and “traversed the street from house to house.” (88) In the actually encounter, Stephen felt “the warm calm rise and fall of her breast, [and] all but burst into hysterical weeping.” (90) He feels this out of happiness, but it is also a symbolic loss of innocence, which he later weeps for consciously, because “His childhood was dead or lost and with it his soul capable of simple joys and he was drifting amid life and like the barren shell of the moon. The whore is she who takes innocence, she represents not only an evil of the flesh, but that of Eve herself. She was “the weaker vessel” and because of her temptation, Eden fell and the innocence of man was lost. “She ate the apple and give it also to Adam who had not the moral courage to resist her.” (124) This scenario parallels Stephen’s encounter with the whore. He is caught up in it all, he “weeps” and it helpless against the temptation of the whore, for, though he attempts to resist by not “bend[ing] to kiss her,” “it was too much for him” much like it was too much for Adam. Thus the prostitute figure represents the fall of man all together, and a feeling “darker than the swoon of sin, softer than sound or odour.” (92) For Stephen, and for the rest of man, the whore only invokes feelings of shame, “shameful thoughts, shameful words, shameful acts. Shame covered him wholly like fine glowing ashes falling continually.” (139) So, in the end, Stephen is doomed to always “looking humbly up to heaven, “weeping” for the innocence he had lost (169) This, all because of the whore, the symbol of evil and shame, a creature born of the Garden of Even, destined to ruin man in the eyes of God.

Due to of his loss of innocence and his endless dive into the depths of sin, Stephen resolves to once again recapture that which was innocent inside of him, and spurns the whore and woman all together. Here, the symbol of the woman remains that of evil: dangerous, forbidden. He avoids all eye contact with women. He attempts to recapture his good, to once again be looked favorably upon in the eyes of his creator, and by doing this he must spurn that which took man to this detestable state in the first place: the woman whore. However, his innocence is now gone, and he can not recapture it, so the image of woman does not return to the mothering figure it did in the beginning of the novel. It never can. Therefore, bent on the destruction of evil thoughts, and thus woman, from his mind, woman becomes only a vision, an untouchable mirage, for much of the novel. This is not really Stephen, however, and it will not last. Thus, when he comes to a rebirth, and discovers who he really is, the image of the woman returns to Stephen. This time, however, she is the dancing nymph, the symbol of rebirth, of freedom. The girl is “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.” (203) The girl is at the beach, gazing out upon the earth that created her. The sea is free, much like her, much like Stephen. Suddenly, “his soul was swooning into some new world, fantastic, dim, uncertain as under sea, traversed by cloudy shapes and beings.” (205) He has come into himself, and discovered the artist he truly is.

This last female has a strong connection with the earth. She is the transition, the link, between secular and saintly, between the artist and his creation. She is described as part of the earth, as part of nature, “Her 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.” (203) The earth is woman, for as mother is to nature, woman is to man. When in his zealot stage, the earth is seen as a prison, and “In earthly prisons” men must abide by “obedience to His word.” (174) However, when Stephen finally comes to himself, discovers the artist within him, the earth is not a prison, it does not stifle, but instead it creates. It is the ultimate mother, the purest woman there is. “A world, a glimmer or a flower?” (205) He had long though of it as a glimmer, to be ignored, he now sees it in its bloom, its wonder and its beauty, the mother of all that is pure and good and beautiful. It is the ultimate creation and yields the greatest beauty.


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