Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man
His soul had arisen from the grave of boyhood, spurning her grave-clothes. 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
Throughout A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man Stephen Dedalus is persistently portrayed as the outsider, apart from the society he and his family inhabit, connecting with no-one and seeking solitude and isolation at every turn. Does this self-imposed exile lead to or directly influence his artistic awakening or not? This essay will examine (both thematically and stylistically) Stephen's alienation from the traditional voices of authority in his life and explore how this impacts upon his budding artistic talent.
A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man was Joyce's first published novel, written in neutral Switzerland but published in New York in 1916. Europe was at war and Michael Collins had been taken prisoner during the Easter Rising in Dublin. This novel is therefore bound up with an Irish history rich in rebels and freedom fighters. A real history was raging in Joyce's homeland where the Fenians were fighting against English rule, the oppressive landlord system and eventually the Catholic church in hock to the English rulers. The novel, however, as the title suggests, is not a story of revolutionary politics but of the quiet but dogged rebellion of a young man in search of his artistic voice.
From the opening pages the reader realises that this is no traditional narrative. There is no safe 3rd person distance from the main protagonist, the reader never escapes Stephen's perception of events. The style is direct and visceral and reflects, in its immediacy, the disjointed manner in which memories are recollected and thoughts enter the protagonist's imagination. The effect is claustrophobic but also highly instructive as the reader walks beside Stephen on his journey of self-discovery.
The readers, discerning as they are, will groan at some of Stephen's poetry and mawkish ideas but they cannot deny that they are seeing what Stephen sees and experiencing his life first hand.
Stephen starts as an object - Baby Tuckoo - in his father's story of his early years and is thus without his own identity. Later, at Clongowes, he is either gripped with embarrassment as he fails to connect with his peers or speechless at a family Christmas dinner as debate and anger rages around him. He is isolated, associating only with the sounds of words (belt, iss, suck) and other stimuli. He doesn't understand the schoolboy argot and his consequent victimisation is all too predictable as his peers react with typical schoolboy nastiness to a boy who doesn't fit in.
In protesting his palm-whipping, however Stephen not only wins back the respect of his peers but also performs his first act of rebellion or independence.
As a young boy, this apartness appears too real and solid to be something he just grows out of or learns to subsume and he turns to literature as a means of escape. It is no mere chance that Stephen enjoys The Count of Monte Cristo the story of choice for many schoolboys seeking escape from the imprisonment of school and the cruelty of their peers.
Reality eventually encroaches upon Stephen's internal reveries and teenage angst,
Stephen's selfish detachment persists throughout the book as external events of great import to those who love him drift in and out of his consciousness without having any real direct impact. This is of course if his internal dialogue is to be believed.
Thus we see Stephen isolated from his peers as his family struggles from one property to another and his father from pub to pub seeking work. He can find no real connection with his father. The distance between them can be seen when, having performed his act of rebellion at school concerning his unjustified palm-whipping, Stephen hears his father recalling a conversation with the Jesuit to whom Stephen protested,
The bluff manner in which his father refers to the incident couldn't be further from Stephen's own tortured experience.
It is around this time also that Stephen commences a period of whoring. Whilst this sexual engagement with prostitutes requires no emotional attachment, this interlude, coming as it does at the conclusion of chapter 2, signifies the nadir of Stephen's path away from Jesuit and familial authority.
But what of Stephen's artistic yearnings? At this stage there is no discernible development of a poetic voice but Stephen does feel some shadowy intimation of otherness or the transcendental world,
Stephen is in physical exile and whilst his family is cast adrift, he is groping for an artistic expression which eludes him. A particular scene, remembered during a conversation with his friend, portrays his directionless spirit,
It is the adolescent games of torment and humiliation coupled with a rigid Catholic approach to literary criticism (In any case Byron was a heretic and immoral too (p.81)) that prevents the genuine artistic outlet Stephen seeks. Visions remain formless and his isolation from his peers prevents him from relating to them,
- I don't smoke, answered Stephen
- No, said Heron, Dedalus is a model youth. He doesn't smoke and he doesn't go to bazaars and he doesn't flirt and he doesn't damn anything or damn all. (p.76)
Were he able to voice these half-formed feelings amongst like-minded young men, perhaps he would feel less isolated. The strict Catholic nature of their education and the widening social gap between him and his peers brought about by his father's downfall cements his alienation and otherness so his artistic yearnings remain 'monstrous reveries' (p.90) without any real articulation or development.
By the conclusion of chapter 3 Stephen is in a state of cold, lucid indifference, alienated from his schoolmates and lost in a world of meaningless sexual encounters. Yet by the start of chapter 4 he is well on his way back to a state of grace as he takes whole-hearted part in a Catholic retreat organised by Belvedere college.
This passage of writing is tedious and its repetitive, didactic style reflects Stephen's utter immersion in the catholic faith. His fate is almost sealed as he is invited to take Holy orders at the conclusion of his devotions.
Stephen is seduced at first but his by now instinctive resistance to any form of belonging again kicks in,
His decision to reject the priesthood is a serious one which Stephen follows with conviction, even refusing to perform Easter Duties for his mother.
By now, Stephen is grasping his own destiny and taking positive steps towards a mature poetic voice. Thus the phrase, a day of dappled, seaborne clouds is taken by Stephen and woven into his own experience...The phrase and the day and the scene harmonised in a chord (p.166). These lines mark Stephen out as the young artist he has been aspiring to be, referring the poetic to the mundane in a structured and considered manner.
At the same time he becomes aware of the symbolic nature of his surname and the mythical character from which it is taken. Dedalus was the great artificer and creator of Icarus' wings which were themselves a symbol of escape. As the Ovid quote at the start of the novel states it was Dedalus who...altered/improved the laws of nature. By the conclusion of chapter 5 therefore we see Stephen the creator who chooses exile rather than the daring Icarus-like youngster seeking escape but doomed to failure,
Stephen's rejection of the environment that shaped him is now complete and his diary entries at the conclusion of the novel show a purposeful young artist seeking expression in Europe.
Joyce, James. A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Wordsworth Classics. Wordsworth Editions Limited 1992
© Ben Foley, April 2005