A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Essay Q&A

1. What is Joyces attitude to Stephen Dedalus?
Joyces attitude to his protagonist is a complex question, on which many critics have disagreed. For many years, critics assumed that Stephen Dedalus was a faithful autobiographical portrait of the author. In this view, Stephen is, for all intents and purposes, the young James Joyce, and he is presented in a wholly admirable, even heroic light by the author (the original draft of Portrait was called Stephen Hero). Stephen is a hero who breaks through the restrictions of family, church and nation to shape his own destiny according to his inner lights. He overcomes the limitations of his culture and environment, and soars into a higher realm. Other critics, while accepting that it was Joyces intention to present a heroic Stephen, have censured Stephen because he comes across as a bit of a prig and tends to isolate himself from everything around him-not admirable qualities.
Noting this discrepancy, other critics, endorsing the perception that Stephen is not entirely the romantic hero that some assumed him to be, have claimed that Joyce in fact intended this effect. According to this view, the presentation of Stephen is riddled with deliberate irony. Joyce distances himself, and therefore the reader, from his protagonist. This is an alternative explanation for the fact that Stephen does not come across as particularly likeable. He often seems self-absorbed and even arrogant, refusing to be sociable or to blend in with his community. He seems obsessed with his own theories of art and beauty, which separate him from human community rather than uniting him with it. In this view, then, the Portrait is an ironic look by the older-and presumably wiser-James Joyce at his youthful self.
Other critics argue that neither position is wholly correct. They claim that in Stephen there are elements of the romantic hero as well as the ironic undercutting of such a figure. According to this view, Joyce presents a sympathetic portrait of the trials of a sensitive, intellectual young man as he grows up, and the novel is at once an attempt to understand the young man as well as expose some of his faults.
2. What did Joyce mean by the term “epiphany”?
By epiphany, Joyce meant a sudden revelation, a moment when an ordinary object is perceived in a way that reveals its deeper significance. An epiphany can produce in the perceiver a moment of ecstasy. The word epiphany does not actually appear in A Portrait, but Joyce does use it in Stephen Hero, the draft on which A Portrait was based: “By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation. . . . He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.” An epiphany occurs as part of the perception of beauty, Stephen says, as he explains his aesthetic theory to Cranly (in A Portrait, it is Lynch to whom he explains the theory). He bases this theory on the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, the medieval Catholic theologian. According to Aquinas, the three things needed for beauty are integrity, symmetry, and radiance. It is when the last quality, radiance, is perceived, that an epiphany occurs. This is how Stephen explains it in Stephen Hero: “Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object . . . seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany.” When this episode appears in A Portrait (in Chapter 5), the three qualities from Aquinas are altered slightly, to become wholeness, harmony and radiance. Stephen explains, “The instant wherein that supreme quality of beauty, the clear radiance of the esthetic image, is apprehended luminously by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness and fascinated by its harmony is the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure, a spiritual state” (p. 231).
The most famous epiphany in A Portrait is the moment Stephen perceives the girl wading in the strand: “A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful sea creature” (p. 185). Another epiphany occurs later, when Stephen watches the swallows from the steps of the library (pp. 243-45). The penultimate entry in his journal (“Welcome, O life! . . . ) is also an epiphany, since an epiphany, Joyce has Stephen say in Stephen Hero, can also be “a memorable phase of the mind itself.” In this case, the epiphany is a sudden realization about life that uplifts the soul.
3. What role do women play in A Portrait?
Stephens relationships with the many female characters in the novel suggest that he has difficulty in coming to terms with the feminine aspect of life. As a young boy, his romantic imagination is captured by the girl Emma. He is excited by her presence, and he writes poems to her. But Emma is never presented directly in the novel; usually she is referred to only by the pronoun, “she.” She remains a shadowy figure, however vividly she looms in Stephens imaginative life. It seems she lives more in his idealized romantic fantasies than in a real, flesh-and-blood relationship. At one point, when sixteen-year-old Stephen is feeling guilty about his visits to the brothels, he elevates Emma to an almost goddess-like status, imagining himself appealing in remorse to her.
The young Stephen is also fascinated by another female figure who can live only in his imagination, and that is the fictional character Mercedes. Mercedes is a character from Alexandre Dumas novel, The Count of Monte Cristo. As the betrothed of Edmond Dantes, she is the embodiment of pure love and pure womanhood, although when Dantes is imprisoned she quickly marries another. Stephen broods on the vision of Mercedes, forming an image in his mind of a kind of ideal woman whom he longs to meet in reality. In his dreamy imagination, he expects this to be a moment of transfiguration for him. He would fade into something impalpable and then be transfigured. Although he never meets anyone in the real world who can accomplish all this for him, his first sexual experience, with a prostitute, gives him a taste of the surrender and loss of self that he had fantasized about: “He closed his eyes, surrendering himself to her, body and mind, conscious of nothing in the world but the dark pressure of her softly parting lips” (p. 109). But instead of transfiguration, all this experience produces for him is overpowering guilt.
To expiate his feelings of guilt, he prays to the Virgin Mary to save him from the consequences of his sin. This stage of Stephens life is marked by the contrast between images of woman as goddess and woman as whore-the two extremes in the way that men experience the feminine energy. This contrast embodies the conflict in Stephens mind between the desire for holiness and the desire for sensuality. It is ironic, for example, that during the period at Belvedere College in which he makes a habit of visiting prostitutes, he becomes the leader of the sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a group that honors the Virgin Mary.
Stephen never seems to resolve his conflicted feelings about women, or to form real rather than imaginary relationships with them. At University College he deliberately distances himself from Emma, although he is still in some way attached to her, or to his idea of her. It seems that the call of an independent artistic life is stronger than the desire for relationship. In this respect, it is significant that in Stephens great epiphany by the river he contemplates a woman-the girl who wades on the strand-but he contemplates her in a detached way, not with any romantic or sexual interest. The girl is only a vehicle for artistic revelation.
4. What role does Ireland play in the novel?
Ireland is part of the labyrinth of influences on Stephen that he must escape. The country is the very opposite of Stephens ideal, because the Irish have allowed themselves to be shaped by alien forces and cultures. They are, in this view, victims of two empires, the British, which controls them politically, and the Roman Catholic, which rules them spiritually from Rome. That this is foreign to Irelands true nature is made very clear when Stephen, now a student at University College, enters a house owned by the Jesuits. He senses the history of the place and asks himself, “[W]as the jesuit house extraterritorial and was he walking among aliens? The Ireland of Tone and of Parnell seemed to have receded in space” (p. 199). Tone and Parnell were Irish nationalists; Stephen will also soon find out that the Dean of Studies is an Englishman. So the Jesuit house is “extraterritorial”; not really part of Ireland at all.
Part of Stephens quest is to break through this Irish net of foreign-dominated cultural history and create an art that is free. He has been aware, from a very young age, of the conflict in Ireland because the fierce quarrel that erupts at the family Christmas dinner makes a deep impact on him. It shows the divisions between the Irish regarding their own history and destiny. Dante Riordan supports the Church, which opposed Charles Parnell, the Irish nationalist who nearly brought Home Rule to Ireland. The Church in general opposed Irish nationalism. Opposing Dante are Stephens father and Mr. Casey, who argue that Ireland is a “priestridden” country; the Church is a harmful influence.
As Stephen matures he does not so much take sides as transcend the debate. He will not side with the nationalists because he sees no hope in that path, based on the way the Irish people have treated their own leaders. He tells his friend Davin that “No honourable and sincere man . . . has given up to you his life and his youth and his affections from the days of Tone to those of Parnell but you sold him to the enemy of failed him in need or reviled him and left him for another” (p. 220). Nor does Stephen have any interest in following the Roman Catholic church, which would merely be to follow a system and a doctrine laid out by an authority external to himself.
Stephen does want to do something for his country, but he wants to free it through art, not politics or religion. This is clear from his penultimate diary entry, when he goes to “encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” (p. 276).
5. Why does Stephen decide not to become a Jesuit?
Stephens decision not to become a Jesuit is more a matter of instinct than intellect. The matter comes to a head toward the end of Chapter 4, when Stephen is summoned to the study of the director of Belvedere College. During his career at Belvedere, Stephen has become known for his piety, and his peers have chosen him to be a prefect of the sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is what brings him to the attention of the director, who suggests that Stephen might be one of the few boys at the College who is being called to a religious life. But in spite of his outward piety, which shows itself in quiet obedience and a refusal to express any doubts, Stephen has already half-realized that he is moving beyond the sphere of the Catholic life. He knows that for him to become a priest would be a matter only of pride, because he would then hold secret knowledge and secret power. But as soon as he thinks of the “grave and ordered and passionless life” that would await him as a priest, every instinct he has recoils from the prospect. A key image comes when he looks into the priests face and sees only “a mirthless reflection of the sunken day.” It is almost as if the priesthood embodies, at least for Stephen, death rather than life. The director has spoken to him in terms of the eternal salvation of his soul, but for Stephen, the opposite is the case; for him, becoming a priest “threatened to end for ever, in time and eternity, his freedom” (p. 175).