Notes on James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

A Modernist masterpieced, James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is taught in Bengal Universities like the University of Calcutta. This is a study material on the text which will help understand it better. Study Material of M.A. in English Literature Post Graduate Degree Course of West Bengal University Syllabus.

Study Material for MA course in English at Bengal Universities including the University of Calcutta

The Name: Stephen Dedalus

Through the name Stephen Dedalus, Joyce provides his readers with first glimpses into the destiny of his protagonist. It connects the Christian story of Stephen with the pagan myths of Dedalus and Icarus; martyrdom, soaring ambition, and a consequent fall thus get associated with Stephen as soon as he is baptised. By linking Stephen, one of the twelve apostles and canonised after martyrdom, to the Greek artist Dedalus, Joyce is problematizing Christian Faith. The protagonist's Christian name stands for a normative life, not only of the Jesuits but of all religious ecclesiastical establishments, which he has scornfully discarded already. The second part of his name symbolises an artistic entity.

The first part of his name is common in England, but not the second one; consequently he goes through the ridicule of Nasty Roche and other students, just like his patron saint. But this feeble boy of the introductory chapters transform into a firm young artist as soon as he knows he meaning of his life through the Paradiso epiphany in Chapter IV. Stephen's life has actually been the journey between these two paradigms – the normative establishment and the independence of art. But there is an ambivalence since Icarus is also a part of the Dedalus myth. As suggested beforehand by the Prometheus and the Lucifer myth, Stephen is bound to fall like soaring Icarus, and he will actually do so as a writer in Ulysses.

Explanation: "Once upon a time… baby tuckoo"

Joyce begins A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in a very unconventional way by introducing the story that Stephen's father had told him. Joyce replaces 'cow' and 'nice' by their baby alternatives 'moocow' and 'nicens'. The language register here is thus very much childlike, suggesting that Stephen is still an infant; it will later change as Stephen will grow up and will be able to articulate his own thoughts. Stephen imagines himself to be the boy in the story named baby tuckoo, and this foreshadows the later association of Stephen with the Count of Monte Cristo. In a way the story foreshadows Stephen's future life as a poet, glowing with imaginations. The name is also autobiographical, for James Joyce too was called Tuckoo in his childhood. The phrase "a very good time" suggests the security and care Stephen receives from his home, being the only child at this point, and shall later miss right through the novel.

Explanation: "Pull out his eyes … Apologise"

Little Stephen somehow had the idea that when he would grow up, he would marry a girl of his neighbourhood, Eileen Vance. Stephen perhaps spoke his mind in some family gathering, and when rebuked, hid under the table. Clearly embarrassed, his mother said that Stephen will apologise. Dante tried to make him afraid that if Stephen does not, the eagles will come and pull out his eyes. Nevertheless, this apparently meaningless jingle of a child has greater significances. It introduces the subtextual myth of Prometheus, and later Stephen will be alluded to Lucifer and Icarus as well.

All the three mythical characters had soaring aspirations and fell consequently; and Joyce would depict Stephen later in the novel as an aspiring writer only to fall in Ulysses. His fondness of words and rhyming so early in his life also hints at his forthcoming poetic career, and suggest that the novel is going to be a 'Küntslerroman'. Stephen here also resists an early attempt to socialise him, which indicates his individualistic frame of mind. In Chapter V Stephen proclaims of avoiding the nets of nationality, language and religion; and this process of individualisation begins in his home as early as Stephen articulates this jingle. It is one of Joyce's epiphanies, and Stephen's worldview as well as the language register will notably change in the passages following it.

Reference to Paradiso at the end of Chapter IV

In Chapter IV of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce alludes to the 30th Canto of Paradiso in Dante's Divine Comedy. Dante sees myriad petals of rose of light after reaching the extreme heights of paradiso, and faints. When he wakes up and comes down, Beatrice asks Dante if he had seen God. The poet replies that he had seen only the rose of light, but Beatrice asserts that perception to be God Himself. Stephen sees a similar dream towards the end of Chapter IV. So long in his life Stephen had wondered what he should be in future, but failed to decide. Through this dream Stephen visualises the fulfilment of his wish and almost receives celestial inspiration. He had hitherto looked for the meaning of his life in the first part of his name by vainly trying to be a Christian martyr like Saint Stephen.

Henceforth he realises that his destiny lies in the second part of his name, in becoming an artist like Dedalus, however risky that may turn out to be. Also, this is the culminating point of the symbolism of rose used right through the novel. Stephen was the wild rose, and not the cultivated one. There are archetypal associations of red rose to love and romance and epicurean life, like Roman de la Rose; and of white rose of Virgin Mary as an emblem of monastic chastity. Unfulfilled yearnings and idealism was green rose for him, not to be acquired easily, but can be found "somewhere in the world." This moment of epiphany comes through another bouquet of rose, and the reference to Paradiso thus becomes quite significant.


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