As James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man unfolds, protagonist Stephen Dedalus' personal vision grows closer and closer to that of an "artist." Stephen attempts throughout the story to understand the inspiration he receives while being tormented by influences that seem to distract him. Stephen's thoughtful approach to his experiences, brings him through his tormented youth to a refined understanding of his feelings about art.
After explicitly stating his aesthetic theories, Stephen composes a villanelle whose structure and classically Joycean crafted diction implicitly represent Stephen's entire story. Once the parallel is established, it becomes clear that the poem -- and especially its recurring lines -- represent the epiphany for Stephen in terms of his self-discovery. In composing the villanelle, Stephen -- at this point a raw, untested visionary -- throws off the distractions of religion and sexuality to begin to grow specifically into his perceived role as creator of his race's conscience.
The structure of Stephen's villanelle as a whole -- from its stanza construction to its length -- is the first step toward a sense of to A Portrait's overall purpose.
Let us first consider why Joyce chose the villanelle as Stephen's method of communication. The aba rhyme scheme of this type of poem, with not only ending vowel sounds but entire lines recurring, forces the composer into a very confined, ordered narrative space. Stephen's definition of art includes a "cadence" and a sense of fluidity (483). From this it is reasonable to conclude that this piece, with a definite rhythm and a flowing style, is the protagonist'...
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...adder" from stanza to stanza in the villanelle is, therefore, a representation of his growth throughout the novel: moments of brilliant insight peppered throughout a slow (and still continuing) growth process -- as at the end of the villanelle, Stephen reverts into the first-person lyrical style in his diary in the final section.
Stephen's villanelle, as evidenced especially by its repeated rejection of ardor and enchantment, allows the protagonist to remove from his imagination two nagging distractions as he begins to work toward the religionless, asexual soul of an artist "refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails" (483).
1-4 Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. Merriam-Webster, 1994.
All other citations from Joyce, James. The Portable James Joyce, ed. Harry Levin. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.
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