Opposing Ideals in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Opposing Ideals in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

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Opposing Ideals in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man


Stephen Dedalus, of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is constantly torn by two opposing ideals. One is that which the institution of the Irish Catholic Church imposes on him, and the other is insisted upon by his independent thoughts and feelings. Stephen chooses between these two ideals, and he rejects the religion offered him by his upbringing and early education in favour of individualistic thought.

The most obvious aspect of these opposing ideals is in Stephen Dedalus's name. His first name, rooted in religion, is that of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. His last name comes from the pagan and Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus. The myth of Daedalus centres on the theme of freedom, which coincides with Stephen's journey of self-discovery. However, is he Daedalus, the great architect and inventor, or is he Daedalus's prideful and rebellious son Icarus? Certainly, Stephen embodies aspects of both mythological figures. He is both the intellectual Daedalus, and the rebel Icarus. From the very beginning, the two names are separate from one another. Stephen's parents call him Stephen - "Goodbye, Stephen, goodbye!" (5). This is ironic as sending Stephen to the convent exposes him further to the hypocrisy that he will see in the priests at the convent and in Catholicism as a whole. Thus, they are saying goodbye to "Stephen", the name rooted in religious tradition as he will become "Dedalus", the man who seeks his own freedom. On the other hand, Stephen's classmates call him "Dedalus". Stephen is not one of "them". Stephen is set aside as intellectual and moral - "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 (71)." Indeed, "Dedalus" is not one of the hypocrites. He is labelled as a "heretic" as he refuses to conform to ideals which are not his own (76). At first, he merely defends poets (i.e. Byron), but soon he is defending his entire way of life and his views thereof. "Dedalus" is the individual.

Stephen's childhood in the convent and with his family is shaped around conformity. Phrases such as "Pull out his eyes / Apologise / Apologise / Pull out his eyes" continually insist on the strict code of behaviour that Stephen is expected to uphold (4).

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Stephen starts off as part of this institution, literally by being a student at a convent, and emotionally by the massive guilt he feels after "sinning". However, it is also here where the seeds of doubt regarding the validity of religion are planted. Stephen sees a certain hypocrisy in the priests and they become symbols of intolerance. They are "unfair and cruel", and Stephen begins to see the priests in a more objective manner. Stephen no longer possesses his blind faith, however, he has not yet completely rejected the institution of the church.

Stephen's faith is not one centred on love, but rather on fear. For instance, Stephen tries to finish his prayers because he is afraid of hell:

He had to undress and then kneel and say his own prayers and be in bed before the gas was lowered so that he might not go to hell when he died. (14)

Stephen considers prayer part of an organised nightly ritual. It is no more special to him than undressing, if not for the threat of eternal damnation. He "knelt trembling" not out of pious awe, but because he fears "the gas would go down" (14). He sees his personal hell, populated by "goatish creatures with human faces, horny browed, lightly bearded and grey as India rubber" and fears that (131). Stephen cannot be fully absorbed into his ideal of religious piety because his faith is due to his fear.

Even so, Stephen forces himself to conform to the religious ideal. Stephen is almost desperate to reach that height of spiritual devotion. He undergoes a short period of religious fervour, and immediately seeks to preserve that.

But he had been forewarned of the dangers of spiritual exaltation and did not allow himself to desist from even the least or lowliest devotion, striving also by constant mortification to undo the sinful past rather than to achieve a saintliness fraught with peril. ... He had no temptations to sin mortally. It surprised him however to find that at the end of his course of intricate piety and self restrain he was so easily at the mercy of childish and unworthy imperfections. (144-145)

He considers his actions a form of piety and devotion, but in reality, they are no more than self-imposed suffering. Stephen moves closer to his assertion of independence by moving away from the institution of the Church. However, Stephen has to reach one extreme before he can pursue another. Stephen first decides that he cannot be part of the Church and uphold his ideals after he is told that he has the potential to become a priest. After he is finished visualizing and romanticizing his possible life in the convent, Stephen decides not only that he cannot follow that path, but must start on one diametrically opposed to that.

His destiny was to be elusive of social and religious orders. The wisdom of the priest's appeal did not touch him to the quick. He was destined to learn his own wisdom apart from others or to learn the wisdom of others wandering among the snares of the world. (155)

Stephen's faith is marked by his attachment to earthly pleasures. He transforms religious symbols into what are presumably, more comprehendible earthly ones - "Eileen had long thin cool white hands... That was the meaning of Tower of Ivory"(38). Stephen's religious ecstasies are rooted in earthly, and sexual desires; his sense of religion and his spirit is expressed through his worldly longing of the flesh.

Later however, flesh triumphs over spirit, and completes Stephen's transformation into an independent, albeit secular, being. Here, Stephen becomes Dedalus. He first sees it as darkness: "Darkness falls from the air" but comes to admit that he is a sexual being and embraces that. Stephen once asks: "Who made it to be like that, a bestial part of the body able to understand bestially and understand bestially?" (133). However, when he accepts this sexuality, it becomes beautiful and even spiritual.

A girl stood before him in midstream: alone and still, gazing out to sea. ...Her long slender bare legs were delicate ... Her thighs, fuller and soft hued as ivory, were bared almost to the hips... Her bosom was as a bird's, soft and slight... But her long fair hair was girlish; and girlish, and touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face. ... - Heavenly God! cried Stephen's soul in an outburst of profane joy. (164-5)

A conscious unrest seethed in his blood. Yes, it was her body that he smelt: a wild and languid smell: the tepid limbs over which his music had flowed desirously and the secret soft linen upon which her flesh distilled odour and a dew. (226)

Stephen then insists, "It was not darkness that fell from the air. It was brightness. Brightness falls from the air" (226). This is not a revelation; it is merely something that Stephen has come to terms with. He no longer sees sexual desire as a source of guilt, but allows a "glow of desire [to kindle] again his soul and [fire] and [fulfil] all his body" (215). It is only when he admits this that he can reject his delusional fantasies and desires - "Well then let her go and be damned to her"(226). From here, he continues down his path of self-discovery, which is now "bright" and decidedly clearer and more uninhibited than before.

By the end of the novel, Stephen rejects not only Catholicism, but religion all together - " I tried to love God... It seems now I failed" (231). Stephen frees himself from the constraints of the labyrinth of Catholicism, declaring that he has no wish to overcome his doubts on religion (231). Stephen rejects all forms of religion available to him (apparently just Protestantism): "What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent"(235). He accepts loneliness; he will be "not only to be separate for all others but to have not even one friend" (238). Stephen has always been the lonely individual, the "model youth" and "heretic". He only has to accept it.

Stephen is given his own path to choose, either that of Stephen, the martyr, or that of Daedalus, the rebel intellectual. He chooses to be Daedalus and pursue his own course. He cannot turn back now; as he tells his mother, he "cannot repent" (243). Stephen's last lines in the novel are an echo of the Hail Mary: "Old Father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead" (as opposed to "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death") (244). Despite his declaration of independence and acceptance of loneliness, Stephen, or "Daedalus" still cannot be fully alone.

Works Cited

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: New American Library, 1991

Norris, David and Carl Flint. Introducing Joyce. New York: Totem Books, 1997.
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