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A portrait of the artist as a young man themes developed

A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man: Themes Developed Through Allusions to

Classical Mythology

James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a novel of

complex themes developed through frequent allusions to classical mythology. The

myth of Daedalus and Icarus serves as a structuring element in the novel,

uniting the central themes of individual rebellion and discovery, producing a

work of literature that illuminates the motivations of an artist, and the

development of his individual philosophy.

James Joyce chose the name Stephen Dedalus to link his hero with the

mythical Greek hero, Daedalus. In Greek myth, Daedalus was an architect,

inventor, and artisan. By request of King Minos, Daedalus built a labyrinth on

Crete to contain a monster called the Minotaur, half bull and half man. Later,

for displeasing the king, Daedalus and his son Icarus were both confined in this

labyrinth, which was so complex that even its creator could not find his way out.

Instead, Daedalus fashioned wings of wax and feathers so that he and his son

could escape. When Icarus flew too high -- too near the sun -- in spite of his

father's warnings, his wings melted, and he fell into the sea and drowned. His

more cautious father flew to safety (World Book 3). By using this myth in A

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Portrait of the Artist), Joyce succeeds

in giving definitive treatment to an archetype that was well established long

before the twentieth century (Beebe 163).

The Daedalus myth gives a basic structure to Portrait of the Artist.

From the beginning, Stephen, like most young people, is caught in a maze, just

as his namesake Daedalus was. The schools are a maze of corridors; Dublin is a

maze of streets. Stephen's mind itself is a convoluted maze filled with dead

ends and circular reasoning (Hackett 203):

Met her today point blank in Grafton Street. The crowd brought us together. We

both stopped. She asked me why I never came, said she had heard all sorts of

stories about me. This was only to gain time. Asked me, was I writing poems?

About whom? I asked her. This confused her more and I felt sorry and mean.

Turned off that valve at once and opened the spiritual-heroic refrigerating

apparatus, invented and patented in all countries by Dante Alighieri. (Joyce


Life poses riddles at every turn. Stephen roams the labyrinth searching his

mind for answers (Gorman 204). The only way out seems to be to soar above the

narrow confines of the prison, as did Daedalus and his son. In Portrait of the

Artist, the world presses on Stephen. His own thoughts are melancholy, his

proud spirit cannot tolerate the painful burden of reality. In the end, he must

rise above it (Farrell 206).

At first, Stephen does not understand the significance of his unusual

name. He comes to realize, by the fourth chapter, that like Daedalus he is

caught in a maze:

Every part of his day, divided by what he regarded now as the duties of his

station in life, circled about its own centre of spiritual energy. His life

seemed to have drawn near to eternity; every thought, word and deed, every

instance of consciousness could be made to revibrate radiantly in heaven...

(Joyce 142)

Throughout the novel, Joyce freely exploits the symbolism of the name (Kenner

231). If he wants to be free, Daedalus must fly high above the obstacles in his


Like the father Daedalus and the son Icarus, Stephen seeks a way out of

his restraints. In Stephen's case, these are family, country and religion. In a

sense, Portrait of the Artist is a search for identity; Stephen searches for the

meaning of his strange name (Litz 70). Like Daedalus, he will fashion his own

wings -- of poetry, not of wax -- as a creative artist. But at times Stephen

feels like Icarus, the son who, if he does not heed his father's advice, may die

for his stubborn pride (Litz 71). At the end of Portrait of the Artist, he

seems to be calling on a substitute, spiritual parent for support, when he

refers to Daedalus as "old father, old artificer."(Joyce 247),(Ellman 16). Even

at Stephen's moment of highest decision, he thinks of himself as a direct

descendant of his namesake Daedalus (Litz 71).

Stephen's past is important only because it serves as the fuel of the

present. Everything that Stephen does in his present life feeds off the myth of

Daedalus and Icarus, making him what he is (Peake 82). When he wins social

acceptance by his schoolmates at Clongowes, he does so by acting deliberately in

isolation -- much as Daedalus in his many endeavors: "They made a cradle of

their locked hands and hoisted him up among them and carried him along till he

struggled to get free" (Joyce 52). When he reports Father Dolan to the Rector,

he defends his name, the symbol of his identity (Peake 71):

It was wrong; it was unfair and cruel: and, as he sat in the refectory, he

suffered time after time in memory the same humiliation until he began to wonder

whether it might not really be that there was something in his face which made

him look like a schemer and he wished he had a little mirror to see. But there

could not be; and it was unjust and cruel and unfair. (Joyce 47)

The myth's pattern of flight and fall also gives shape to the novel.

Each chapter ends with an attempted flight, leading into a partial failure or

fall at the beginning of the next chapter. The last chapter ends with the most

ambitious attempt, to fly away from home, religion, and nation to a self-imposed

artistic exile (Wells 252): "Welcome, O life! I go 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."(Joyce 247). By keeping his audience in

doubt as to whether Stephen is Icarus or Daedalus, Joyce attains a control that

is sustained through the rhythm of the novel's action, the movements of its

language, and the presiding myth of Daedalus and Icarus (Litz 72).

Stephen Dedalus is not Joyce's alter-ego, but another paralyzed victim

of the Dublin environment (Kenner 229). Stephen's environment is what confines

him to a world lacking in creativity and innovation: "He wandered up and down

the dark slimy streets peering into the gloom of lanes and doorways, listening

eagerly for any sound. He moaned to himself like some baffled prowling beast."

(Joyce 93). Stephen's ultimate rebellion is a classic example of a young

person's struggle against the conformity demanded of him by society (Grose 242).

The young Stephen possesses a childish faith in his family, his religion, and

his country. As he matures, he comes to feel these institutions are attempting

to destroy his independent spirit. He must escape them to find himself (Ellman


Stephen alone continually discards the scripts or plans he has been

handed. Dutiful son, docile student, repentant priest -- he refuses all of

these titles in the name of creativity. Stephen's ancient namesake did much the

same, rejecting the classical society of ancient Greece, and opting for a more

unconventional life as an artist (Brandabur 161). Stephen's spiritual struggle

is one involving the acceptance or rejection of this ordered other world

(Farrell 207).

Stephen's rebellion is directed against numerous opponents. One is his

father, Simon Dedalus. As Stephen discovers that his father is a drunken,

ineffectual failure, much in contrast to the Daedalus of myth, he rejects his


Stephen watched the three glasses being raised from the counter as his father

and two of his cronies drank to the memory of their past. An abyss of fortune

or temperament sundered him from them. His mind seemed older than theirs: it

shone coldly on their strifes and happiness and regrets like a moon upon a

younger earth. No life or youth stirred in him as it had stirred in them. He

had known neither the pleasure of companionship with others nor the vigour of

rude male health nor filial piety. (Joyce 89)

Even though Stephen may envy his father somewhat, he is constantly trying to

prevent himself from accepting even the most casual and insignificant

suggestions of his companions and his environment (Peake 78).

Stephen also rejects the bonds of a religion that restricts his natural

impulses. From the beginning, the consciousness of Stephen Dedalus is dominated

by the presence of the church and its priests (Adams 235). Catholicism imposes

a burden of guilt that weighs him down. He must "admit" and "confess" and

"apologize" (Joyce 2) even when he feels innocent. By rejecting Catholicism,

Stephen is also rejecting his devoutly religious mother. Stephen needs an arena

adequate for his talents, seeing no future for himself unless he rebels,

contradicting the long-standing customs of his country (Farrell 207).

Stephen's rebellion is also directed against his native land. Dirty,

backward Ireland destroys any of its children who show creativity; it is, he

says, "a sow that eats her farrow."(Joyce 176). His classmates attempt to

reform Ireland through political action and promotion of native literature.

Stephen rejects these attempts as futile and backward-looking: "Old phrases,

sweet only with a disinterested sweetness like the fig seeds Cranly rooted out

of his gleaming teeth." (Joyce 227). Instead, Stephen abandons Ireland and

looks toward the continent (Farrell 208).

To be complete, Stephen must fill the void created by his rebellion, and

create his own character. Sadly, the result is the character study of an

arrogant, unhappy egotist, an intensely self-absorbed young man. An egotist is

interested only in the self, and is intensely critical of other people and the

world. This can be said of Stephen, who feels superior and finds it hard to

care for others, even for his own family (Litz 72). It is equally hard for him

to accept affection or love from others:

His lips would not bend to kiss her. He wanted to be held firmly in her arms,

to be caressed slowly, slowly, slowly. In her arms he felt that he had suddenly

become strong and fearless and sure of himself. But his lips would not bend to

kiss her. (Joyce 94-5)

From his early school days on, Stephen is at the edge of group life, observing

himself. As he grows older, he becomes even more absorbed in his own ideas

until he finally withdraws from his familiar surroundings (Brandabur 159).

In contrast, it is also Stephen's acceptance of his own sinfulness that

sets him free. Guilt and fear of punishment keep him in a sterile, pale world

of virtue where he is always hounded by the pressure to confess, admit, or

apologize (Drew 276). By committing a mortal sin of impurity and falling from

grace like Adam from Paradise, like Lucifer expelled from Heaven, or even like

Icarus from freedom, he is thrust back into the earthly world of the senses, a

world that releases his creative powers (Booth 227):

Could it be that he, Stephen Dedalus, had done these things? His conscience

sighed in answer. Yes, he had done them, secretly, filthily, time after time

and, hardened in sinful impenitence, he had dared to wear the mask of holiness

before the tabernacle itself while his soul within was a living mass of

corruption. How came it that God had not struck him dead? (Joyce 131)

Stephen will sin again and again, but instead of confessing he will write.

Stephen's metaphoric descent into hell, like his ascent into an aesthetic heaven,

is private, uniquely vouchsafed him by a higher power (Pope 114). Stephen is

the son of Dedalus, and what the son of Daedalus did was fall. It seems clear

that Stephen sees himself as a figure who, even if he heeds his father's advice,

will eventually fly too high and fall (Kenner 231).

Living in the earthly world, Stephen fears many things. He has a fear

of water (also giving allusion to Icarus' demise) since he views it as an emblem

of his own futility. Ironically it is the seaside epiphany, where he sees a

beautiful young girl, which awakens him to the demands of life (Litz 68): "She

passed now dancing lightly across his memory as she had been that night at the

carnival ball, her white dress a little lifted, a white spray nodding in her

hair."(Joyce 213) Once Stephen can no longer remain at ease in the role of an

artist, he can begin to be human (Brandabur 164).

Stephen's pride is also a cause of his isolation. From the beginning,

pride -- a mortal sin -- keeps him away from others (Drew 276). He yearns for

"order and elegance" in his life. He feels superior to his family and to his

peers. He feels superior to his country, and consequently attempts to improve

it (Hackett 203). In the end, pride drives him to lonely exile. Increasingly

Stephen denies his actual family in Dublin so as to assume kinship with his

eponymous family in Greece:

Began with a discussion with my mother. . . Said religion was not a lying-in

hospital. Mother indulgent. Said I have a queer mind and have read too much.

Not true. Have read little and understood less. The she said I would have to

come back to faith because I had a restless mind. This means to leave church by

backdoor of sin and reenter through the skylight of repentance. Cannot repent.

(Joyce 243)

In essence, Stephen becomes less and less Dedalus, and more and more Daedalus

(Ellman 16). Is Stephen's pride justified by his talent? Is it merely selfish?

Has pride driven him to a fall, as it did Icarus and Lucifer? Joyce uses

uncertainties like these to involve his audience in the changing themes of the


In Portrait of the Artist, a mature artist looks back over his youth,

perceiving what was significant to his development, estimating what was vital

and what was transitory in that evolvement (Peake 56). Using this to his

advantage, Joyce extends and intensifies Stephen's alienation, for the

overpoweringly monotonous and constrictive society in which he resides provide

him the best conditions under which he can best work (Beebe 163).

Thus, by observing and graphically depicting what confines man, how man

overcomes this confinement, and how man lives once he is free, James Joyce

discusses the motivations and the outlets for human expression. Like Daedalus

and Icarus, Stephen Dedalus assumes the role of a persecuted hero, who must

overcome his personal weaknesses and the oppression of his environment to gain

spiritual enlightenment.


Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Bantam Books,


Adams, Robert M. James Joyce: Common Sense and Beyond. Random House, 1966.

232. Rpt. in Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. ed. Dennis Poupard.

Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1985. 16:234-37.

Anderson, C.G. "The Sacrificial Butter". Accent. vol. 12. no. 1. Winter,

1952. 3-13. Rpt. in Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. ed. Dennis

Poupard. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1985. 16:208-12.

Beebe, Maurice. "James Joyce: The Return from Exile". Ivory Towers and Sacred

Founts: The Artist as a hero in fiction from Goethe to Joyce. New York:

New York University Press, 1964. 260-95. Rpt. in Twentieth Century

Literary Criticism. ed. Sharon K. Hall. Detroit: Gale Research Company,

1982. 8:163-164.

Booth, Wayne C. "The Price of Impersonal Narration, 1: Confusion of Distance".

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Rpt. in Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. ed. Dennis Poupard.

Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1985. 16:222-25.

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Chicago:University of Illinois Press, 1971. 159-174.

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Novel: A Modern Guide to Fifteen English Masterpieces. Elizabeth Drew,

1963. Rpt. in Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. ed. Sharon K. Hall.

Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1980. 3:276.

Ellman, Richard. The Consciousness of Joyce. New York: Oxford University

Press, 1977.

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Review. December 31, 1944. 6-16. Rpt. in Twentieth Century Literary

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Gorman, Herbert. in an introduction to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

by James Joyce. The Modern Library. 1928. 5-11. Rpt. in

Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. ed. Dennis Poupard. Detroit: Gale

Research Company, 1985. 16:203-205.

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Research Company, 1985. 16:241-245.

Hackett, Francis. "Green Sickness". The New Republic. vol. 10, no. 122.

March 3, 1917. 138-39. Rpt. in Twentieth Century Literary Criticism.

ed. Dennis Poupard. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1985. 16:202-203.

Kenner, Hugh. "Joyce's Portrait -- A Reconsideration". The University of

Windsor Review. vol.1, no. 1. Spring, 1965. 1-15. Rpt. in Twentieth

Century Literary Criticism. ed. Dennis Poupard. Detroit: Gale

Research Company, 1985. 16:229-234.

Litz, A. Walton. James Joyce. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1966.

Peake, C.H. James Joyce: The Citizen and The Artist. Stanford: Stanford

University Press, 1977. 56-109.

Pope, Deborah. "The Misprision of Vision: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young

Man". James Joyce. vol.1. ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House

Publishers, 1986. 113-19.

The World Book Encyclopedia. New York: World Book Inc., 1987. 3.

Wells, H.G. "James Joyce". The New Republic. March 10, 1917. 34-46. Rpt. in

Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. ed. Sharon K. Hall. Detroit: Gale

Research Company, 1980. 3:252.

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