A STUDY OF STEPHEN
The reader must not identify Stephen with Joyce in every respect. For instance, Stephen is represented in his days at Clongowes Wood College as a timid boy, conscious of his smallness and weakness, who tries to avoid being involved in the rough and tumble of football. It is true that the young Joyce disliked fights, but he was keen on hurdling (not hurling!) and cricket and won cups for his prowess. This practice of taking a certain aspect of his own character and intensifying and exaggerating it when picturing his alter ego, or second self, is typical of Joyce’s method. The exaggerations often move Stephen a distance from the real Joyce. Who would guess from A Portrait that Joyce’s cheerful disposition earned him the nickname “Sunny Jim”?
Stephen, then, is not simply a direct self-portrait. Indeed it is significant that Joyce called his book A Portrait of the Artist and not A Portrait of an Artist. For Joyce was never content to record particular experiences for the sake of their interesting particularities. He wanted to achieve universality. Of his first book of short stories, Dubliners, he wrote: ‘If I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of every city in the world. In the particular is contained the universal.’ So we may assume that in studying the growth and development of Stephen Dedalus he was not exclusively concerned with getting to the heart of the young James Joyce or an imaginary equivalent, but in getting to the heart of the young artist as such.
In calling his hero ‘Stephen Dedalus’ Joyce consciously combined the name of the first Christian martyr and that of Daedalus, the legendary Athenian craftsman. Daedalus was credited with making statues that could move. He constructed the famous labyrinth at Crete. He made wings from feathers and wax so that he and his son Icarus could escape when Minos imprisoned them in the labyrinth. Icarus flew too near the sun so that the wax melted and he fell into the sea and was drowned. In giving his hero these names Joyce gave him symbolic status. The martyr suffering for his faith and the skilful, inventive artificer are joined in one person. Daedulus is significant both because he was a cunning craftsman giving life and complexity to his inventions and because he escaped imprisonment by the adventure of flight.
In the presentation of Stephen’s infancy Joyce has compressed a series of references that hint at the larger issues in the child’s future life. In fact infant memories are the acorn containing a promise in miniature of the future tree. The bedtime story sets the young hero on the road of life encountering a cow which is a symbol of the Ireland with which he will have to come to terms. The physical experience of finding relief and warmth in wetting the bed is followed by discomfort: this little miniature of delight seized that has to be paid for in pain, of ecstasy followed by sordidness or agony, sets the tone for many of the coming experiences. In the memory of Dante’s brushes, representative of Davitt and Parnell, is foreshadowed the Irish political strife that is to ruin the Christmas party and provide a public background which Stephen, the university student, finds suffocating. The demand that the child should apologise or have his eyes pulled out foreshadows the later full-scale demand for repentance to escape the torments of hell.
The story of Stephen’s development is the story of these contrasts and conflicts magnified. The child growing to young manhood has to face the impact on his individuality of the forces at large in the world he has entered. He is subject in turn to the pressures of family, of Church, and of his country, all trying to mould him in a particular way. The disillusionment experienced after bed-wetting is symptomatic of his maturer experience in this respect. The first separation from home at Clongowes is a move from the remembered warmth and cosiness of the family circle to a world of physical cold and discomfort and of emotional harassment by others, boys and masters. A chill caused by bullying brings him to the school sickroom in a shivering delirium. This is the first crisis of Chapter 1. The Christmas party to which he has looked forward, and which opens with promise of warmth, good cheer, and family friendliness, turns sour and then erupts into a violent slanging match because the public controversies of Irish history have impinged on the private scene. This is the second crisis of Chapter 1. The shock for Stephen is that Parnell is a hero, that priests are good and wise men, that these adults are all for Ireland, and yet tears and rage break up their conviviality. The third and last crisis of Chapter 1 is caused by the shock of Stephen’s first encounter with flagrant injustice – injustice perpetrated by a priest in authority. Father Dolan punishes him cruelly when he is innocent. The injustice stirs him to a brave and spirited bid for his rights. If Stephen is the loser, by sickness and by family discord, in the first two crises, he is victor in the third. The hero has protested in the face of the highest authority and has won his case. His individuality has triumphed over the iniquities of the system. This, in embryo, is the pattern of the artist’s destiny.
In the period between Clongowes and Belvedere Stephen develops as a normal, healthy young boy who goes shopping with his uncle, and enjoys riding in the milkcart and playing on a farm. This is accompanied by two stirrings of his inner life: one is the sickening realisation that the family have financial problems, which turns to bitterness when they are forced to move from the comfort of Blackrock to the cheerless house in the city: the other is the romantic dream-life he creates for himself through reading The Count of Monte Cristo and picturing himself the partner of the lovely Mercedes. The first crisis of Chapter 2 is the shock of failure within himself. It occurs at the tram-stop with Emma Clery. Her eyes, her chatter, her way of coming to stand on the step beside him all seem to invite him to hold her and kiss her. But he does nothing; and the failure fills him with gloom. When he tries to write a poem to Emma, he empties the incident of reality and precision of detail and transforms it into a mistily conceived dream. As soon as the poem is written he goes to stare at himself – not to look for Emma.
The second crisis of Chapter 2 also involves self-dramatisation, this time in an actual theatrical performance on stage at Belvedere. A deep inner disturbance of desire, tenderness, and melancholy is focused on the belief that now, two years later, Emma is to watch him on stage with admiring eyes. The belief stimulates him to an excited and confident performance, after which he rushes out in wild expectation to his family, only to discover that Emma is not with them. The shock sends him running through the night streets of Dublin to a filthy corner where rankness and stench quench his inner agony. Interwoven with this record of emotional development Joyce traces the growing artistic confidence of Stephen’s persistence in championing the rebel Byron against the respectable Tennyson.
The Cork visit serves to detach Stephen irrevocably from his father and his like. Tagging on behind his father, he recognises the hollowness of his garrulous bonhomie, is ashamed of the way he can be duped by an obsequious college servant, is embarrassed by his cheap flirtatiousness with barmaids, and is disgusted by his excessive drinking. Shame and humiliation open a chasm between his father’s cronies and himself. The experience reinforces the humiliation already felt in his ambiguous status at Belvedere – a leading boy whose home background is one of squalor. And there is no escape to heroic self-confidence because he has become the victim of a restless inner lust and private orgies that fill him with self-loathing. There is an unbridgeable gap between the real world around him and what transpires in his own angry, impotent, dejected soul.
In the last section of Chapter 2 Stephen makes a desperate attempt to re-establish order in his world and to rebuild effective relationships with his own family. The money prizes he has won for academic work are spent lavishly and recklessly on giving the family a taste of affluent living and turning himself into their banker and benefactor. When the money is gone, the whole attempt to stem briefly the tide of squalor and to come to terms with his family seems to have been futile. Meanwhile sexual desire is so strong that he turns innocent girls seen by day into objects of imaginary lustful indulgence in his private dreams at night. There are still momentary day-dreams of fulfilment in the company of the idealised Mercedes; but the predominant urge is an animal demand to force some girl into sin and to take pride in it. In this mood he encounters the prostitute who takes him home. Thus the final crisis of Chapter 2 (like the final crisis of Chapter 1) ends in a kind of triumph, in that Stephen feels release, delight, and a new self-assurance when the prostitute moves into his arms.
As with each epiphany, after the elation there comes deflation! The effect of sexual release upon Stephan is complex. His senses are repelled by the vulgarity of the brothels; he is conscious of his sinfulness, and yet too proud to pray, and afflicted with spiritual indifference. He is certainly not more open to others: on the contrary he finds himself scorning his school-fellows and simple worshippers. The aesthetic delight in the office (litany) of the Virgin Mary still captivates him. Stephen has not found a way to self-fulfilment nor to love of others. The sexual act, which ought to be a means to both, has become one more experience for a would-be artist self-consciously inflating his own ego. It is in this deeply unsatisfied condition that Stephen is subjected to the retreat sermons.
The first crisis of this (third) chapter occurs when the rector announces the retreat and speaks of the sanctity, self-sacrifice, and heroic achievements of St. Francis Xavier. Stephen feels an ominous withering of his heart. Father Arnall’s previous contact with Stephen at Clongowes revives childhood memories, and his sermons are to thrust him back into a state of childlike submission and obedience. The introductory sermon and the sermons on death and judgement produce a second crisis, a sense of his shamelessness and foulness against which the thought of Emma stands in stark contrast. The shock of conscious guilt is resolved temporarily by another mental act of self-dramatisation when he pictures himself, hand in hand with Emma, being forgiven and comforted by the Virgin Mary. This romanticised day-dream is another absurdly extravagant product of the immature artistic mind. On the third day of the retreat the sermons revolve around the horrors of hell with an emphasis upon the physical torment of the senses and the moral and spiritual torments that accompany it. Designed to stir the conscience by stimulating fear, they constitute a burlesque of Catholic exhortations. Joyce emphasises the parallel by making Lucifer’s slogan in rebellion against God (non serviam) Stephen’s own slogan of commitment to his artistic vocation. Pride, the sin of Lucifer, is the sin which the egotistic young artist cannot recognise in himself. The final crisis of this chapter brings Stephen to a condition of terrified remorse, which is removed only when he makes his confession and receives absolution. Even in this act humility and sincerity are infected by self-dramatisation in the role of penitent. Like the previous chapters, this chapter too ends on a note of ‘triumph’ – again a romanticised triumph, that of the self-consciously cleansed young man receiving the sacrament in the joy of forgiveness.
In Stephen’s next phase he cultivates his soul with elaborate devotional exercises, models his religious raptures on the romantic gestures represented in sacred art, and mortifies his senses with ingenious disciplines. The persistent habit of self-dramatisation is evident in Stephen’s various reflections on the director’s suggestion that he might have a vocation to the priesthood. The first crisis of Chapter 4 comes when he weighs the call but suddenly realises that his own individuality can never surrender to the claims of such a calling. He has a ‘pride of spirit’ that makes him ‘a being apart’. He must learn his own wisdom in his own way and face the world’s snares. The decision to apply for a university place follows naturally. But there is a second brief crisis when Stephen meets a band of Christian Brothers who in their work and attitude have all the genuineness of devotion, humility, and charity which he himself lacks, and he feels ashamed and angry with himself in their presence. This mood is resolved by the sudden assertion of his poetic self and his delight in words. The final crisis of the chapter, and the climax of the book, occurs when, dreaming of his urge to creative achievement as an artist, and feeling ready to shake off all that impedes him from following his calling, he sees a girl wading in the sea. Her beauty and her stillness fill him with rapture. Stephen exclaims, ‘Heavenly God!’ bringing his religious sense into a new context in response to the image of loveliness. The call of youth, beauty, and creativity throws him into an emotional ecstasy. The decisive choice of his life has been made.
The final chapter has thus the air of an epilogue. Yet the first section of it is the longest section in the book, and a good deal of experience is encompassed in Stephen’s thoughts. The sordid scene at home is in stark contrast to the literary treasures stored in his mind. Though he scorns the pedantry of the lecture room, he relishes the magic of language with acute sensitivity. He has an off-hand attitude to the college time-table, and thinks but poorly of the dean of studies with whom he argues half-seriously, half-provocatively. He sits through the physics lecture in detachment. There is something of a show-down with fellow students in the entrance hall after the lecture, when he refuses to compromise with the sentimental aspirations of some of his companions and sign their petition. His cleverness at the expense of other people’s earnest endeavours is bound to irritate and antagonise. Stephen manages to make himself unlovable by parading unpopular views uncompromisingly and doing so with calculated scorn. The charges of other students, that he lacks altruism and is a crank, win sympathy with the reader. Too often he seems to be spoiling for a fight, even with his genuine friends, such as Davin.
Stephen’s long theoretical argument about the character of beauty is sandwiched between Davin’s teasing reference to Emma and Lynch’s whisper, ‘Your beloved is here’. The contrast between the unrestrained verbalism of Stephen’s talk about beauty and the equivocal, halting reservations that mark his attitude to a living woman is symptomatic of Stephen’s failure to integrate thought and action. His head is full of theory about emotion and beauty, while his living experience of emotional commitment is confined to the brothel.
The thought that he may have misjudged Emma turns her in his mind, in a flash, into an epitome of natural gaiety and simplicity. When the poetic inspiration seizes him, his thought transfigures her into an object of devotion to be hymned exaltedly. The cry of the heart is transmuted into a precious rhetoric, rich and liturgical, but detached from the reality of the true relationship with Emma. Indeed Stephen’s memories of her, now recalled, suggest a girl interested in him, ready to be responsive, doing her best to communicate, but being rebuffed by cool, oblique replies and the pose of isolation. Joyce’s irony is never more subtle than here. Stephen’s jealous anger at Emma’s friendliness with Father Moran seems disproportionate. It seems to draw nourishment from his hatred of the Church and from his determination to make a priesthood of the artist’s calling, a priesthood to which she ought to turn in frank confession. Stephen hovers between exaggerated condemnation of her as treacherous and exaggerated idealisation of her. Finally he conjures up her image as that of the voluptuous, yielding mistress at the point when the finished poem flows through his mind.
In the penultimate section of the book Stephen snaps the ties with home one after another. When he watches the birds and hears their cries it is the image of his mother’s face and the sound of her weeping that they blot out. In deciding to fly, he is also consciously forsaking the Ireland of the vulgar barracking of Yeat’s play. In conversation with Cranly he sums up his rebellious rejection of the Church and of the claims of his suffering mother. In relation both to his mother and to Emma, Stephen manifests grave deficiency in human sympathy. The self-righteousness of his attitude is as priggish as the inflated language in which he presents his decision. In his own eyes his decisions are earthshaking. He assumes to himself the importance of a future Beethoven or Shakespeare!
The notes from Stephen’s diary suggest that within his divided being the conscious artist has taken over from the man of direct sympathy and unselfconscious action. The jottings have an artificial literary flavour. They show a young mind making art out of life. They sum up people and events with aphoristic dismissiveness. They employ archaisms, literary allusions, and clever analogies in verbally discarding people who after all have loved Stephen – Emma, Cranly, his mother, his countrymen (‘a race of clodhoppers’), and Davin. All are summarily treated as material for epigrammatic play by a super-mind. Meanwhile Stephen’s own role is glamorised, his isolation, his spiritedness, and his resolve wrapped about with overtones of grandeur and heroism. The element of earnestness in his acceptance of the artistic vocation must not be ignored, but it is expressed here with a pretentiousness and flamboyance that cannot but raise a smile.
In the end Stephen emerges as a proud, rather anti-social person far too much wrapped up in himself. Cranly’s question, ‘Have you never loved anyone?’ ought to touch a raw nerve. His lack of common humanity is surely Stephen’s dominant weakness.