A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Essay Q&A
1. What is Joyce's attitude to Stephen Dedalus?
Noting this discrepancy, other critics, endorsing the perception that Stephen is not entirely the romantic hero that some assumed him to be, have claimed that Joyce in fact intended this effect. According to this view, the presentation of Stephen is riddled with deliberate irony. Joyce distances himself, and therefore the reader, from his protagonist. This is an alternative explanation for the fact that Stephen does not come across as particularly likeable. He often seems self-absorbed and even arrogant, refusing to be sociable or to blend in with his community. He seems obsessed with his own theories of art and beauty, which separate him from human community rather than uniting him with it. In this view, then, the Portrait is an ironic look by the older-and presumably wiser-James Joyce at his youthful self.
Other critics argue that neither position is wholly correct. They claim that in Stephen there are elements of the romantic hero as well as the ironic undercutting of such a figure. According to this view, Joyce presents a sympathetic portrait of the trials of a sensitive, intellectual young man as he grows up, and the novel is at once an attempt to understand the young man as well as expose some of his faults.
2. What did Joyce mean by the term "epiphany"?
The most famous epiphany in A Portrait is the moment Stephen perceives the girl wading in the strand: "A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful sea creature" (p. 185). Another epiphany occurs later, when Stephen watches the swallows from the steps of the library (pp. 243-45). The penultimate entry in his journal ("Welcome, O life! . . . ) is also an epiphany, since an epiphany, Joyce has Stephen say in Stephen Hero, can also be "a memorable phase of the mind itself." In this case, the epiphany is a sudden realization about life that uplifts the soul.
3. What role do women play in A Portrait?
The young Stephen is also fascinated by another female figure who can live only in his imagination, and that is the fictional character Mercedes. Mercedes is a character from Alexandre Dumas' novel, The Count of Monte Cristo. As the betrothed of Edmond Dantes, she is the embodiment of pure love and pure womanhood, although when Dantes is imprisoned she quickly marries another. Stephen broods on the vision of Mercedes, forming an image in his mind of a kind of ideal woman whom he longs to meet in reality. In his dreamy imagination, he expects this to be a moment of transfiguration for him. He would fade into something impalpable and then be transfigured. Although he never meets anyone in the real world who can accomplish all this for him, his first sexual experience, with a prostitute, gives him a taste of the surrender and loss of self that he had fantasized about: "He closed his eyes, surrendering himself to her, body and mind, conscious of nothing in the world but the dark pressure of her softly parting lips" (p. 109). But instead of transfiguration, all this experience produces for him is overpowering guilt.
To expiate his feelings of guilt, he prays to the Virgin Mary to save him from the consequences of his sin. This stage of Stephen's life is marked by the contrast between images of woman as goddess and woman as whore-the two extremes in the way that men experience the feminine energy. This contrast embodies the conflict in Stephen's mind between the desire for holiness and the desire for sensuality. It is ironic, for example, that during the period at Belvedere College in which he makes a habit of visiting prostitutes, he becomes the leader of the sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a group that honors the Virgin Mary.
Stephen never seems to resolve his conflicted feelings about women, or to form real rather than imaginary relationships with them. At University College he deliberately distances himself from Emma, although he is still in some way attached to her, or to his idea of her. It seems that the call of an independent artistic life is stronger than the desire for relationship. In this respect, it is significant that in Stephen's great epiphany by the river he contemplates a woman-the girl who wades on the strand-but he contemplates her in a detached way, not with any romantic or sexual interest. The girl is only a vehicle for artistic revelation.
4. What role does Ireland play in the novel?
Part of Stephen's quest is to break through this Irish net of foreign-dominated cultural history and create an art that is free. He has been aware, from a very young age, of the conflict in Ireland because the fierce quarrel that erupts at the family Christmas dinner makes a deep impact on him. It shows the divisions between the Irish regarding their own history and destiny. Dante Riordan supports the Church, which opposed Charles Parnell, the Irish nationalist who nearly brought Home Rule to Ireland. The Church in general opposed Irish nationalism. Opposing Dante are Stephen's father and Mr. Casey, who argue that Ireland is a "priestridden" country; the Church is a harmful influence.
As Stephen matures he does not so much take sides as transcend the debate. He will not side with the nationalists because he sees no hope in that path, based on the way the Irish people have treated their own leaders. He tells his friend Davin that "No honourable and sincere man . . . has given up to you his life and his youth and his affections from the days of Tone to those of Parnell but you sold him to the enemy of failed him in need or reviled him and left him for another" (p. 220). Nor does Stephen have any interest in following the Roman Catholic church, which would merely be to follow a system and a doctrine laid out by an authority external to himself.
Stephen does want to do something for his country, but he wants to free it through art, not politics or religion. This is clear from his penultimate diary entry, when he goes 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" (p. 276).
5. Why does Stephen decide not to become a Jesuit?