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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is above all a portrait of Stephen Dedalus. It is through Stephen that we see his world, and it is his development from sensitive child to rebellious young man that forms the plot of the novel. There are many Stephens, often contradictory. He is fearful yet bold, insecure yet proud, lonely and at the same time afraid of love. One Stephen is a romantic who daydreams of swashbuckling heroes and virginal heroines: The other is a realist at home on Dublin’s most sordid streets. One Stephen is too shy to kiss the young lady he yearns for. The other readily tums to prostitutes to satisfy his sexual urges. One is a timid outsider bullied -by this classmates. The other is courageous enough to confront -and question authority.
One devoutly hopes to become a priest. Other cynically rejects religion. Stephen loves his mother, yet eventually hurts her by rejecting her Catholic faith. Taught to revere his father, he can’t help but see that Simon Dedalus, his father, is a drunken failure. Unhappy as a perpetual outsider, he lacks the warmth to engage in true friendship. “Have you never loved anyone?” his fellow student, Cranly, asks him. “I tried to love God,” Stephen replies. “It seems now I failed.” The force that eventually unites these contradictory issues is Stephen’s overwhelming desire to become an artist, to create. At the novel’s opening he is seen as an infant artist who sings “his song.” Eventually he expands that song into poetry and theories of art. At the book’s end, he makes art his religion, and he abandons family, Catholicism, and his country to worship art.
The very name of the hero underscores this aspect of his character. His first name comes from St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr; many readers have seen Stephen as a martyr to his art. His last name comes from the great inventor of Greek myth, Daedalus, whose mazes and waxen wings are the kind of splendid artistic creations Stephen hopes to equal in his writing. Just as Stephen is a contradictory figure, we may have contradictory feelings about him. On the one hand, he seems to be a brilliant artist who must flee dull, uncultured Dublin at any cost. We can admire intelligence and courage. We can consider his art well worthy of martyrdom, and consider that it merits comparison with Daedalus’ achievements. His theories and poems are, if not masterpieces, at least the works man who may someday create a masterpiece. Indeed we can believe that
Stephen may grow up to be very much like the James Joyce who wrote Portrait of the Artist, On the other hand, Stephen can be called a supreme “a posturing, unproven esthete (lover of egotist, Beauty],” a self-centered snob who has succumbed to the sin of pride. “You are wrapped up in yourself,” says his friend MacCann, We can believe, as some readers do, that Stephen’s artistic theories and his works of poetry are at most the products of a clever but shallow mind. Stephen may martyr himself for art, but his martyrdom will be worth nothing because he is too self-absorbed to be a great artist. He is not Daedalus; instead he resembles Daedalus’ son, Icarus,
Who, wearing his father’s wings, soared too near the sun and died as a result of foolishness and pride. Or we can take other views. Perhaps Joyce makes fun of Stephen’s pretensions while still admiring the bravery that accompanies them. Perhaps Joyce feels sympathy for Stephen’s struggles but also feels obliged to mock the less admirable aspects of his hero’s character because he shared those character traits himself. In short, Stephen Dedaluso is a man with many contradictions found in a creative artist, a person whose egoism and creative frenzy ultimately lead to his alienation.
He was Stephen’s father, “A medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician… a drinker, a good fellow, a story teller, somebody’s secretary, something in a tax gatherer, a bankrupt and at present a praise of his own That’s how Stephen describes his father, Simon Dedalus, towards the end of the novel. Portrait of the Artist is a book, of discoveries, and one of the most important discoveries Stephen must make is this: what kind of man is his father? Like most sons, he must measure his father in order to measure himself. Simon Daedalus’,
Character is revealed gradually from the first chapter of the novel to the last. To the infant Stephen he ‘is just a hairy face. A slightly older Stephen knows he is a “gentleman.”‘ During the Christmas dinner in Chapter One, you see that Simon can be a genial but argumentative host. In Chapter Two you see that while he may fall from respectability himself, he still believes in it for others. Stephen must attend an upper-class school run by the Jesuits, not the Christian Brothers’ school that caters to the lower-class Irish—though ‘ Simon is rapidly becoming part of that class,
As the novel progresses, Simon seems. To represent both what is admirable about, Ireland and what is destructive. Simon is a good fellow fine talker, a lover of politics and But he is an irresponsible head of a family, incapable of keeping a job, saving money, or refusing a drink. Stephen feels alienated both from his father’s strengths and from his weaknesses. He feels superior to Simon’s irresponsibility. But he envies his father’s robustness, gregariousness, and warmth. When in a bar Simon declares that in his youth he was a better man than Stephen is now, part of Stephen fears his father’s judgment is correct. As time goes on, Simon drinks more heavily and leads his family deeper into poverty. He lives in the past because has failed in the present.
Stephen realizes that to grow he must reject his biological father and adopt a spiritual father who will guide him in his art. He chooses Daedalus, the father and creator of wings to fly. And it’s Daedalus, not Simon, whom Stephen calls “old father,” in the final lines of the book.
Emma is Stephen’s “beloved,” the young girl to whom he is intensely attracted over the course of many years. Stephen does not know Emma particularly well, and is generally too embarrassed or afraid to talk to her, but feels a powerful response stirring within him whenever he sees her. Stephen’s first poem, “To E—C,” is written to Emma. She is a shadowy figure throughout the novel, and we know almost nothing about her even at the novel’s end. For Stephen, Emma symbolizes one end of a spectrum of femininity. Stephen seems able to perceive only the extremes of this spectrum: for him, women are either pure, distant, and unapproachable, like Emma, or impure, sexual, and common, like the prostitutes he visits during his time at Belvedere.
Parnell is not fictional, and does not actually appear as a character in the novel. However, as an Irish political leader, he is a polarizing figure whose death influences many characters in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. During the late nineteenth century, Parnell had been the powerful leader of the Irish National Party, and his influence seemed to promise Irish independence from England. When Parnell’s affair with a married woman was exposed, however, he was condemned by the Catholic Church and fell from grace. His fevered attempts to regain his former position of influence contributed to his death from exhaustion. Many people in Ireland, such as the character of John Casey in Joyce’s novel, considered Parnell a hero and blamed the Church for his death. Many others, such as the character Dante, thought the Church had done the right thing to condemn Parnell. These disputes over Parnell’s character are at the root of the bitter and abusive argument that erupts during the Dedalus family’s Christmas dinner when Stephen is still a young boy. In this sense, Parnell represents the burden of Irish nationality that Stephen comes to believe is preventing him from realizing himself as an artist.
Stephen’s best friend at the university, Cranly also acts as a kind of non-religious confessor for Stephen. Long, late-night talks, Stephen tells Cranly everything, just as he used to tell the priests everything during his days of religious fervor. ‘While Cranly is a good friend to Stephen, he does not understand Stephen’s need for absolute freedom. Indeed, to Cranly, leaving behind al the trappings of society would be terribly lonely. It is this difference that separates the true artist, Stephen from the artist’s friend, Cranly. In that sense, Cranlyrepresents the non-genius, a young man who is called to greatness as Stephen is, and who therefore doc not have to make the same sacrifices.