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Woman as a Symbol in Chapter 2

Woman is used many times in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen Dedalus, the main character of the work, is fascinated by woman. This fascination is played upon in many circumstances.

First and foremost is the relationship he has with Dante, his aunt. While this relationship is mostly discussed in the first chapter, it’s ramifications can be seen in the second. Stephen is often reminded of his aunt, and the green and red brushes she always had. he draws many conclusions (however ill informed they are) from the knowledge of his aunt. He views women, as did most boys in his culture, as something alien; something that he would understand ‘when he grew up’.

Women are presented as mysterious, as when Stephen is looking at “The Beautiful Mabel Hunter” in the evening paper. He stares at the picture with awe and not a little confusion- what should he feel?

Stephen is possessing a self-consciousness that is so melancholy as to be called morbid. He has, like most young men, horrible doubts about himself. Women further complicate his disposition. For example, when he says goodbye to Eileen at the tram; he knows he should kiss her, but he is mortally afraid to do so.

Again, like most boys his age, he thought understanding of women would happen in an instant:

Weakness and timidity and

inexperience would fall from

him in that magic moment (65).

This stems from the Irish Catholic culture that has surrounded him his whole life.

Also, sex before marriage was a sin- and anything that could lead to sex (a kiss) was to be avoided, as that too could lead to sin. Stephen has such low self-esteem at this point, he is scared of making any move towards any girl.

Another example of the use of woman is his being teased by Heron and his fellows before the play. Stephen’s “governess” enters the playhouse, waiting to watch Stephen perform. Heron catches wind of that, and begins to tease him mercilessly, almost driving Stephen to tears. Women have been a constant, open wound with Stephen; and, like a wound that doesn’t heal, the subject of ‘women’ causes him pain every time it comes up. Simply put, Dedalus is not a ‘ladies’ man’, like his father. Stephen is constantly reminded of his father being a flirt and dashingly handsome, told by his father himself, and his cronies at the tavern. Stephen is horrified at the idea of his father being so adored by the women- that is, in his mind, a sin. Joyce portrays Stephen as a boy trying not to be like his father. To that end, Stephen disdains (or at least acts like he does) womanly company.

While pouring over a copy of the Count of Monte Cristo, Stephen also picks up some ideologies on how to deal with women, as can be summed up in this one line: “Madame, I never eat muscatel grapes.”

This sentence has a wealth of meaning hidden therein. This shows a sad, proud disdain for passionate women. Stephen takes this quote to heart, living his young life in a ridiculous state of chastity- a state which backfires viscously at the end of the chapter when he attains the services of a prostitute. Stephen thinks that because he has no luck with women, it’s their fault. Going inward, he finds that it is much easier to deny himself the pleasure of loving a woman, than to try to love one and become rejected.

At the end of the second chapter, Stephen finds his urges to much to control, and he visits a prostitute. This symbolizes the breaking down of all the walls he has put up since his attendance at Clongowes- his fear of woman, and his fear of God. Stephen is now interested in the needs of the flesh, not the spirit. He want’s to live in the moment, and not for the future. This is a very important part of his life- Stephen learns to rebel.

Women have been a constant source of agitation for Stephen since the first chapter. This episode dissolves many of these issues he has. Later on, he will feel tremendous guilt over what he has done. Only when he confesses to the priest does he feel better- but that is yet another step in his journey. Sex, as portrayed in Catholic Ireland, was not healthy to talk about. Stephen rebels against this idea, and takes his first step to becoming a man.


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