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James Joyce Essay, Research Paper

Stephen Dedalus, the main character in most of James Joyce’s writings, is said to be a reflection of Joyce himself. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the reader follows Stephen as he develops from a young child into a young artist, overcoming many conflicts both internally and externally, and narrowly escaping a life long commitment to the clergy. Through Joyce’s use of free indirect style, all of Stephen’s speech, actions, and thoughts are filtered through the narrator of the story. However, since Joyce so strongly identifies with Stephen, his character’s style and personality greatly influence the narrator. This use of free indirect style and stylistic contagion makes Joyce’s use of descriptive language one of his most valuable tools in accurately depicting Stephen Dedalus’s developing ideals of feminine beauty.

As a very young child Stephen is taught to idealize the Virgin Mary for her purity and holiness. She is described to Stephen as “a tower of Ivory” and a “House of Gold” (p.35). Stephen takes this literally and becomes confused as to how these beautiful elements of ivory and gold could make up a human being. This confusion is important in that it shows Stephen’s inability to grasp abstraction. He is a young child who does not yet understand how someone can say one thing and mean something else. This also explains his trouble in the future with solving the riddles and puzzles presented to him by his classmates at Clongowes. Stephen is very thoughtful and observant and looks for his own way to explain or rationalize the things that he does not understand. In this manner he can find those traits that he associates with the Blessed Mary in his protestant playmate Eileen. Her hands are “long and white and thin and cold and soft. That was ivory: a cold white thing. That was the meaning of Tower of Ivory” (p.36). “Her fair hair had streamed out behind her like gold in the sun” (p.43). To Stephen that is the meaning of House of Gold. He then attributes Eileen’s ivory hands to the fact that she is a girl and generalized these traits to all females. This produces a major conflict for Stephen when his tutor, Dante, tells him not to play with Eileen because she is Protestant and Protestants don’t understand the Catholic faith and therefore will make a mockery of it. His ideas about women being unattainable are confirmed. The Virgin Mary is divine and therefore out of reach for mortals. Now Eileen, the human representation of the Blessed Mary, is out of reach as well because Stephen is not allowed to play with her.

In chapter two an amazing transformation takes place in Stephen from a young innocent child who believes women are unattainable and who idealizes the Virgin Mary, into a young teen with awakening sexual desires. As Stephen matures into adolescence, he becomes increasingly aware of his sexuality, which at times is confusing to him. At the beginning of the second chapter in A Portrait, we find Stephen associating feminine beauty with the heroine Mercedes in Alexander Dumont Pere’s The Count of Monte Cristo. “Outside Blackrock, on the road that led to the mountains, stood a small whitewashed house in the garden of which grew many rosebushes: and in this house, he told himself, another Mercedes lived?.there appeared an image of himself, grown older and sadder, standing in a moonlit garden with Mercedes who had so many years before slighted his love?”(p. 62-3). These fantasies about Mercedes are the first real step for Stephen in challenging the church’s view of women, but again he feels as though this image of women is out of his reach. She is a fictional character in a Romantic Adventure novel and he can only imagine himself with her. Although Mercedes may not be real, the feelings that Stephen has and the emotions she provokes in him are very real. “?As he brooded upon her image, a strange unrest crept into his blood.” (p.64). “?but a premonition which led him on told him that this image would, without any overt act of his, encounter him? and in that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured. He would fade into something impalpable under her eyes and then in a moment, he would be transfigured. Weakness and timidity and inexperience would fall from him that magic moment.” (p.65). Stephen realizes that some transformation is going to take place, and Joyce emphasizes the words “transfigured” and “moment” to indicate the kind of impact it will have on Stephen. At this point in the novel, Stephen attributes this “premonition” to his attraction to young Emma Clery. “?Amid the music and laughter her glance traveled to his corner, flattering, taunting, searching, exciting his heart.” “?Sprays of her fresh warm breath flew gaily above her cowled head and her shoes tapped blithely on the glassy road.” (p. 69). As they wait for the last tram from a Christmas party “His

heart danced upon her movements like a cork upon a tide.” Joyce carefully

uses these words to ease the reader into the transition to sensual imagery to

portray females. These words convey Stephen’s feelings of excitement, and a

new conflict arises within him. He who still believes in the Catholic view of

divine women now feels troubled over his growing sexual drives. Stephen

realizes that she is flirting with him by the way she “urges her vanities” yet he

is tempted to call her on it. He wants to hold on to her and kiss her and he

associates the whole situation with the way in which Eileen had suddenly run

down the path in a peal of laughter hoping he would chase her. The conflict

within Stephen whether or not to kiss Emma stems from his continuing

religious beliefs that women are holy and not to be defiled, and like with

Mercedes, he is forced to be content in fulfilling his wishes only in his head.

This encounter with Emma does place females at a slightly more attainable

level for Stephen and we are able to see how it begins to shape his ultimate

ideals of feminine beauty. However connected to the church Stephen feels, it

is impossible for him to just push these feelings away from himself and ignore

them. He decides to write a poem about Emma Clery and for the first time,

we see Stephen successfully use art as a means of expression and relief. In

his poem which is modeled after one from his favorite poet, Byron, he acts

out what he wishes he would have done and that is to give Emma a kiss.

Again this illustrates a side of Stephen that is not comfortable with

abstraction. He has not yet come to the realization that he is not unlike other

boys his age. This poem which is addressed to E____C____, starts out with

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriem, a Latin phrase meaning, “For the Greater Glory of

God” and ends with Laus Deo Semper meaning, “Praise to God Always”.

This is especially interesting because the poem merges both religion and art

without Stephen’s knowledge that this is where the heart of the conflict lies. It

becomes an even greater conflict for Stephen when, as time passes, he finds

it more and more difficult to resist the temptations of his sexual urges. He

mentally defiles “with patience whatever image had attracted his eyes” (p.99)

and turns those images which had been innocent by day into cunning and

sinful images at night. His urges grow and become so strong that Stephen is

no longer able to resist temptation and crosses that line into wretched sinner.

The next major step in Stephen’s transformation is his visit to the prostitute.

The setting for this visit carries all of the elements of a Black Mass. “Women

and girls dressed in long vivid gowns traversed the street?The yellow

gasflames arose before his troubled vision against the vapoury sky, burning as

if before an altar.” (p.100). The long vivid gowns of the women and girls

could be like those of the priests and the yellow gasflames are meant to

conjure up images of decay upon the altar. As the prostitute approaches

Stephen, Joyce uses the word “detain” to show how the prostitute may have

held Stephen against his will. This word becomes significant later on in

Stephen’s discussion with the priest in chapter five as the priest tells Stephen

the difference between the traditional use of the word detain and it’s use in

the marketplace. Virgin Mary was “detained in the full company of the saints”

(p.188) is different from “I hope I am not detaining you” (p.188). In this way,

Joyce implies that Stephen was seduced by the prostitute and attempted to

resist her up until the very last moment before she kissed him. Stephen does

not make a move towards the prostitute, but instead waits in the middle of the

room until she comes to him. He will not bend to kiss her. He feels reassured

by her embrace and longed for her to just hold and caress him. Perhaps he

regarded her as a mother figure and he gained strength from this encounter.

Joyce’s description of the room, the obscene doll with it’s legs spread, the

way the prostitute lures him in and bends his lips to hers for him gives the

reader the impression that Stephen is an innocent and the prostitute is the

sinner. This scene puts a new perspective on that holy image of women for

Stephen. It is a sharp contrast to those ideas of holiness and purity and

innocent shyness that he associated with Emma, and of course, the Blessed

Mary. It is even a contradiction to the image he had of Mercedes. Although

this encounter awakens a sense of freedom in Stephen that he will not be able

to suppress later on in the novel, he still cannot help but feel overwhelming

guilt about what he has done. At the retreat, he listens to Father Arnell’s

sermon about hell that seems to be targeted directly at him, turning his

tremendous guilt into fear. He has failed to avoid sin and for that he will suffer

the most horrible fate that anyone could ever imagine?spending eternity in

hell. He feels so ashamed that he is unable to repent in his own church at

Clongowes, but rather wishes to find a place as far removed from the college

as possible. This shame and guilt makes him vulnerable when the director at

Clongowes confronts him about becoming a priest. He envisions the power

he would have and thinks that if he were a priest that his superior piety would

save him from the wrath of hell. For him it seemed the only plausible escape.

His experience with the prostitute is essential in Stephen’s reanalysis of his

attraction to Emma Clery. He realizes now that her flirtatious gestures were

not reserved for him alone, and he suspected that she flaunted her charm to

many men. He becomes angry at the idea that women did not remain pure for

their own sake, but only out of their religious fear that their souls would be

damned if they sinned against the church. This point seems to be the height of

Stephen’s confusion until his encounter with the Bird Girl, the final step in his

complete transfiguration into the artist. While waiting for his father outside the

publichouse, Stephen wandered on to Bull to reflect and to escape the

anxiety he felt waiting to hear word about the university. He heard a few of

his classmates calling out to him and the sounds of his own name made him

think of the mythical Dedalus. Like the myth, Stephen wanted to fly up like a

bird. This may be a foreshadowing of Stephen’s leaving Ireland and flying

past the “nets” which would hold him back. He feels as though he is being

reborn into adulthood and has finally reached that point in his life where he is

capable of fulfilling his calling in life. This calling that he feels is unlike anything

that has ever spoken to him before and it invokes in him an incredible

freedom of spirit. As his mind, body and soul are still soaring from this

“ecstasy of flight”, he repeatedly mentions that he is alone. He is happy and

free, but he is alone. Then he sees her. “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 seabird.” (p.171). The

imagery in the following passage and the particular words Joyce uses to

present that imagery are very meaningful. The girl is the perfect balance

between Stephen’s two extreme ideas of women. “Her thighs, fuller and

softhued as ivory, were bared almost to the hip?”(p.171). She is “delicate”

and “pure” and she has all the qualities of innocent virginity, but at the same

time, she exposes her flesh in a sensual manner and exhibits a “mortal

beauty”. Stephen’s comparison of her to a crane and a dove shows an

important relationship between the girl and Stephen’s freedom. She was

neither virgin nor whore. She was attainable. “To live, to err, to fall, to

triumph, to recreate life out of life! A wild angel had appeared to him?”

(p.172). She certainly seemed divine to Stephen who associated her

presence to the calling of a life of art. He knows immediately that if he had

been destined to a life in the church that this would have been the kind of

calling he should have experienced. Instead he realizes that he cannot become

a priest because he is unable to adhere to those physiological restrictions

demanding of the profession. He has also discovered that to err is human and

to have desires of the flesh is natural. He is no longer disgusted by human

desires and realizes how beautiful love, passion, and devotion can be from an

artist’s perspective. Stephan Dedalus’s transformation into a “priest of the

arts” is parallel to the early life of James Joyce. Both struggle to deal with the

conflicts of childhood and adolescence to find a balance in which they can

happily live. Since A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is written in third

person, yet employs the characteristics of the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus,

the use of descriptive language is essential to the reader’s understanding of

the novel as a whole. James Joyce excellently uses his talent to successfully

communicate Stephen’s feelings so that we, the reader, can understand the

development of his attitudes and ideals about feminine beauty.


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