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James Joyce Essay, Research Paper

In the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce creates a deeply personal and emotional portrait to every man. Joyce’s main character, Stephen Dedalus, encounters universal feelings of detachment, guilt, and awakening. Rather than stepping back and remembering the characteristics of infancy and childhood from and adult perspective, Joyce uses the language the infant was enveloped in. Joyce also uses baby Stephen’s viewpoint to reproduce features of infancy.

In Joyce’s first chapter, crucial characteristics of Stephen’s individuality are established. Stephen’s first memory as a child begins with storytelling. “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named tuckoo…” (Portrait, 7). From the start, Stephen’s lines are riddled with poetic sound and rhythm. Joyce demonstrates Stephen’s control over words with the baby’s first stream of consciousness.

As Stephen’s thoughts continue, Joyce inflects the baby’s relationship to each of his parents through imagery. “His father looked at him through a glass. His father had a hairy face” (Portrait, 7). The glass that the father uses to look at baby Stephen is the very glass that keeps the father and son separate throughout the novel. Although the glass should aid Mr. Dedalus to see Stephen more clearly, closer up, the glass limits the father’s mind and perceptions. As Stephen grows older, the two literally view each other through the beer glass raised above Mr. Dedalus’s chin. Similarly, his father’s hairy face visibly separates the two. Mr. Dedalus exemplifies the standard man, one who loves sports, drink and women. Stephen’s enjoyment of words and lack of facial hair help him later understand how foreign and different he is from his father.

Despite the lack of affection between Stephen and his father, Stephen shares a fondness for his mother. “His mother had a nicer smell than his father. She played on the piano…he danced” (Portrait, 7). When Stephen wet the bed she even “put on the oil-sheet. That had a queer smell” (Portrait, 7). Because of the affinity Stephen developed for his mother as an infant, the queer smell of urine brings Stephen comfort.

This comforting, childhood association is attributed to the Freudian theory developed prior to the novel. Freud’s influence upon Joyce is also evident in exemplifying Stephen’s Oedipal complex early in the novel. This complex creates a detrimental conflict for Stephen throughout the novel. Guilt is instilled in Stephen at a very young age for sexual thoughts. “O, Stephen will apologize…if not, the eagles will come and pull out his eyes. Apologize, apologize, pull out his eyes” (Portrait, 8). Because of this shame, Stephen grows up torn between women resembling his nurturing mother, the ivory tower, and women such as Eileen, seductive temptresses.

Joyce foreshadows Stephen’s alienation from Ireland and the Catholic Church with the child’s isolation from his classmates. As a boy, Stephen was not concerned with “the charge and thud of the footballers [or how] the greasy leather orb flew” (Portrait, 8). Rather, Stephen always had more important matters on his mind.

Joyce opposes the treatment of childhood as an abstract, self-contained period before the emergence of personal character. He sees this as rendering the past meaningless. Rather, Joyce imagines early childhood as a time when the ‘self’ is formed and the shape of its surroundings cut out.


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