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 turns to prostitutes to satisfy his sexual urges. One is a timid outsider bullied by his classmates. The other is courageous enough to confront and question authority. One devoutly hopes to become a priest. The 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 is a drunken failure. Unhappy as a perpetual outsider, he lacks the warmth to engage in true friendship.
“Have you never loved anyone? is fellow student, Cranly, asks him. “I tried to love God,” Stephen replies. “It seems now I failed. ” The force that eventually unites these contradictory Stephens is his overwhelming desire to become an artist, to create. At the novel’s opening we see him as an infant artist who sings “his song. ” Eventually we’ll see him expand that song into poetry and theories of art. At the book’s end he has made art his religion, and he abandons family, Catholicism, and country to worship it. The name Joyce gave his 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. We can believe that he is a brilliant artist who must flee dull, uncultured Dublin at any cost. We can admire his 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 of a 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 A Portrait of the Artist. On the other hand, we can agree with the readers who call Stephen a supreme egotist, “a posturing, unproven esthete,” 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. The title of the novel contains two hints we may want to keep in mind as we make our judgment of Stephen: 1. The novel is a portrait of the artist as a young man. Joyce himself said to a friend that his artist was not fully formed yet. Young men often take themselves, and their rebellions, too seriously. Yet they may gain wisdom as they grow older. 2. The novel is a portrait, not the portrait of the artist.
Perhaps this is an admission that the book gives only one version of Stephen. Other portraits might add other information and focus on different aspects of his personality. At the end of A Portrait of the Artist, will Stephen fly or fall? Joyce does not say. A later work, Ulysses, is in part a continuation of Stephen’s story, but even in this work Stephen’s final fate is not certain. With his complexities and contradictions, Stephen seems more like a living human being than a figure from a book. And who can know everything about another human being? Who can predict with complete certainty what that human being’s fate will be?