Stephen in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is the Search of an Artist in Exile.

Escape is the natural complement to the theme of Entrapment and Constraint. Joyce depicts escape metaphorically by the book's most important symbol and allusion: the mythical artificer Daedalus is not at all an Irish name; Joyce took the name from the mythical inventor who escaped from his island prison by constructing wings and flying to his freedom. Stephen, too, will eventually escape from the island prison of Ireland.

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Truly speaking in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the hero moves from childhood to manhood, learning his own destiny as artist and as exile. Again, of all the characters in the novel, Stephen Dedalus is the only one whose portrait is fully realized. His most intimate thoughts, memories and sensations are revealed to us throughout; all the other characters exist for the reader only insofar as they matter to Stephen. Stephen is tied by family, country and religion, but one by one he releases himself from those ties to discover his true vocation on the free and uncommitted life of the artist. Stephen tends to view his life in terms of a heroic struggle to free himself from the various confinements he feels his native city imposes upon him—the “nets” of politics, religion and family. The church was the greatest rival to the world of art: it, too promised loneliness and power. But he understood at last that “he was destined to learn his own wisdom apart from others or to learn the wisdom of others himself wandering among the snares of the world”. And so the artist is born. The climax of the book comes soon after Stephen’s realization of his true destiny. He is wandering alone by the shore alone and young and willful and hardhearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish water and the sea-harvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight and gay clad and light clad figures of children and girls and voices childish and girlish in the air”. He sees a girl standing in mid-stream, “alone and still, gazing out to sea” and he contemplates her, intently, frankly, without desire or ulterior motive of any kind he is relishing the artist’s perception of life. And as he looks, he is overcome by joy: “Heavenly God! Cried Stephen’s soul, in an outburst of profane joy”. It is profane joy, the artist’s joy in life.




            Once Stephen recognizes his destiny, the shedding of his other loyalties proceeds quickly. He is haunted by the sea-gulls flying overhead in the evening sky. They symbolize escape for the artist, escape from the cramping environment where other claims on his loyalty oppress him. Like the Greek Daedalus who made the labyrinth for king Minos and afterwards made wings to enable him to escape across the sea from the labyrinth of life and claims of Dublin. Daedalus, too, was the first craftsman, ‘old artificer’. As epigraph to the book, Joyce has quoted a line from Ovid’s description of Daedalus’s construction of the labyrinth: “And he turned his mind to unknown arts”. So Joyce would turn his mind to enlarge the surname is that of the Old artificer, his Christian name is that of the first Christian martyr. Thus, the artist is both crafts man and martyr. However, Stephen identifies with the classical hero whose name he bears, but he is more like the son Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and came crashing down into the sea, than the father Daedalus, whose cunning enabled him to forge the wings that permitted his escape from Minos’s prison.

            So Stephen works out his theory of the artist as exile. “The artist like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails”. Stephen refuses to serve that in which he no longer believes – home, country, church; he will express himself freely, using for his defense the weapons of ‘ silence, exile and cunning’. He is prepared to take the risk of separating himself from others and of having not even one friend.

            As its title suggests, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a kind of self-portrait, a novel that traces the development of its central character, Stephen D, from infancy to young adulthood, as he finds himself drawn into and struggling with the social, religious, and political currents of late 19th-century Ireland. While Joyce clearly bases Stephen on his younger self, he maintains an ironic distance from his character, implying at the end of the novel that his youthful alter ego still has much to learn about both life and the art that he dreams of making. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is thus an important document in the history of the artist as exile. But it is also a remarkable work of art in its own right. Combining the naturalistic and the symbolist traditions, Joyce finds a solution to the problems of the literary artist in his time.

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