Childhood Epiphanies: A Look into James Joyce’s Portrait

A bildungsroman is a novel that focuses on various aspects of the development of a character from childhood to adulthood. James Joyce’s semi-autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man follows the main character Stephen Dedalus as he matures in early twentieth century Ireland.

Irish-born Stephen Dedalus begins his life at home with his parents, who send him to Conglowes, a boarding school. There, he gets his first taste of social life, though he becomes the weakling that everyone likes to pick on. Early on, Stephen feels that he differs from his classmates. Preferring to stay away from the crowd and think about his past, he questions everything. Stephen leaves there and goes to another school, Belvedere.

Here, the changes from his boyhood stand out clearly. He loses his faith in religion, resorting to pleasures of the flesh. Though he eventually repents his sins, Stephen falls out of grace again. He worries over the financial troubles and disintegration of his family. He eventually goes to university, where he makes several friends who contribute to his evolving thoughts on politics and the arts. Though he finally meets Emma, his crush, he decides to leave Ireland to embark on unwritten paths.

Because A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a bildungsroman, it focuses on the various factors that influence the development of the main character. Joyce, known for his use of epiphany in his works, entwines Stephen’s coming of age with various epiphanies. Stephen’s continuing education plays a vital role in shaping the other areas of his development. Art, Irish politics, and patriotism influence him to analyze his past. The most crucial influence, however, is the transformation of the influence of religion on Stephen as the novel progresses. James Joyce uses the role of the epiphany to accentuate the purpose of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as a bildungsroman.

Education transforms the way people think about themselves and the world around them, causing them to question traditional views and accepted ways of thinking. Stephen experiences these changes as he progresses from one boarding school, Conglowes, to another, Belvedere, and then on to university in Dublin. Using colors and vocabulary, Joyce vividly describes the changes within Stephen throughout his schooling. Education also serves as the basis from which Stephen builds from and leans upon as he grows and encounters the confusion of his youth.

From the beginning of Stephen’s story, his experiences are described with fine details that focus on the five senses, particularly the sense of sight. At Conglowes, he lives away from home for the first time. Descriptions of dark, cold scenes tarnish what should be a joyous recollection of boyhood. “His hands were bluish with cold. He kept his hands inâÂ?¦his belted grey suit” (3). The cold, damp colors used to describe Stephen’s life at Conglowes serve as a motif for the remainder of the novel, for he continues to see his youth as cold, wet, and dark. At Belvedere, he encounters some cheerful moments, but the overall feeling still reflects the loneliness of his youth.

Stephen compares himself to a night sky that must unfold itself and quench “its own lights and fires” (73). Later, before he enters the university, Stephen takes a walk along the shore in Dublin. Here, he contemplates the importance of colors as they help him imbibe nature’s beauty. “Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the greyfringed fleece of clouds” (119). He understands that the bleak, wet island environment of Ireland greatly affects his perception of how he uses sensory details to describe his youth.

Just as education enables Stephen to understand the importance of color, it also enables him to further his vocabulary as he develops. The language he uses in his early childhood typifies the simplicity of his age; he even begins the novel with a childish anecdote:

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 down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo�.He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt. (1)

Stephen’s knowledge of language grows steadily as he passes through Conglowes and Belvedere, and his syntax and vocabulary begin to shine truly when he becomes repentant about his sins. However, the epitome of his intricate language appears when Stephen initiates his speculations on the true meaning of art and beauty. For example, “The first phase of apprehension is a bounding line drawn about the objectâÂ?¦You apprehend its wholeness. That is integritas, (154)” fuses common English with his knowledge of Latin to create a varied, profound sentence structure.

Towards the end of the novel, Stephen also incorporates the vernacular distinctive of his surroundings, for example: “beyond the Irish Sea, Europe of strange tongues and valleyed and woodbegirt and citadelledâÂ?¦” (120). The progression Stephen’s utilization of language from infancy to adulthood reflects the change from simplicity to complexity.

The effects of education are evident in every aspect of a person’s life. Elementary ideas help form Stephan’s understanding of the world and contribute to the ways he expresses himself in literature. He also learns to question the traditions of Ireland concerning politics and patriotism. Stephen’s newfound understanding of himself threatens the religion that held him down, battering his spirit throughout his childhood. Education plays a vital role in establishing a foundation that Stephen can build from and rely on as he faces the difficult challenges of his inner feelings and how they affect his personal, social, and religious life.

Humans, being born from confusion, face the trial of overcoming and making sense of the confusion that begins its wrath as soon as the mind is able to recognize chaos. Following this theory, Stephen confronts his own confusion regarding politics, patriotism, and creative expression with the help of his continuing education. His family influences his views on politics, while he and his peers influence his views on patriotism and creative expression. The confrontation of his mistrust and confusion over accepted ideas and his attempt to clarify his uncertainty mark the next step in Stephen’s evolution as a young man.

Stephen’s political disorientation arises with Dante, his governess, who keeps two different brushes (a maroon one and a green one) that represent the two different sides of Irish politics. He ponders about the two colored brushes while in Conglowes, when he notices the earth in his geography book is colored maroon and green (7). This observation marks Stephen’s first analysis of the nexus between his homeland and the foreign world. During a Christmas break from Conglowes, Stephen realizes the gravity of politics and religion.

His father, who condemns the mix of politics with religion, and Dante, who welcomes the union of the two, engage in a serious debate that leaves Stephen frightened and amazed, for he sees “his father’s eyes were full of tears” (26). Dante goes so far as to foretell that Stephen will remember the argument later in his life. The feeling of despair at severe politics, which once seemed trivial, remains with him as he develops and continues to haunt him as he tries to find himself among the ruins of his torn country.

Stephen relies on the idealism of the Romantic poets as a way to counterattack the miseries of his homeland. Just as the Romantic poets endeavored to escape the gloom of the early eighteenth century, he assumes their ideals of mystery, imagination, emotions, and untamed nature to express himself poetically. Stephen’s constant references to Lord Byron and Percy Shelley reflect his reliance on them for intellectual stability. He even epitomizes the Byronic hero with his great passion, rebellious nature, disdain for society, and hidden talent, among others. “Art thou pale for weariness/Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth, /Wandering companionless?âÂ?¦ (67)” In relating himself to a creation of Byron, and quoting Shelley, Stephen recognizes the comforting solace he obtains by relating himself to the Romantic era of poetry. This safe haven allays Stephen’s fear of loneliness and prepares him to take on the more pivotal challenges awaiting him.

Once Stephen clears the nightmare of loneliness, he faces the confrontation of other problems involving his social life and his evolving mind. As he attempts a math equation one day, he sees his problems “spread out a widening tail eyed and starred like a peacock’s: and, when the eyes and stars of its indicesâÂ?¦eliminated, began to slowly fold itself together again” (72). This revelation of his dilemmas as being mere blinking feathers that birth stars and close up again bring Stephen an
understanding that leaves “a cold indifference [to reign] in his soul” (73). Apathy drives him on because he knows that his problems will solve themselves eventually. His listlessness, combined with his familiar feeling of dissimilarity to his peers, aid in the evolution of reliance on himself. Because Stephen learns to be independent and steadfast to his nature, he creates his own sort of faith, wherein he becomes his own demigod.

Roman Catholicism heavily predisposes the Irish nation in its ways of thought and morality. The Catholic influence compels Irish citizens even from the time of childhood. Stephen, no exception to this authority, feels the deadweight of such a heavy religion from the childish comfort of his younger days to the shameful fear of his adolescence. Stephen’s religious evolution reflects the influence the church has over him, as it is considerably more gradual in comparison to the other phases of his evolution. Eventually he frees himself from the constraints of a domineering faith.

Like most children, Stephen finds comfort in the teachings of his religion. Because of his youth and innocence, he does not think to question what he does understand about God. At Conglowes he tries to think of the vastness of God’s seemingly universal reign, but he abandons his contemplation because it is such a “big thought” (8). Stephen also experiences the fearful comfort of religion as he hurries to say his prayers before the gas burns down “so that he might not go to hell when he die[s]” (10). However, this nervous pantomime can go on for only so long, and by the time he reaches Belvedere, he questions the catechism of Catholicism. Stephen gains the esteem of his peers with his eccentric views that contrast with his everlasting obedience to his elders. Even so, he fears to question the rector about the technicalities of Christianity and the seven sins. Stephen falls into a fog of the mind that stems from the suppression and uncertainty of his faith, gradually leading him to sin.

His inherent urge to rebel and his loss of faith in God unite to drag Stephen through the mud of the sin. He engages in pleasures of the flesh, all the while holding his position as a member of the sodality and feeling little, if any, remorse for his sins (74). It is only during the retreat in honor of the patron of his college that Stephen induces repentance upon his soul for his evil deeds. The scare tactics of the threat of burning in everlasting hell slowly return to haunt him as in his boyhood, but this time he has sins to be penitent of (91).

He repents endlessly, falling into a trap of piety that leads him nowhere, for Stephen constantly sways between absolute piety and absolute hedonism (109). His questions still go unanswered, and at first he believes it is only so because he has not applied himself to his faith enough. Even when he is asked to join the priesthood, Stephen declines because of his need to be separate from others and because the cold,
damp life of a priest reminds him too much of the dismal youth he longs to escape (115).

Though Stephen abandons the social structure of religion, he still wavers over whether God exists or not. As he walks along the shore near the university, he realizes the truth of God’s word, but he also reasons that he would have failed at being a priest because of his proneness to temptation. He cherishes himself above all else, and sees his journey throughout the rest of his life as a cloud floating above the sea. “A day of dappled seaborne clouds” (119). Because of the foundation he created from his education, Stephen learns not to fear making mistakes; his mistakes will resolve themselves like the feathers of a peacock folding back upon themselves, as if Stephen only has to close his eyes to solve his dilemmas. He describes this best in his own words: “I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake and perhaps as long as eternity tooâÂ?¦.I will take the risk” (181). Though he begins to weary of life, Stephen also prepares to take flight from the island that holds him in its tight grip. His freedom from fear of religion allows him to open his thoughts and ask the questions harbored for so long in his heart.

Stephen Dedalus’ epiphanies in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man illustrate and emphasize the dynamic transformation of a youth in a bildungsroman. Continuing education serves as a basis for all people; it establishes the way they think, describe, and view life. This education helps individuals overcome the tumult of life’s many problems, as it helped Stephen to understand his place in the world and his capabilities. Religion works as a supplement to education, teaching individuals morals and providing reasons for living. However, religion also tends to constrain the individual, as it bound Stephen’s creativity with guilt and fear. In the true nature of survival and in embracing the true nature of his hawk-like name, Stephen Dedalus flew from his cage of ignorance, confusion, and trepidation into the open skies of his own creation.

Works Cited

  • Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Dover Publications, 1994.

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