James Joyce
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Flying by the Nets. Stephen Dedalus's search for personal definition

by Will McManus

For more on James Joyce see The James Joyce Page
When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets  

The spirit of Ireland is embodied in young Stephen Dedalus, the central character of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Like the Dedalus of Greek myth, Stephen must grow wings so that he may fly above the tribulations of his life. As he matures, Dedalus begins to understand his position in life, and decides to rise above the turbulent Ireland of the early 1900s in a rebellion against society, a struggle against his beliefs and a struggle against his heritage.

Joyce wrote A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the decade preceding its first publication in 1916. The early 1900s was a turbulent time for Ireland, a time in which many groups and individuals were making pushes for an Independent Ireland. Joyce brings Irish politics in as a major theme for Stephen Dedalus to address. Stephen often Idolizes or admonishes different characters in Ireland's political landscape. Among these revolutionaries were the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood), Charles Steward Parnell, The revolutionaries of the 1916 Easter Rising and Sinn Fein.

In the same year A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was published, between 1000 and 1500 Irish patriots tried to capture the town of Dublin on Easter Day. The Easter Rising, as it was called, led to the death of approximately 1000 Irishmen and 500 Britons. Of the 1000 Irishmen, many were women and children, while of the 500 Britons; all were either soldiers or policemen. The Easter Rising was not a spontaneous event. Rather, it was the culmination of decades of oppressive rule.

In her paper Rebellion: Types of rebellion, Rosalie Wagner states 'Rebellion against society can also occur when people feel too oppressed or feel a need to stand out.' The political and cultural atmosphere of revolutionary Ireland was volatile and dangerous. Any opinion Stephen voiced was usually met with mixed feelings, reflective of the divided political and religious factions. Stephen felt the need to rebel: to break into a new setting-one in which he could be free to express all his thoughts.

The IRB was formed in 1858 as a group of Irish intellectuals who wanted to see an Ireland independent of British rule. The IRB put their support behind Charles Stewart Parnell, a protestant landowner with very radical nationalist ideals. Parnell is a topic of discussion during a political debate Stephen's family has over Christmas dinner, and is first mentioned while Stephen is at Clongowes Wood School, reminiscing about his Aunt, or Dante as he calls her - a holdover from when he was a baby and could not properly pronounce 'Auntie'. Stephen remembers Dante admonishing Parnell; this is Stephen's first introduction to politics.

As Stephen recalls,

Dante had two brushes in her press. The brush with the maroon velvet back was for Michael Davitt and the brush with the green velvet back was for Parnell. (20)

One day Dante ripped the back off the brush that represented Parnell and denounced Parnell as a bad man. '[Stephen] wondered if they were arguing at home about that.' And to the young Stephen 'That was called politics' (28). Stephen, as a young child, has not yet learned to form his own opinions. Before he left for Clongowes School, Dante had always been a supporter of Parnell and Stephen, following her lead, began to idolize Parnell and what he stood for. Parnell was Stephen's biggest hero, and Stephen couldn't understand it when Dante told him that Parnell was now a bad man. Now, in the face of conflicting political interests, Stephen takes the first steps of developing his own political ideas. Just because Dante doesn't like Parnell is no reason for him to have to give up his hero.

In the book's conclusion, Stephen Dedalus makes the decision to leave Ireland to move to mainland Europe and become a writer. Stephen separates himself from the daily squabbles of his life by finding a release in his writing, and later he is released from his dead-end life when he leaves his homeland. In doing so, Dedalus' actions seem to echo the first lines of 'The Serenity Prayer' written by Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr writes 'God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.' Stephen has seen his heroes and hopes rise only to be brought crashing down in a bloody fall. Stephen accepts that he cannot change what is happening in Ireland. His only hope for peace is to escape.

The rest of the Irish population seems to have been more inspired by the patriotism of the men who participated in the Easter Rising than Joyce was. Following the Bloody coup, masses of closet nationalists came out in droves to join Sinn Fein, Ireland's most prominent nationalist party. One of Stephen's friends from the University College, Davin, is this sort of nationalist. Davin tells Stephen,

A man's country comes first. Ireland first. (206)

Stephen replies,

Do you know what Ireland is? [...] Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow. (206)

Earlier in his life, Stephen would never have publicly expressed such contempt for the country his fellows so adamantly support. At the University College Stephen is in his third school, had has had the time necessary to form his own opinions of his country's politics.

Stephen's peers are an additional facet of society that he rebels against. Throughout the book, Stephen consistently refuses to succumb to peer pressure. The boldness of his refusals grows as his knowledge and social awareness grow. While at Clongowes Stephen gets into a dispute with his classmates over who the greatest writer is. Dedalus is confronted:

Admit that Byron was no good.
No. No. (91)

Despite the 'cuts of the cane and the blows of the knotty stump' (91) that his refusal to admit elicits, Stephen steadfastly maintains that Byron is the world's greatest writer. This is an important step in Stephen's ability to form his own opinions, free from the overbearing sway of his society. Later, Stephen defies his peers on issues that are much more important. At the University College Stephen's nationalist friend Davin asks,

Are you Irish at all? [...] Why don't you learn Irish? Why did you drop out of the [Gaelic] league class after the first lesson? (205)

When confronted with these questions about his heritage Stephen responds,

When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.(206)

With those words he casts off his entire heritage along with societal expectations.

Wagner continues, 'Most of the time, rebellion against society is also rebellion against the family. When a teen does something against the 'regular', they are probably doing something their parents would rather they didn't do.' Stephen continues to find faults in his parents and his history. As these faults begin to undermine his loyalty, Dedalus turns farther and farther away from the things he once held dear.

When the family is running extraordinarily low on money, Stephen and his father Simon take a trip to Cork to sell a piece of property Mr. Dedalus had acquired when he was a youth growing up in that town. After selling the property for a sizeable sum of money, Stephen's father drags him off to the bars to celebrate. At the bars Simon runs into old friends and they begin to reminisce. Soon all the money Simon had just received has been spent on food and drink. Stephen has to painfully look on as his drunken father, swept up in a wave of nostalgia, makes outrageous boasts and spews outrageous accounts of his youth. At one point Simon begins to brag that he is a much better man than his son. At this point Stephen loses all respect he once had for his father. Any sentimental bond they once had was broken from that moment on.

Thus, in Cork. Stephen loses all respect for his father, and he learns his father is a complete failure. The interaction Stephen is afforded, between himself and his father's friends, allows Stephen to learn more about his father than he had ever been told. Stephen's father had failed in almost everything he tried. Later, Stephen describes his father as,

A medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician, a small landlord, a small investor, a drinker, a good fellow, a story-teller, somebody's secretary, something in a distillery, a tax-gatherer, a bankrupt and at present a praiser of his own past. (242)

In his younger years Stephen found joy in walking with his great-uncle Charles. Every morning after he 'had creased and brushed scrupulously his back hair and brushed and put on his tall hat' (70) Uncle Charles would retire to the outhouse to sit and smoke. Though he was growing increasingly senile, Charles had wonderful stories to tell about Ireland's glory days. But in Stephen's mind, Ireland's glory fades even faster than his poor uncle's mind. By the time Stephen entered the University College Uncle Charles (and Ireland) were useless bodies that sucked the energy out of everything around them.

Stephen's economic status was on the decline throughout his entire childhood. When he was very young, he attended Clongowes Wood School. Clongowes was a fancy school, only for the children of the rich. Soon Stephen's family starts to slip towards poverty and they are forced to move from the country into the suburbs of Dublin. In Blackrock, the suburbs, Stephen attends Belvedere, a second class school which offered him a scholarship. Stephen finishes his education at Belvedere at nearly the same time his family is forced to make another move due to economic woes. Finally, when Stephen's family is situated in a downtown Dublin slum, Stephen decides he wants to go to college, and although he may look down upon them, his family make the sacrifice and scrounge together the money to pay his way at University College. Throughout the novel, the reader accompanies Stephen on his gradual decline from the pomp and stylish life of his childhood, to the rank squalor of his youth.

Stephen's mother is a highly religious woman who wants only peace and happiness for her family. She believes, however, that Stephen's happiness can be found only in the church. It is before he even enters college that Stephen first rejects the church. Later he grows more tolerant of it, so tolerant that the point comes when he is offered a position to study to be a priest. Mrs. Dedalus is absolutely thrilled at this prospect - she believes Stephen's salvation will come by wearing the robes. When Stephen eventually decides not to become a priest, he breaks his mother's heart and rejects her and all the ideals she has held for him.

Stephen's mother and father obviously have different ideas of what is best for him. This brings in the seemingly unlikely topic of relativity. While Joyce was publishing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Albert Einstein was publishing his theory of relativity. The classic example of relativity has two sets of scientists, one inside an elevator and one outside. Both are given the task of seeing what it is that makes the scientists in the elevator stick to the floor when the elevator is travelling up. The scientists in the elevator say that it is gravity that is pulling them towards the floor. The scientists on the outside say that it is the force of the elevator moving up that sticks them to the floor. The theory of relativity states that in this case each group is as correct as the other.

In the pre-relativistic world there was generally only one correct answer to any given question. The same applies to Stephen Dedalus's world before he learned to think for himself. The beginning of the novel is told from an objective third-person point of view. The reader is presented with every side of an argument. A prime example of this is the Christmas dinner, where each side of the political discussion is presented with equal weight. As the novel progresses the story is presented form a viewpoint that steadily turns from objectivity to relativity. Soon we hear only Stephen's opinion on important matters. The story at last concludes with a series of subjective journal entries, a culmination of Stephen's internal struggles expressing what he has finally come to believe is his truth and his future.

Stephen's greatest struggle is his struggle with his beliefs. As a baby he took his parents' word as law, but as he grew he began to question what he was told more and more. Like many a youth on the verge of adulthood, Stephen wrestles with the basic concepts that define him; the basic concepts that he has grown up with. In the book, Stephen struggles to define who he is, what religion he believes in, how things should be perceived, and what he wants to do in life.

While in geography class, Stephen wrote down his name and location:

Stephen Dedalus
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
County Kildare
The World
The Universe (27)

But he couldn't stop there. He asked 'What was after the Universe?' (28) and there he was stuck on that question. For his answers, Stephen first turned to god.

During the Christmas dinner discussion, Mr. Casey, a guest of the Dedalus family, proudly declares, 'I am a Catholic as my father was as his father before him and his father before him again when we gave up our lives rather than sell our faith.' (45) Stephen at the time attended a Jesuit school, and accepted anything to do with religion as fact. During this time, however, the Catholic Church discontinued their support of Stephen's hero Parnell, and not only did they discontinue their support, they condemned him. Two staples of Stephen's life had become exclusive of each other, and that made Stephen question both religion and his heroes. In this case, both could not be right.

To reinforce either ideal, Stephen would look to his family. At Christmas dinner he heard Dante cry, 'God and religion before everything! [...] God and religion before the world!' (49) Mr. Casey, retorted, 'No God for Ireland! [...] We have too much God in Ireland. Away with God!' (50). Clearly, Stephen could not look to his family for answers about religion.

Stephen then looks towards the priests at his school, but they are the same priests that beat him for not being able to do his homework because his glasses were broken. In Stephen's mind, anyone who would lay out such unjust punishment could not be the worldly interpreters of any higher being that was really true and good. Stephen still honours the priests, but cares nothing for what they preach.

Religion becomes a less important part of Stephen's life with every passing day. When his great-uncle Charles asks him to go to church, Stephen remains indifferent and makes excuses. Stephen continues along this moral down-spiral until, at the end of the second section, he visits a prostitute and begins his exploration of life through sin. But although he continues to live in sin, he acts as a religious leader at the University College. It is this role that leads a church official to offer Stephen an opportunity to study to become a priest.

During the period in which Stephen decides his future: to become a priest or not, Easter rolls around. While in school he has kept in the habit of skipping confession, but his mother begs him to go to confession before Easter. It would break her heart to see him commit sacrilege. Stephen chooses not to go to confession, and thereby becomes more of a hypocrite (a religious leader who has committed sacrilege) and has taken the first blow at breaking his mother's heart. His mother perceives becoming a priest as his only salvation.

On a visit to the beach Stephen falls asleep. When he wakes up he immediately sees a beautiful girl standing several yards away, gazing at some distant object over the water. He is completely overcome by her beauty and the magnificence of that moment. That is his epiphany. Stephen immediately decides he must commit his life to art - to expressing the beauty he sees in the world.

That one shining moment was not the only event that lead to Stephen's decision to become a writer. His experience at Clongowes and experiences with writing about personal experiences had a profound influence on his choice. At Clongowes he buries himself in his writing and in his work while his fellow classmates spend their time fretting over politics and culture. Stephen is even able to fund part of his education by publishing essays that he has written. When an essay brought in money, Stephen and his entire family celebrated. While the money lasted, Stephen could briefly relive some of the wonder of his past. This was Stephen's first incentive to become a writer.

During his struggle with religion, Stephen took to writing to help ease his conscience. Writing replaced confession as absolution for his sin. Gradually, writing also began to replace the actions that were his sins. Rather than seeking women for physical gratification, Stephen contented himself to watch, observe, and write about them. He captured their sensuous movement, their low tones and fragrant calls with his pen in short verse rhythmic rhymes.

From the opening of the novel, to the close of the final chapter, Stephen Dedalus's life has been a journey. A jumble of politics, religion, and family ties left Stephen needing to escape. With his pen ready, Stephen sets out to discover the world anew - free from the expectations and drudgery of his former life. The pen has become his wings so that he may fly.

Works Cited
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: New American Library, 1991
Wagner, Rosalie. Rebellion: types of rebellion. UC Davis. 21 April 2002 (http://www-honors.ucdavis.edu/html/parenting/rebeltypes.html)

1916. Infoplease. 4 April 2002
1916. The Eire Unite Website. 4 April 2002
Clark, Rev. Timothy D. The Dedalus Factor: Einstein's Science and Joyce's Portrait of the Artist. The Modern World. 4 April 2002 http://www.themodernword.com/joyce/joyce_paper_clark.html
The Early Years. Joyce and his time. 4 April 2002
Fitzgibbon, Constantine. 1916 Easter Rising. 1916 The Rising. 4 April 2002
James Joyce. Ultima actualizacion. 4 April 2002
Mythography. The Legend of Daedalus in Myth and Art. Mythography. 4 April 2002
Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Serenity Prayer. Bread on the Waters. 21 April 2002
Timeline. James Joyce Resource center. 4 April 2002

© Will McManus, July 2002

See also: The James Joyce Page > James Joyce Novels on Film >
Photographs of James Joyce's Dublin >

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