A psychological novel, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man places a great amount of emphasis on the circumstances which help to shape the hero. As a young man evolving from infancy through childhood and adolescence, Stephen is shown in the novel to have been greatly influenced by his home, religion and country. However, among the members who constitute his family, religious and national influences, Simon Dedalus, his actual father, and the ecclesiastical fathers are really the ones whose influences are most clearly seen. In this paper, I will trace their influences and discuss how they make him determined to leave his home country and be an artist.
It is by no means casual, but rather significant, that the novel should begin with Stephen’s father telling him the story of a moocow. This story is in itself a highly imaginative story to an infant. We are told that Stephen identifies himself with the “nicens little boy.” From this simple incident, we can see imagination, which is the soul of art, has first sparkled in the infant’s mind. In this sense we can say his father is the one who sows the seed of art into his mind. In fact, the story is part of Ovid’s tale of Daedalus, whom Stephen addresses at the end of the novel as “old father, old artificer.” In this connection, we are led to think that Simon Dedalus is equal to Daedalus, and Stephen is Equal to Icarus. Simon Dedalus teaches his son the art by telling him the story, just as Daedalus teaches his own son the art by showing him how to make wings. Finally Stephen revolts against his father just as Icarus does not pay any attention to his father’s warning when they are soaring in the sky. Anyway, it is clear that Joyce is here attributing Stephen’s tendency toward art to his father’s influence.
Nor does his father only first sow the seed of art into him. He also first acquaints him with politics and religion. At a Christmas dinner when he was yet a child, his father together with Mr. Casey argued vehemently in his presence with his aunt Dante about the great Irish leader Parnell and the Irish priests. This event was really a conflict of politics and religion, and it must have been buried deep in the mind of the “terror-stricken” child. When later Stephen refused to sign a petition for world peace, and declined the vocation offered to him by the director of the school, it only showed that he had not yet been able to solve the long-conceived problem—who is right, Father or Aunt? Which is right, politics or religion?
But Stephen should have been very likely to take one side or the other, had his father or the ecclesiastical fathers proved worthy of the child’s faith. As we know, Stephen at first always held his father in esteem as a son often does. So concomitantly his father’s passion for Parnell might have gained his sympathy, and thus made him interested in politics. However, on the trip to Cork his father had appeared to his despairing judgment as a philandering, self-deluded, sentimental, and irresponsible father. So he could not but lose faith in him, and doubt his passion for politics.
It is even more likely for Stephen to take the side of religion. For as we also know, Stephen has been placed since childhood in the care of the Jesuits. And as we see, the sermons on heaven and hell ate into his mind so deeply that he went to a city old priest for a confession. And when the school director asked him to join the order of the Jesuits, he really felt himself much flattered. However, Father Dolan’s sadism and Father Conmee’s joining his father in laughing over his heroic behavior in school still lingered in his mind. So religion was also doubtful. Under such circumstances, it is no wonder that he should make the cynical remark: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church.”
But this disbelief of Stephen’s does not come so much from the incidents themselves as from how the incidents occur. We find that throughout the novel there seems always to be a heavy pressure exerted from outside upon Stephen as an infant, a child, an adolescent, or a young man. And his father and ecclesiastical fathers are representative of this pressure. All the above-mentioned incidents came to him inescapably: no matter whether he wanted it or not, he had to listen uneasily to his father’s fierce quarrel with his aunt at the Christmas dinner; he had to listen, though “without sympathy,” to his father’s “evocation of Cork and of scenes of his youth” on the trip to Cork; he had to be threatened unreasonably by Father Dolan’s pandybat in school, and see the rector’s “shrewd harsh face,” and listen with “pain of conscience” to the priests’ sermons. Indeed, Stephen was constantly on the side of the receiver in the face of his father or the ecclesiastical fathers: he simply got no chance to express himself boldly to them. And his only chance—his complaint of Father Dolan to the head of the school—was later cruelly ridiculed. But we know Stephen had an artistic inclination, he was sensitive to his surroundings, and he had a strong desire of expressing himself. So, it is also no wonder that he finally resolved to leave Ireland, to leave the pressure-giving fathers in hope that he might “discover the mode of life or of art whereby his spirit could express itself in unfettered freedom.”
This resolution was aided by his esthetic doctrine. And his esthetic doctrine resulted partly from the father influences. According to him, human emotions are divided into kinetic emotions and static emotions. And beauty expressed by the artist should be the latter. Thus, he might regard his father’s passion for Parnell and the ecclesiastical father’s religious activities as “kinetic” in nature, and therefore not fit to be followed by an artist. For him an artist is to create beauty, which is “beheld by the imagination which is appeased by the most satisfying relations of the sensible.” When he said he would take as his arms “silence, exile, and cunning,” he was actually saying he would try to find a place where he could have ample imagination to create esthetic stasis—beauty. But we shall not forget that his first imagination came to him when he was an infant listening to his father’s story of the moocow.
So, after the father’s failing to make him interested in politics and religion, the seed of art that his father sows in him has finally budded forth into a doctrine of art which encourages him to be an artist and an exile.