Lifelong influences on one individual can eventually arouse question and even doubt. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, Joyce uses maternal symbols that dominate Stephen Dedalus' entire life from the time as young boy, his growing independence, and the ultimate abandonment of these forces to pursue art. Through close analysis of Psychoanalytic and Feminism Criticism, one can conclude the powers of these symbols and figures have on the protagonist of the novel.
Stephen’s struggle for achieving his artist potential begins at a young age where his mother begins to teach him about morality. The passage in which Stephen hides from Eileen begins as a seemingly playful teasing by Dante and his mother, but it is also the first instance where Stephen turns fear into artistic writing:
- O, Stephen will apologise.
- O, if not, the eagles will come and pull out his eyes.
Pull out his eyes,
Pull out his eyes.
Pull out his eyes,
Pull out his eyes,
According to the psychoanalytical criticism, “The loss of eyes is an image of castration, having been established by Oedipus himself” (Brivic, 281). The myth of Oedipus concludes with Oedipus tearing out his eyes when he finds out he married his mother and killed his father. Joyce uses the reoccurring image of torn eyes or distorted vision to bring light into Stephen’s
initial maternal struggle between his mother and his manhood. Stephen longs for his mother’s loving touch throughout the novel, and she is often compared to the blessed Virgin. Even with her motherly love, she is one of Joyce’s main catalysts that spark disorder within Stephen’s mind:
It is the “nice mother, however, whom Stephen recognizes as one of the women principally responsible for introducing him to a hostile external world and to the repressive strictures of middle-class morality. The first of the many imperatives that thwart his ego, “apologise,” is associated in his mind and vivid imagination with matriarchal threats. (Henke, 318)
Stephen’s introduction to Clongowes by his mother is the beginning of Stephen’s confusion and morality struggle. It is an important factor of Joyce’s novel that provokes Stephen to question the rules and expectations as an Irish citizen of the catholic faith.
As Stephen continues his education at Clongowes learning morality from both the church and his mother, he begins to explore outside what matriarchal expectations have taught him and to transcend through art. Stephen is ashamed of his actions because of the church’s threats to mortal sinners, which brings a hiatus to Stephen’s own ideas and natural desires as a growing man. Wandering from morality begins as he attempts to write a poem about Emma:
The verses told only of the night and the balmy breeze and the maiden luster of the moon. Some undefined sorrow was hidden in the hearts of the protagonists as they stood in silence beneath the leafless trees and when the moment of farewell had come the kiss, which had been withheld by one, was given by both. After this the letters L.D.S. were written at the foot of the page and, having hidden the book, he went into his mother’s bedroom and gazed at his face for a long time in the mirror of her dressingtable. (74)
Even after writing the sexual poem, Stephen incorporates L.D.S., which is abbreviated Latin meaning Praise to the Lord Always, a Jesuit motto. Psychoanalytic criticism defines this moment as a longing to be held by primarily his mother. This fixation about the mother is held
as abnormal in Stephen’s society. Thus Stephen hides the poem, knowing he’d receive disapproval from the society:
Though he regards her as a calculating temptress, he cannot touch her; and when he writes a poem about her, it is set between Jesuit mottoes and colored by “the maiden luster of the moon” (p. 74). The poem concludes with a parting kiss- a prominent image in chapter one – and after writing it, Stephen gazes at his face in the mirror of his mother’s dressing table. In Lacanian terms, this is the mirror of his mother. (Brivic, 287)
Stephen’s poem is a way for pleasing himself and an attempt to stay within moral limits, although even art cannot quiet the pressure of moral figures as the reader learns. Connecting to Freud’s theory of Oedipal complex, the poem and image of Emma reflected that of his mother. In order to be born, “impure” acts must take place. However, Stephen believes his mother is an “ivory tower”, one who cannot be defiled by sex. He ends up searching for something to fill this empty void. According to feminist criticism, art compensated for desires that were frowned upon:
Poetry offers aesthetic compensation for frustrated physical desire, and the stirrings of adolescent sexuality are deftly sublimated through an exercise in lyrical fulfillment. The artist’s mind is cold, chaste, and detached, like that of the virginal muse Diana, as his disciplined verses statically embalm the experience of romantic epiphany. The scene has been purged of reality and naturalistic detail, the participants vaguely depersonalized. Emotionally mutuality has been restricted to art: Stephen feels fulfilled, but Emma is left to pine in her nunlike cowl. Her desires are safely crystallized in Byronic verses framed by two Jesuit mottoes. (Henke, 323-324)
Using Jesuit mottos, Stephen tries to “desexualize” the poem in order to protect the pure, idolized Emma and to please what morality has taught him. Soon even art does not stop Stephen from having desires, desires which are according to the church, a feminine figure in Joyce’s novel, morally wrong and can even bring damnation to the soul. The church frightens Stephen so much that he begins to believe his growing desires that began with artist creation are wrong:
As the “jeweleyed harlots” of lascivious transgression dance before the boy’s fevered imagination, he feels horrified by the realization that he has besmirched the icon of his beloved Emma by making her the object of masturbatory fantasy: “The image of Emma appeared before him and, under her eyes, the flood of shame rushed forth anew from his heart. If she knew to what his mind has subjected her or how his brutelike lust had torn and trampled upon her innocence!” (p. 110). He feels that he has violated both Emma’s honor and his own code of chivalry, not to mention the rigorous ethic of purity enforced by Irish Catholicism. (Henke, 326-327)
Even if he physically isn’t touching the “pure” girls, he still feels like he is impurifying them. This may also lead to seeking out the prostitute since she is already impure, but this also leads to a greater guilt by sinning with another:
Unconsciously blaming the external disorder on his dirty thoughts, he strives to control “the squalor of his own mind and home” (pg. 81). But the compulsive “breakwater of order” that he has erected “against the sordid tide” (p. 97) is finally overwhelmed, and he is driven to seek release in vice. Joyce emphasizes Stephen’s feminine relation to paternal power by imaging the desire that drives him to lose his virginity as an incubus that penetrates his body (p. 98). (Brivic, 287)
By using Emma other than in his poetry and artistic imagination, he feels that he is defying the morals in which he’d always been brought up upon. Stephen seeks out other girls in his imagination to receive approval from his father, according to psychoanalytical criticism. Eventually, he reaches art. These symbols placed in the novel by Joyce temporarily put an end
to Stephen’s fantasies because of the fear of eternal damnation and rejection. After a period of time refraining from art and desires, Stephen begins to wander from the moral path created by the female higher powers in Stephen’s life. Just like a child who grows into a young adult, Stephen too has his own ideas and opinions and wants to escape. After being visited by an “aesthetic muse” in the form of a beautiful woman, Stephen wants to pursue an artistic life. However, he has to escape the forces that imposed their ideas of morality. These forces included his mother, the church, and the country of Ireland. Stephen first expresses his epiphany to Cranly:
Look here, Cranly, he said. You have asked me what I would do and what I would not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use, silence, exile, and cunning. (218)
Stephen’s abandonment of his country, mother, and church begins with the sense of betrayal from his mother according to psychoanalytical criticism:
While Stephen is preparing to strive for union through art with an idealization of the mother, in the last third of the novel he is renouncing his real mother and her surrogates in life. In chapter four he begins to have a growing feeling that his mother is betraying him by her devotion to the Church: “A dim antagonism…darkened his mind as a cloud against her disloyalty: and when it passed…he was made aware dimly and without regret of a first noiseless sundering of their lives” (p. 150). Stephen’s “dim” feeling that his mother has betrayed him follows what Freud sees as a universal tendency of adolescents to blame their mothers for infidelity because their mothers have given themselves to their fathers. (Brivic, 294-295)
According to Freud, boys go through stages of development, one of the final stages being the Oedipus complex, a desire to terminate the father to receive all of mother’s love. Stephen believes his mother is an ideal woman. In order for approval of his father and society, he creates other female figures that are in the image his mother. When put into an all boys catholic school,
he feels that his mother has taken away his sanctuary and exposed to a dominate, male society. Thus explains Stephen’s abandonment of his mother. After experiencing the bid-woman, Stephen decides to leave all matriarchal powers:
Having magically transmuted the power of the female into a static object of aesthetic contemplation, Stephen is once again accosted by ubiquitous reminders of Mother Church and Mother Ireland. He feels compelled simultaneously to reject all three mothers – biological, ecclesiastical, and political. His refusal to take communion at Easter is as much a gesture of rebellion against a pleading Mary Dedalus as it is a rejection of Catholic authority. The image of woman metonymically absorbs all the paralyzing nets that constrain the potential artist. Unlike his companion Cranly, who glorifies mother love, Stephen resolves to detach himself from “the sufferings of women, the weakness of their bodies and souls” (p. 216). In casting off the yoke of matriarchy, he asserts his manhood in filial collusion with Daedalus, his classical mentor. (Henke, 331-332)
The reasoning behind the fantasies Stephen has not only stimulates his art, but they were a way of escaping the real world. When realizing matriarchy was debilitating his artistic ability, he no longer needs their moral guidance and flees from all. Joyce emphasizes Stephen’s escape with the use of Daedalus, his last name as a symbol of the myth of Daedalus. Daedalus defies the gods and is sentenced to exile on an island. He soon flees from this land, much like Stephen flies from Ireland. Joyce successfully uses this illusion in his writing to connect with Stephen’s escape from morality and maternal figures:
Throughout Portrait, Stephen manifests a psychological horror of woman as a figure of immanence, a symbol of unsettling sexual difference, and a perpetual reminder of bodily abjection. At the conclusion of chapter five, he prepares to flee from all the women who have served as catalysts in his own adolescent development. His journey into exile will release him from what he perceives as a cloying matriarchal authority. He must blot out from his ears “his mother’s sobs and reproaches” and strike from his eyes the insistent “image of his mother’s face” (p. 199). Alone and proud, isolated and free, Stephen proclaims joyful allegiance to the masculine fraternity of Daedalus, his priest and patron. (Henke, 334)
Stephen flees Ireland and all other maternal figures to further develop his masculinity and pursue art since female influences had ruled his entire life before. Joyce makes it clear that these maternal figures are the sole cause of Stephen’s inability to reach beauty through art. Feminist criticism makes Joyce’s motivation clear: “In a tone of gentle mockery, Joyce makes clear to his audience that Stephen’s fear of women and his contempt for sensuous life are among the many inhibitions that stifle his creativity” (Henke, 335). In conclusion, Joyce’s maternal symbols take a toll on the main protagonist Stephen Dedalus and his progression through life. Throughout his life, Stephen is being told what to do, what is right what is wrong, and being dominated by a matriarchal society. As he gets older, he wants to decide what is right for himself since he is confused by what the church, his teachers, mother, and society tell him. Because of these morals, Stephen only sees women as either pure or sexually approachable. To escape the constant influences and desires, Stephen uses art to transform them into beautiful renditions of his mind. When all of the influences overwhelm him, he abandons his morality mentors and flees them all entirely for the pursuit of art. Through psychoanalytical and feminine criticism, each event can be analyzed to find Joyce’s deeper meaning within the passages, such as Stephen’s Oedipal love for his mother. Joyce also balances out the opposing forces in the novel. For example, there is the Virgin and prostitute, Paternal and Maternal, and darkness and light. Without these opposing forces, the novel would be either didactic or pornographic:
At the dawn of infantile consciousness, Stephen interprets the external world in terms of complementary pairs: male and female, father and mother, politics and religion, Davitt and Parnell. Baby Stephen’s cosmos is organized in binary structures that set the stage for a dialectic of personal development. He perceives his father as a primordial storyteller who inaugurates the linguistic apprenticeship that inscribes the boy into the symbolic order of patriarchal authority. (Henke, 318) With these factor’s, one can fully understand the deeper meanings of Joyce’s symbols in the novel.