Daedalus And Portrait


Daedalus And Portrait Essay, Research Paper

The Daedalus Myth: Its Role in A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST…

James Joyce?s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a novel of complex themes developed

through frequent allusions to classical mythology. The myth of Daedalus and Icarus serves as a

structuring element in the novel, uniting the central themes of individual rebellion and discovery,

producing a work of literature that illuminates the motivations of an artist, and the development of his

individual philosophy.

James Joyce chose the name Stephen Dedalus to link his hero with the mythical Greek hero,

Daedalus. In Greek myth, Daedalus was an architect, inventor, and artisan. By request of King

Minos, Daedalus built a labyrinth on Crete to contain a monster called the Minotaur, half bull and

half man. Later, for displeasing the king, Daedalus and his son Icarus were both confined in this

labyrinth, which was so complex that even its creator could not find his way out. Instead, Daedalus

fashioned wings of wax and feathers so that he and his son could escape. When Icarus flew too high

— too near the sun — in spite of his father?s warnings, his wings melted, and he fell into the sea and

drowned. His more cautious father flew to safety (World Book 3). By using this myth in A Portrait

of the Artist as a Young Man (Portrait of the Artist), Joyce succeeds in giving definitive treatment to

an archetype that was well established long before the twentieth century (Beebe 163).

The Daedalus myth gives a basic structure to Portrait of the Artist. From the beginning, Stephen,

like most young people, is caught in a maze, just as his namesake Daedalus was. The schools are a

maze of corridors; Dublin is a maze of streets. Stephen?s mind itself is a convoluted maze filled with

dead ends and circular reasoning (Hackett 203):

Met her today point blank in Grafton Street. The crowd brought us together. We both stopped. She

asked me why I never came, said she had heard all sorts of stories about me. This was only to gain

time. Asked me, was I writing poems? About whom? I asked her. This confused her more and I felt

sorry and mean. Turned off that valve at once and opened the spiritual-heroic refrigerating

apparatus, invented and patented in all countries by Dante Alighieri.

(Joyce 246)

Life poses riddles at every turn. Stephen roams the labyrinth searching his mind for answers

(Gorman 204). The only way out seems to be to soar above the narrow confines of the prison, as

did Daedalus and his son. In Portrait of the Artist, the world presses on Stephen. His own thoughts

are melancholy, his proud spirit cannot tolerate the painful burden of reality. In the end, he must rise

above it (Farrell 206).

At first, Stephen does not understand the significance of his unusual name. He comes to realize, by

the fourth chapter, that like Daedalus he is caught in a maze:

Every part of his day, divided by what he regarded now as the duties of his station in life, circled

about its own centre of spiritual energy. His life seemed to have drawn near to eternity; every

thought, word and deed, every instance of consciousness could be made to revibrate radiantly in


(Joyce 142)

Throughout the novel, Joyce freely exploits the symbolism of the name (Kenner 231). If he wants to

be free, Daedalus must fly high above the obstacles in his path.

Like the father Daedalus and the son Icarus, Stephen seeks a way out of his restraints. In Stephen?s

case, these are family, country and religion. In a sense, Portrait of the Artist is a search for identity;

Stephen searches for the meaning of his strange name (Litz 70). Like Daedalus, he will fashion his

own wings — of poetry, not of wax — as a creative artist. But at times Stephen feels like Icarus, the

son who, if he does not heed his father?s advice, may die for his stubborn pride (Litz 71). At the end

of Portrait of the Artist, he seems to be calling on a substitute, spiritual parent for support, when he

refers to Daedalus as “old father, old artificer.”(Joyce 247),(Ellman 16). Even at Stephen?s moment

of highest decision, he thinks of himself as a direct descendant of his namesake Daedalus (Litz 71).

Stephen?s past is important only because it serves as the fuel of the present. Everything that Stephen

does in his present life feeds off the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, making him what he is (Peake

82). When he wins social acceptance by his schoolmates at Clongowes, he does so by acting

deliberately in isolation — much as Daedalus in his many endeavors: “They made a cradle of their

locked hands and hoisted him up among them and carried him along till he struggled to get free”

(Joyce 52). When he reports Father Dolan to the Rector, he defends his name, the symbol of his

identity (Peake 71):

It was wrong; it was unfair and cruel: and, as he sat in the refectory, he suffered time after time in

memory the same humiliation until he began to wonder whether it might not really be that there was

something in his face which made him look like a schemer and he wished he had a little mirror to

see. But there could not be; and it was unjust and cruel and unfair.

(Joyce 47)

The myth?s pattern of flight and fall also gives shape to the novel. Each chapter ends with an

attempted flight, leading into a partial failure or fall at the beginning of the next chapter. The last

chapter ends with the most ambitious attempt, to fly away from home, religion, and nation to a

self-imposed artistic exile (Wells 252): “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the

reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my

race.”(Joyce 247). By keeping his audience in doubt as to whether Stephen is Icarus or Daedalus,

Joyce attains a control that is sustained through the rhythm of the novel?s action, the movements of

its language, and the presiding myth of Daedalus and Icarus (Litz 72).

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