James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man presents an account of the formative years of aspiring author Stephen Dedalus. The very title of the novel suggests that Joyce’s focus throughout will be those aspects of the young man’s life that are key to his artistic development, and it allows one to consider each event in Stephen’s life — from the opening story of the moocow to his experiences with religion and the university — as a significant contribution to his growth as an artist. Central to the experiences of Stephen’s life are, of course, the people with whom he interacts, and of primary importance among these people are women, who, as his story progresses, prove to be a driving force behind Stephen’s art.
As A Portrait of the Artist progresses, the structure of the relationship between Stephen, women, and art becomes increasingly clear. At one point in the novel, Stephen comes to the conclusion that his art involves “recreat[ing] life out of life” (434) and, at another, that he must “encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and forge in my soul” (526). He realizes that to fulfill his destiny as an artist, he must embrace life and the experiences of which it consists, for it is from experience that he builds his creations. In light of this revelation, Stephen’s life becomes a process of accumulating experiences, as well as a struggle to break free of those institutions that would prevent him from doing so. For Stephen, inspiration requires experience, and it is through women that Stephen gains the latter and, thus, receives the former.
Stephen’s relationship with the opposite sex begins to develop early in his life. Within the first few pages of the novel lie hints of the different roles women will play in his story. Dante becomes the first to give Stephen some experience of the world outside himself when she teaches him about geographical features in other countries and on the moon. This physical understanding of the exterior world may be the impetus for Stephen’s subsequent construction of a hierarchical list that defines his place within the universe.
Both Dante and Stephen’s own mother associate themselves with punishment when they assert that he “will apologise” or “the eagles will come and pull out his eyes” (246). This incident results in Stephen’s composition of a poem based on “apologise” and “eyes,” one
Young Stephen’s first romantic interest in the opposite sex comes in the form of his playmate, Eileen, whom he plans to marry when they are older. This assertion, although childishly innocent, is nonetheless the first suggestion that sexual and romantic relationships with women will be important to Stephen as he matures. Indeed, the appearance of punishment, romance, and inspiration at such an early point in the novel creates a sense of the interconnected effect they will have on Stephen and his art. The association of women with each of these essential elements establishes yet another link between them, and emphasizes the central role women will play in Stephen’s life.
Throughout his childhood, women continue to contribute to Stephen’s development as an artist, though he seems unaware of their significance. Eileen, for example, indirectly leads Stephen to the conclusion that “by thinking of things you could understand them” (287) when he sees in her hands and hair possible meanings for the terms Tower of Ivory and House of Gold. Stephen also displays his growing knowledge of the differences between men and women when he observes that she has “long thin cool white hands too because she [is] a girl” (286).
This recognition of women as sexual beings manifests itself again when, after reading The Count of Monte Christo, Stephen begins to have sexually-driven fantasies about its female protagonist, Mercedes. Though she exists only in fiction, Mercedes’ role in Stephen’s development and accumulation of experience is no less important. She represents a new step in his relationship with women, in that her physical presence is not required to inspire Stephen’s imagination. Her image alone has a profound effect on him: “as he brooded upon her image, a strange unrest crept into his blood” (311). In this case, Mercedes’ image stirs sexual feelings in Stephen, but eventually the female image comes to have a deeper significance for him, as does the sexual act to which it is tied.
Though his fantasies are rife with sexual content, Stephen finds himself unable to consummate — in even the mildest form — the scenes he imagines. While alone on a tram with a girl his own age, he feels compelled to kiss her, but fails to do so. Angry with himself, he attempts to create with poetry what he was unable to achieve in real life. This time Stephen’s imagination is stirred not by a sexual image, but by a sexual experience, however frustrated it may be. He makes a conscious decision to write about the experience, and “by dint of brooding on the incident” (318) he successfully creates a love
Even before this incident, Stephen seems to understand that women hold the power to transform him; he prophetically imagines that upon a successful consummation of the sexual act, “weakness and timidity and inexperience would fall from him” (311). Women, in Stephen’s mind, are the channel through which strength, boldness, and — perhaps most importantly — experience can be obtained. As the incident on the tram suggests, Stephen cannot create art without the inspiration of a real-life incident. Clearly, he would prefer that his experiences have fruitful, rather than frustrating, outcomes; however, he is unable to actively obtain such a goal. In a sense, he is emasculate, lacking both the strength and boldness to initiate a sexual encounter. Eventually, the frustration becomes too much for him, and he seeks the services of a prostitute. Even after having taken this initial step, however, Stephen remains passive: it is he who wishes “to be held firmly in her arms” (352) and who ultimately “surrender[s] himself to her” (353). Not until she embraces him does he feel “strong and fearless and sure of himself” (353). At last, through the prostitute’s active contribution, Stephen receives the sexual experience he so desires, and confirms his premonition that women can transfer experience to him through sex.
Having obtained a newfound boldness, Stephen actively engages in sin of every kind. Although committing each of the seven deadly sins ensures Stephen of eternal damnation, he seems more concerned with experiencing life to its fullest. In the midst of his departure
from Catholic doctrine, however, he finds himself drawn to the paragon of purity, the Virgin Mary. He feels close to “the refuge of sinners” (357) — despite the fact that he commits sin upon sin — and associates her with sex when, “after the frenzy of his body’s
lust had spent itself” (357), his thoughts turn to “her whose beauty is not like earthly beauty” (370). Once again, the image of a woman enraptures Stephen and inspires his imagination; but when he decides to confess his sins and seek the shelter of the Virgin, he temporarily places the moral purity she represents above his own initial fascination with her physical beauty.
After a brief period of intense devoutness, Stephen again turns his back to the church with the certainty that he does not belong among the pious. As he literally walks away, he “turn[s] his eyes coldly for an instant towards the faded blue shrine of the Blessed Virgin” (423). Though he abandons the rigidly religious, moral aspect of the Virgin, he still finds inspiration in the sexual element of her image. This becomes apparent during his encounter with a young woman on the beach shortly after his decision to leave the church. The girl’s beauty instantly strikes Stephen, and he experiences something akin to a religious revelation. The image of the Virgin subtly appears in her “slateblue skirts” and “mortal beauty” (433), and blatantly religious language such as “Heavenly God,” “holy,” and
“angel” (434) fills the passage. Clearly, Stephen has not completely discarded religion, but has instead incorporated it into a concept more appropriate to his development as an artist. The young woman becomes “an envoy from the fair courts of life” (434), who delivers inspiration when “her image [passes] into his soul for ever” (434). Though Stephen receives artistic inspiration throughout the novel, nowhere does the narrative so blatantly describe the role of women in the delivery of it. They are the emissaries through which life provides him with experience, allowing him “to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life” (434). They deliver the raw experience he transforms and refines into art.
The key to understanding the relationship between women, sex, experience, and creation lies in Stephen’s association of himself with his mythological namesake, Daedalus. By establishing a link between himself and the ancient inventor, he makes apparent the parallel elements of their two stories — punishment, falling, women — and their relationship to his own artistic creation. Pasiphae, wife of King Minos, provides Daedalus with the impetus to create when she asks him to construct a cow-shaped shell in which she can hide in order to have sex with a bull. Thus, women and sex provide the artist with his inspiration, and are tied to the events that follow: Daedalus receives punishment, in the form of the Labyrinth, for his creation; and the escape from this punishment ultimately leads to the
famous fall of Icarus, who flies too high and melts the wax of his artificial wings.
Long before he knows the story of Daedalus, Stephen is aware of these themes in his own life, as well as their interconnectedness. He falls and breaks his glasses, and receives a pandying as a result. Dante tells him a bird will pluck out his eyes if he doesn’t apologise. Sex proves to be both a source of frustration and a cause for punishment for his “fall” from God’s grace into sin. His feminine soul sinks “into depths of contrite peace, no longer able to suffer the pain of dread” (391).
Clearly, these themes have an initially negative connotation for Stephen. Not until he makes the direct connection between himself and his ancient counterpart does he come to recognize them as positive — even essential — parts of his life as an artist, in that the experiences of his life have their origins in each. Just as punishment inspires Daedalus to construct wings for escape, so religious repentance results in Stephen’s transformation of Catholic tradition into a metaphor for artistic inspiration that allows him to break free of the church. Just as Pasiphae’s sexual urges ultimately lead to Icarus’ fall into the sea, so Stephen’s sexual sins with women lead to the fall not only of himself in relation to God,
but also to the “fall from him” of “weakness and timidity and inexperience” (311). However, Stephen’s falls do not end in tragedy, but instead lead to triumph. The loss of his sexual inexperience leads to the gain of sexual knowledge and his masculinity. His fall
from the church leads to his revelatory experience with the young woman, and thus to his ultimate dedication to art. Women, central to the experiences that bring Stephen to these critical points, prove to be the transformative element necessary to the fulfillment of his
romantic experiences with the same young woman who, years earlier, provided the inspiration for his first serious attempt at poetry — comes to him as the result of a process described in obviously sexual terms. Stephen’s imagination and spirit take on the role of the feminine mediator between life and art. Life, as the fallen angel Gabriel, visits “the virgin’s chamber”, where he impregnates her with experience, and, “in the virgin womb of the imagination” (485), that experience develops into a work of art. Whereas sexual experience itself initially inspired art, it has now become a metaphor for the process of artistic creation, in which any kind of experience — good or bad, failure or triumph — may be transformed into art. Stephen’s understanding of the woman’s role in this process changes from one in which women’s actions themselves are inspiration to one in which
female figures are the external deliverers of inspiration, and finally to one in which he internalizes completely their role as mediators between experience and art. Once he realizes that they are deliverers of an inspiration that is born from his own experience, he
consigns their function to his own imagination, thus abandoning the need for an external intermediary, while at the same time embracing — and accepting as a part of himself — the centrally feminine aspect of the process of creation.