In James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus has been a spiritual exile from his social surroundings since childhood. When he is at the Belvedere College he champions Byron, Shelley and Ibsen. He is accused of heresy in an essay and sees himself “proud and sensitive and suspicions battling against the squalor of his life and the riot of his mind”. At the University the students distrust his “intellectual crankery.” He feels especially isolated from the Church and knows that he could never train for the priesthood. “His destiny was to be elusive of social and religious orders”. In his own family he is equally apart. “He felt he was hardly of one blood with them”.
Stephen remains always on the “fringe” of any corporate life and an exile within his own country. To fulfil himself he must leave Ireland.
A Portrait is the story of the nets and the escape from them to freedom, and the name of the hero is full of sympathetic significance. Stephen is the name of the first Christian martyr. He protested that God’s message to the people had been misinterpreted. He was accused of blasphemy and cast out of the city and stoned to death. Indeed, Stephen thinks of St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin as his green.
But the surname Dedalus is far more important. It has a double significance for Joyce. The Greek mythical Dedalus was imprisoned in a labyrinth on the island of Crete, and escaped by inventing wings. He escapes by flight in a double sense – that of liberation and of “soaring above”. The wings belong to the sense world, though through them the sense world is transcended and he becomes “a new soaring impalpable imperishable being”.
These elements in the symbol are all paralleled in Stephen’s life. He has to rebel from actualities of contemporary Ireland, the captivity of family, nationality and religion. All these are obstructions to his flight. Stephen escapes by creating his wings in two ways. On the personal level his intellectual and emotional development fit him finally to assert his freedom by leaving Ireland. Secondly, as a future artist he is learning to use language, his medium of ingenuity. The new “being” which he finally does create is the book itself.
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