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Joyce’s semi-autobiographical work titled A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man details the artistic development of Stephen Dedalus. This scene near the end of Chapter IV is a climactic moment wherein Stephen’s choice in career is confirmed. Stephen’s epiphany is induced by a young girl wading into the water at the beach. As Stephen revels in the girl’s beauty and sensuality, she is transformed from a girl into a “strange and beautiful seabird” (150). Her beauty is further described in bird-like terms and the passage is riddled with Christian elements.
He mentions the “holy silence” of the scene and describes her legs as “pure” and “softhued as ivory” and compares her to a dove (150).
The bird-girl is represented in the colors that are often associated with the Virgin Mary as he mentions the “white fringes of her drawers” and her “slateblue skirts” (150). The girl notices the “presence and worship of his eyes” but doesn’t shy away from his attention, thus allowing him to express his natural reaction to “the wonder of mortal beauty” and art (150).
We see Stephen’s connection with the girl as his soul cries out “Heavenly God!” in an “outburst of profane joy” (150). Stephen further imagines her as “a wild angel” of “mortal youth and beauty” who urges him “to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life” (150). Stephen then embraces his experience and accepts art as his true calling.
This scene near the end of Chapter IV confirms the triumph of beauty, creativity, and art over religion.
Stephen’s embraces art much like he’s embraces the prostitute at the end of Chapter II and religion at the end of Chapter III. Stephen moves from religious fervor and extreme self-loathing to “profane joy” and an appreciation for beauty (150). At the beginning of the chapter, Stephen dedicates his life to “devotional areas” in which he focuses on spiritual energy and rejects earthly life. Stephen withdraws from his surroundings and deprives himself of pleasure, though as he moves through the world this way, he ultimately comes to the realization that he will never be able to escape his sinful past and future temptation.
He notes the ways in which Christianity controls his life and comes to recognize that he needs to break free from these constraints in order to leave room for artistic expression. This realization comes after he rejects the Jesuit’s offer to join the priesthood. Stephen is initially tempted by the “secret knowledge and secret power” the priesthood offers, but he comes to the conclusion that “his destiny was to be elusive of social or religious orders” and that he would “learn his own wisdom” (141-42). He already seems to realize that he is about to change as he notes that “a new adventure was about to be opened to him” (144). Stephen’s epiphany on the beach allows him to see that his true calling is to be an artist and we see creativity prevail over faith. His character has been reconstructed from one of religious piety to that of an artist with an appreciation for beauty, art, and life. Stephen transforms into an artist who welcomes life and strives to be a “priest of the eternal imagination” (195).
The motif of flight is present throughout Joyce’s work and emphasizes Stephen’s desire for freedom from Ireland. This is further gestured to through his name and Stephen comes to embrace the name he shares with the fabulous artificer. He creates his own wings to escape the prison Ireland has become and the constricting nets of “nationality, language” and “religion” (179). Readers repeatedly see art and nationality clash throughout the novel. In a later scene, Stephen notes the “jaded eyes” and “culture of Dublin” in the crowd at a performance of Yeats’s play Countess Cathleen (199). Stephen ponders the augury of the birds he’d seen and wonders if they’re a symbol of departure or loneliness while he sees that individual and artistic freedom may not be possible while people value loyalty to Ireland over art.
His friend Davin comes to represent Irish nationalists as his character’s values gesture to the Irish Literary Revival and the preservation of Irish culture. Through an argument between Stephen and Davin, Stephen comes to regard Ireland as “the old sow that eats her farrow,” noting the way Ireland prevents its growth as she destroys those who defend her while they idealize Ireland’s past instead of progressing to a new future (179). He feels trapped by his heritage and demonstrates a deep need for individuality, though he ultimately realizes that his Irishness has played a central role in shaping his experiences and identity. In understanding the impact his heritage has had upon him, he recognizes the role he plays in giving a voice to Ireland and he endeavors to forge “the uncreated conscience” of his race (224).
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