Daedalus Myth And Portrait Of The Artist Essay

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.

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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 heaven… (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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