The Misogyny of the Artist as a Young Man
In most novels there are always certain aspects of the protagonist’s life that serve as the basis from which the character is motivated to create or to encounter particular events. Often times these motivations are the key that the protagonist needs in order to realize their meaning in life and where their destinations lie. James Joyce cleverly uses the presence and appeal of women in his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to allow his protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, to become cognizant of his role in life, but not without first being subjected to manipulation and confusion. Stephen’s stringent childhood of strict Irish Catholicism and all-male boarding schools combined with an already intuitive yet misguided aesthetic mind, confront and conflict with the women who obliviously shape his emotional development.
Since Stephen was destined to be an artist, as a child he is already hypersensitive emotionally and can be easily influenced. Stephen’s earliest memories are when the first woman is presented to him, his mother Along with his mother is his nanny Dante who are both symbolic as they ignite the development of Stephen’s conscience (Ben-Merre 14). Both women are traditional and dogmatic in the ways of putting the divine and church before all things. So it is already evident that Stephen’s exposure is minimized to preconceived ethnic and cultural standards (15). Mrs. Dedalus represents the affectionate aspects of a women that a child desires while Dante serves as a mediator to the external aspects that Stephen will later know as Dante’s preferred politics, propaganda, and social issues that he will reluctantly apply to himself
eventually (14). Both women are nurturers for Stephen yet they are both demanding of him. Stephen equates them both to religion, the strong Irish Catholicism that will burden him later (Henke 91). The overly powerful inhibitions that Mrs. Dedalus, Dante, and religion impose on Stephen are reasons for the suppression of his natural desires (84). They reinforce the sound, old ways rather than the fury, or eccentric ideas of life and they uphold what is trite and commonplace instead of what is new and risky (Ben-Merre 15). When Stephen is six years old he says that he wants to marry his neighbor, a young girl as well, named Eileen and he is chastised for saying this by Dante and Mrs. Dedalus because Eileen is a Protestant and that it would be a sin. They demand that he apologize for his innate feelings and if he fails to do so they teasingly threaten him that an eagle would come out of the sky and claw out his eyes. Many of these things said to Stephen had an unintended effect that made his conscience aware of false consequences for liking girls, such as blindness, castration, and punishment by the church, depending on how a child interprets such symbolism. These two women who served as Stephen’s first exposure had already gained a range of control over Stephen’s conscience. They had successfully caused Stephen to become aware of the barrier to women that was concocted of religion and social diversity, thus making him apprehensive towards the other sex and having feelings of guilt toward them (14). These women will influence the social tendencies that Stephen will learn to fight as he gets older (15).
While Stephen is attending Clongowe’s, an all male boarding school, he frequently desires the affection of his mother, especially during times of hardship he wishes to be back home under her veil of security (Henke 84). But these feelings change throughout his stay at Clongowe’s. Stephen has not yet been able to differentiate between filial love and erotic love so he becomes baffled and unable to tell the difference between what is moral and truly immoral (85). In one circumstance in the novel, one of Stephen’s class mates ask him if he kisses his mother, and Stephen is not sure how to respond, so he says yes and he becomes the victim of their teasings. They turn around his kissing of his mother into some sort of incestual activity for their own amusement (86). When one of Stephen’s classmates asked him if he “loves his mother,” all Stephen can muster up to say is, “I don’t know what your words mean.” This lack of understanding of women influences Stephen to feel another web of guilt that forms self and mental confinement to the points to where he wants to give up all allegiance to his motherly figures (85). Stephen realizes that the world is male-dominated and that most women are merely mellowing agents strategically placed here and there so he resolves that his mother can no longer be a sanctuary in his life (86). Being in this all male school allows for misogyny and terror of females to breed within Stephen.
Underlying the entire time in a confused mass is Stephen’s sexual desires. Feeling no comfort or reassurance from any being now, Stephen, at the age of sixteen, submits to sex with a prostitute to find some sort of release from the sexual longings that have been infatuating him. This copulation alone symbolically confronts several issues that Stephen had with women. All the women that Stephen knew before hand cause him shame because he either had to apologize for or somehow explain why he was attracted to women, all the while giving him the impression that it was immoral to like women. So now here he was engaging in such an extreme activity with a women who served as a symbolic embodiment of all the three major females that Stephen had previously known. The prostitute was young and showed signs of youth such as those of the dear Eileen that Stephen had been consumed with. She also was maternal and nurturing to Stephen as Mrs. Dedalus and Dante were. So during this ironically sacramental act Stephen feels as if he is being redeemed by all women and that he can somehow be at peace with them. This experience and others to come with the same prostitute deal more with his confusion and subsequent growth as an artist than it does with a sexual awakening ( Notes 44).
But unfortunately Stephen’s Irish Catholicism and all that was forced into his head as a child comes into play. He realizes that the act of being with a prostitute is a sin and it pervades his entire mind, body, and soul. Women are once again the antagonists symbolic of lust, disturbing reminders of sex, and of death whether in Stephen’s life, mind, or fantasies (Henke 82).
Stephen’s extra sensory perceptions allow him to torture himself once again (Notes 57). He can feel his heart in his head beating out the questions of: “Why did you sin?…Why did you not…repent of your evil ways” (Joyce 140)? Throughout his self pity he fails again to realize that he is an artist and that he has such over-dramatic guilt trips because he is an artist. When he cries he imagines that as the tears fall onto his lips, he is actually kissing another woman, the sleeves of the Virgin Mary pleading for forgiveness (Notes 57).
At the brink of Stephen’s self suffering he comes to a reawakening initiated by the realization of his calling, to recreate “life out of life” and to live by his own freedom and power of his own new artistic soul (Joyce 172). He then creates his own definition of art as being,”…the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an esthetic end” (Joyce 207). In laymen’s terms Stephen’s definition of art would be one’s feelings towards something or some concept or idea that are overall feelings that hold appreciation, understanding, or beauty. During Stephen’s awakening he comes across a climatic affirmation of his new decision to be an artist. He sees another young women by the sea shore but this time she has a different effect on him. In order to comprehend the total essence of this revelation we must first remember that the woman is an object of Stephen’s desire, worship, and fear, and that it is she that brings about the artist from within Stephen (Cliff 62). In a critical commentary Cliff notes explains Stephen’s recognition of
For Stephen (the young, latent artist), she is both spiritual and intensely physical.
She is “pure” and “ivory,” and, at the same time, Stephen is keenly aware of her
sexual allure…Stephen refers to her as a “darkplumaged dove”…Unlike women
whom Stephen has previously desired, this one accepts his worshipful desire and
invites him to express his natural reaction of wonder…and, ultimately, she kindles
Stephen’s artistic nature by returning his gaze with the approval of the “faint flame
…on her cheek.” In Stephen’s cry, “Heavenly God,” he proclaims the “advent” of
his life’s purpose. He has discovered that he can see with the eyes of a man and…
All throughout Stephen had been looking for a women who could help bring about his artistic instincts, basically for a women to deflower him into his new aesthetic ways (Henke 87). The women in the novel also were the catalysts for Stephen’s first artistic act (Ben-Merre 16). Stephen’s experiences with his love and former fear for women served as the basis for a poem that he wrote when he awoke one morning suddenly inspired.
The purpose of all the women in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is to further define what Stephen Dedalus is about and how he is to become an artist. Women can be the attraction to a carnal creativity that must be patronized and also neglected in order for the artist to be complete (Ben-Merre 13). Stephen, being an uncomfortable, awkward child and young man examining his purpose in the world, was able to understand how the presence of the female showed him how socially inept he is with woman and how his religion and family molded him that way. With great conviction Stephen was eventually able to say,”I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my father land, or my church”
He was finally able to realize that women embody his creativity (Poupard 213). His confrontations and sexual experiences with women clarified for him that to be an artist one
must faulter in order to find his art and vocation (Sullivan 1032).
Ben-Merre, Diana A., ed. James Joyce and His Contemporaries. New York: Greenwood Press,
Henke, Suzette, ed. Women In Joyce. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.
“James Joyce.” Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Dennis Poupard and James E. Person, Jr.
Vol. 16. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Co., 1985 201-209, 212-227. 68 vols.
Joyce, James. A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Middlesex: Penguin, 1976.
Sullivan, James. “James Joyce.” Magill’s Survey of World Literature. Frank Magill, ed. vol. 3.
New York: Marshall Cavendish Corp., 1993.
Zimbaro, Valerie P. Cliff’s Notes. Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Lincoln: Cliff
Notes, Inc., 1992.