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Essay: Stephen Dedalus

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  • Published: 4 February 2019*
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The growth of Stephen Dedalus’ artistic ability in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce is affected and mirrored by the language used around him, to describe him, and by him. Stephen’s development is hindered by the limitations of the English language, linking his development to the development of Irish literature written in English. M. Teresa Cabrera states that “Language becomes the measuring stick for the protagonist’s evolution through a process characterized by the fundamentally linguistic nature of his growing awareness of the world” ; in the case of Stephen, the measuring stick of language grows as his sense of self-expression grows and as he develops his own art.
At the outset of the work, the language is simplistic and childlike, mirroring the simplistic and childlike perception of Stephen and his inability to create thoughts of his own without the outside influence of the language of others. Stephen relies on the language of others to give him a way to perceive the world. The fact that he must rely on his father to tell him the story in the very first words of the work demonstrates his dependence on others for his grasp of language: “His father told him that story…he was baby tuckoo.” Stephen’s identity depends upon the identity prescribed to him by his family at the outset of his life, and he therefore has little control over any expression of the self because all his ideas are prescribed by those who have a language to communicate the ideas to him. According to M. Teresa Cabrera, he is “inscribed within a tradition and a language…which will subsequently determine his growth into adulthood.” Although he must depend on others for language, he still explores the multiple meanings of words, indicating that he already has the ability of an artist to take multiple perspectives but also showing his struggle to understand the contexts of the different meanings of those words: “That was a belt round his pocket. And belt was also to give a fellow a belt. One day a fellow had said to Cantwell: I’d give you such a belt in a second.” Language is at first a tool that Stephen can only grasp and examine, instead of completely master, which grounds him within his Irish culture. Although the English language was foreign to Ireland and was inherited only through a struggle of culture, Irish literature written in English quickly took hold: as Seamus Deane states, “…in Ireland, the problem of being a writer was in a very specific sense a linguistic problem.” This creates a link between Stephen as an Irishman and the Irish experience with the English language itself as Stephen, like his ancestors, tries to grasp a language that is not inherently his own.

As the narrative progresses, Stephen’s grasp of the language solidifies; however, there is still uncertainty in his mind as to where he belongs within the world of language as he tries to place himself within that world. He writes down his place in the world, showcasing his developing artistry as he examines the “address” of his being:

“He…read what he had written there: himself, his name and where he was.

Stephen Daedalus

Class of Elements

Clongowes Wood College


County Kildare



The World

The Universe”

Stephen’s concept of language and artistic growth can be linked to this placement within the Irish and the European tradition. He does not see Ireland as isolated from the rest of Europe, by either the sea or by time and tradition. This allows him to examine the language not just the artists of Ireland but the artists of Europe, from which much of his artistic inspiration later comes. Cabrera states that James Joyce uses language to connect Stephen’s artistic growth to the rest of the world: “At work here is Joyce’s belief…that language, history and politics are intricately connected, that efforts to develop one’s individual identity are always grounded in the language derived from public discourses.” The connection between Stephen’s place in the universe and the connection between his self-expression and his art is alluded to a few lines later, when his classmate Fleming has written a verse making light of Stephen’s attempt to find his place in the universe: Stephen “read the verses backwards but then they were not poetry.” Stephen’s recognition and appreciation of poetry as a form of art hints at his own path and potential as an artist, connecting his conception of language to the development of his own artistic expression.

As Stephen grows more mature physically and intellectually, the language becomes more advanced. Descriptions become more detailed and dialogue becomes less fragmented as it becomes more fully understood by Stephen, but he still relies on texts other than his own to lend their words to him. Language gives him a picture of the real world: “Words which he did not understand he said over and over to himself till he had learned them by heart: and through them he had glimpses of the real world about him.” Seamus Deane classifies this process as one typical and vital to the characters of Joyce: “…it is one of the most important of all the Joycean performances that a character should take possession of the language of others…and render it as his inimitable own.” In spite of Stephen’s progressing mastery of language, however, there is also a feeling of incompleteness to his understanding of language. Joyce, according to Cabrera, through this undermining of the availability and comprehension of the English language, “demonstrates that language is an inherently inadequate medium for representation and provides only a limited access to reality.” From this disconnect between language and reality stems a sense of mourning, and the language used by Stephen, as well as to describe him, becomes the language of mourning. He has ‘lost’ his childhood and with it the more simplistic language and terms in which he had previously understood the world:

He had known neither the pleasure of companionship with others nor the vigour of rude male health nor filial piety…His childhood was dead or lost and with it his soul capable of simple joys, and he was drifting amid life like the barren shell of the moon.

Art thou pale for weariness

Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,

Wandering companionless…?

He repeated to himself the lines of Shelley’s fragment. Its alternation of sad human ineffectualness with vast inhuman cycles of activity chilled him, and he forgot his own human and ineffectual grieving.

Although language has presented a barrier to his understanding, he still relies on the language of others (especially the language used in his studies and his reading) to express his feelings and develops a relationship to poetry to express himself.

When Stephen enters into the realm of higher academics, his language reflects his education consistently; however, his self-expression is stagnated by lack of creative freedom. In working closely with the works of others, he begins to doubt individual thought that is not influenced by other works:

– When may we expect to have something from you on the esthetic question? he asked. – From me! said Stephen in astonishment. I stumble on an idea once a fortnight if I am lucky…If you mean speculation, sir, said Stephen, I also am sure that there is no such thing as free thinking inasmuch as all thinking must be bound by its own laws.

The self-doubt that Stephen experiences is a characteristic that is in alignment with the Joycean objection to the Irish Literary Revival: Seamus Deane states that “…such an artist’s ‘true servitude is that he inherits a will broken by doubt and a soul that yields up all its hate to a caress; and the most seeming-independent are those who are the first to reassume their bonds.’” Just as the Irish Literary Revival brought about a conflict between culture and language, so too does Stephen’s study of those same elements. Within this same context, Stephen also becomes increasingly aware of the language he must use, and the language used around him. The language is rich, but Stephen also recognizes that it has an unsettling quality of unfamiliarity:

He thought: The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always
be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.

The “acquired speech” of the English language gives Stephen the feeling of distance between himself and the language he must use, what Seamus Deane terms “the vexed medium of a language which carries within itself the idea of the re-presentation in one form of a culture which initially existed in another, earlier form.” Although Stephen has intellectually matured, the sense of sluggishness from the frustrations of a language that is not yet his own inhibits his self-expression.

Within the ultimate pages of the work, Stephen pushes off from the language of others and into a realm where he creates his own language. The realization of his ability to express himself artistically dawns on him in a way that is described as magical:

His mind was waking slowly to a tremulous morning knowledge, a morning inspiration…O! In the virgin womb of the imagination the word was made flesh…The verses passed from his mind to his lips and, murmuring them over, he felt the rhythmic movement of a villanelle pass through them…Fearing to lose all, he raised himself suddenly on his elbow to look for paper and pencil.

Stephen’s diary is the culmination of his growth, the full expression of his artistic self coming to fruition. It includes the description of the everyday while adding in poetics to the prose:

5 April: Wild spring. Scudding clouds. O life! Dark stream of swirling bogwater on which appletrees have cast down their delicate flowers. Eyes of girls among the leaves. Girls demure and romping. All fair or auburn: no dark ones. They blush better. Houp-la!

Seamus Deane emphasizes the importance of language to the work, something that leads Stephen from battling with the understanding of words to creating his own “word-world” and leads the novel to “[become] a quotation from Stephen’s own writings.” By the end of the novel Stephen has begun to express himself artistically through the language he has finally mastered after his years of attempted understanding.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man follows Stephen’s artistic growth through the struggles of understanding a language that is not his own. Language is central to the development of Stephen’s self-expression, which mirrors the development of Irish literature in the constraints of the English language. As John Paul Riquelme states, “A Portrait is episodic…[and] provides an orienting sequence of rises and falls for Stephen’s development.” The episodes follow Stephen in the growth of artistic ability, from relying on the language of others to creating his own language as an artist; Stephen’s growth as an artist is a culmination of the language he has consumed and mastered over his journey of self-expression which allows him, finally, to begin to create his own art.

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