English 12 Honors
February 5, 2008
Without protection and guidance from his mother, Stephen feels abandoned and unprepared to face the real world. When “Wells shouldered [Stephen] in the ditch the day before,” “all the fellows said” “it was a mean thing to do” (27). However, not one of them stands up for Stephen at the scene. The absence of support from the rest of the boys, show that actions like Wells’ are socially acceptable in the masculine sphere. Stephen is discouraged from snitching and forced to accept his place in society. Joyce also uses the ditch to symbolize the womb. The “cold slime of the ditch covered his whole body” (27) as Stephen emerges. By pushing Stephen into the ditch, Wells is attacking Stephen’s masculinity. Stephen is pushed back to his mother’s womb because he is not strong enough to survive in the male-dominated world. Joyce creates an image of Stephen being born. When a baby enters the real world, he is wet and cold. In addition to these conditions, he feels like a foreigner in the new place surrounded by unfamiliar faces that laugh at him. The feeling of coldness represents the harsh realities that Stephen now must face. Stephen longs “to be at home and [to] lay his head on his mother’s lap” (25). Only when he is with his mother or in the womb does Stephen feel the warmth and security he seeks. Stephen sees his mother as a “powerful and beneficent source of physical pleasure” (Henke, 318). She provides him with food, changes his diapers, and bathes him, so Stephen grows up accustomed to her taking care of him. He expects her to always be there to cater his needs. His expectations are crushed by the reality that hits him at Clonglowes as he is forced to be independent.
Stephen “flings the blankets from him madly” (128). The blankets serve to keep Stephen warm and secure like a womb. He is protected from the cold and cruel realities that exist on the other side. However, instead of treasuring warmth and protection, Stephen throws the blanket off as if he was trying to escape from the womb. Stephen, first works to “free his face and neck” (128). Joyce creates an image of Stephen being reborn. When a baby is born, he comes out head first. Instead of describing the cold slime like before to show Stephen’s fear, this time Stephen seems to want to come out. As opposed to a sanction and place of warmth and protection, Joyce chooses to use negative words to condemn the womb as “stinking, bestial, and malignant” place (128). The womb is also compared to Stephen’s “hell” (128). The word “stinking” not only sounds unpleasant, but may refer to the womb being an unbearable place. The “bestial” appearance of the womb frightens Stephen and motivates him to find a way out. Joyce also describes the womb as malignant meaning that it has dangerous and harmful influence. Stephen wishes to break away from this female influence that constantly reminds him to be “good.” Stephen starts to fight these ideas of purity that are imposed on him. From his experience with the prostitute, he realizes that woman commit impure acts that he is warned to avoid. Stephen has a difficult time accepting the fact that at one point his mother, too, must have committed an impure act to create him. Likewise, the Virgin Mary, who is the epitome of purity, must have encountered a similar experience to create Jesus.
Stephen feels the “reeking odour pouring down his neck and revolting his entrails” (128). Joyce uses imagery to show Stephen’s inner conflict. Again, the “reeking odour” proves to be unbearable and acts as a type of pressure that forces Stephen to mold into flawless and untainted human being. Stephen feels claustrophobic; He’s suffocating and drowning inside the womb. The religious influences are being pushed upon him against his will. Stephen accuses God of trying to imprison him in the womb to stunt his development and force him to be forever oppressed by maternal influence. The womb had served as his protection, but now becomes a prison. Stephen is prevented from exploration, discovery, and experimentation because he is restricted from the outside world. Stephen gasps for “air! The air of heaven” (128)! He struggles to leave the womb and breathe in fresh air, which also represents new knowledge and ideas. Stephen feels restricted to his family, religion, and country. In order to further expand his horizons, Stephen must break away from these restrictions. Stephen “stumbles toward the window” (128) and opens it. The window is opened to new opportunities and experiences waiting for Stephen to discover. There is a world outside of the Catholic boys’ school, and by opening the window, Stephen declares that he’s ready to take off.
Stephen falls into an argument with his friend, Cranly, who believes that Stephen should stay in his country and continue to learn the Irish language. Stephen, on the other hand, believes that “when the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight” (182). The country stands for the nation as well as the mother since every child is born from a mother. The nets serve to prevent the men from flight. The country and the women have the nets as a source of power to control the men. Men live in a “chaotic, uncontrollable world of physicality, process, and unsatisfied desire” (Beauvoir, 319). Therefore, it is expected that the women should maintain these men and keep them from acting upon their instincts and running wild. Joyce even uses the pronoun “it” instead of “him” to replace men to exemplify the animal-like traits that men share. Without the rules of mothers, religion, and the nation, the men would return to their barbaric ways. Freud’s ego and superego would not exist because the id, the unconscious part of the mind, would be in charge and influence the people’s behavior. They would act upon instinct rather than reason and values. The ideas of “nationality, language, [and] religion” (182) all deal with past traditions and history, but Stephen does not want to be restricted to these subjects. He wants to accumulate knowledge outside of these boundaries that are established by the feminine sphere and have limited him for so long. Stephen speaks with “cold violence” (182) as he compares Ireland to an “old sow that eats her farrow” (182). Joyce uses the metaphor to show Stephen’s strong disapproval of his country. Stephen exaggerates the mother pigs eat their piglets to show heavy influence that the mothers of Ireland are over their children. The metaphor reveals the cruelty of the situation. Stephen blames the mothers for the country’s weak sons, the weakness of religion in comparison to politics, and the weakness of the country of Ireland in comparison to Great Britain. Stephen drops his Irish class and decides to free himself.
Like Daedalus, in the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, Stephen attempts to “fly by those nets” (182). Both characters try to defy nature—“Mother” nature. Daedalus challenges nature, which is also connected to the gods’ powers, by creating wings that have the ability to fly and defy the laws of gravity. Similarly, Stephen attempts to defy nature by creating. Reproduction and creation is an ability reserved only for woman. Unable to cope with this fact, Stephen tries to master the art of creation through his writing. Joyce uses the “nets” as a barrier. Stephen refuses to be tied down to his country, to his religion, and to his family.
In Stephen’s second to last diary entry on April 26, summarizes Stephen’s reasoning for leaving Ireland. Even though Stephen, attempts to break away from female influence. He owes them for they become his inspiration to create. Stephen’s mother hopes that Stephen “may learn in [his] own life…away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels” (Joyce, 223). Joyce reveals the obstacle that every mother must face in the development of her children. They learn to let them go. Stephen’s mother realizes the importance of experience. The nets that have tied Stephen down since birth are finally lifted. The sensation and rush of freedom causes Stephen to cry, “Welcome, O life” (224)! All the weight—the years of being oppressed by female influence—has been lifted from his shoulders. . Stephen is now free to fly. Reality continues to haunt Stephen for the “millionth time” (224) as he attempts to “forge in the smithy of [his soul] the uncreated conscience of [his] race” (224). Stephen is aware of the restraints that nature imposes on men. However, he remains determined to create. “Smithy” denotes a blacksmith’s workshop; Joyce uses the word “smithy” to describe Stephen’s work-in-progress. Stephen’s race refers to the male species. The art of writing is the only form of creation that gives the man the power to express his inner drives. Women do not experience similar inner drives, so Stephen believes that this distinction gives the male race a purpose in life. Stephen proves that men, too, have the ability to create and pave the way for generations and generations to come by passing down their stories.
Stephen reaches manhood only after breaking all ties from female influence. As a boy, he grows up dependent on his biological mother. She is his source of food, warmth, and survival. Stephen is also brought up a religious background. From his mother and the Church, Stephen learns the difference between good and bad, which become part of his daily guidelines. It is natural for Stephen to feel pressured by the female influence as his unconscious instincts conflict with the restrictions that his country has imposed. Stephen learns to manipulate women through language and regains control over himself. He discovers that there is a vast amount of knowledge that exists outside his comfort zone. In order to pursue his art and to create, Stephen takes a courageous flight into an unknown world.
Henke, Suzette. "Feminist Criticism. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Boston: Bedford/Martin's, 1964. 317-336.
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/Martin's, 1964.