James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a novel of complexthemes developed through frequent allusions to classical mythology. The myth ofDaedalus and Icarus serves as a structuring element in the novel, uniting thecentral themes of individual rebellion and discovery, producing a work ofliterature that illuminates the motivations of an artist, and the development ofhis individual philosophy.
James Joyce chose the name Stephen Dedalus to linkhis hero with the mythical Greek hero, Daedalus. In Greek myth, Daedalus was anarchitect, inventor, and artisan. By request of King Minos, Daedalus built alabyrinth on Crete to contain a monster called the Minotaur, half bull and halfman. Later, for displeasing the king, Daedalus and his son Icarus were bothconfined in this labyrinth, which was so complex that even its creator could notfind his way out. Instead, Daedalus fashioned wings of wax and feathers so thathe and his son could escape.
When Icarus flew too high — too near the sun — inspite of his father’s warnings, his wings melted, and he fell into the sea anddrowned. His more cautious father flew to safety (World Book 3). By using thismyth in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Portrait of the Artist), Joycesucceeds in giving definitive treatment to an archetype that was wellestablished long before the twentieth century (Beebe 163). The Daedalus mythgives 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’smind 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 ustogether. We both stopped.
She asked me why I never came, said she had heard allsorts of stories about me. This was only to gain time. Asked me, was I writingpoems? About whom? I asked her. This confused her more and I felt sorry andmean. Turned off that valve at once and opened the spiritual-heroicrefrigerating apparatus, invented and patented in all countries by DanteAlighieri. (Joyce 246) Life poses riddles at every turn.
Stephen roams thelabyrinth searching his mind for answers (Gorman 204). The only way out seems tobe to soar above the narrow confines of the prison, as did Daedalus and his son. In Portrait of the Artist, the world presses on Stephen. His own thoughts aremelancholy, his proud spirit cannot tolerate the painful burden of reality. Inthe end, he must rise above it (Farrell 206).
At first, Stephen does notunderstand the significance of his unusual name. He comes to realize, by thefourth chapter, that like Daedalus he is caught in a maze: Every part of hisday, 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 drawnnear to eternity; every thought, word and deed, every instance of consciousnesscould be made to revibrate radiantly in heaven. . .
(Joyce 142) Throughout thenovel, Joyce freely exploits the symbolism of the name (Kenner 231). If he wantsto be free, Daedalus must fly high above the obstacles in his path. Like thefather 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 themeaning of his strange name (Litz 70). Like Daedalus, he will fashion his ownwings — of poetry, not of wax — as a creative artist. But at times Stephenfeels like Icarus, the son who, if he does not heed his father’s advice, maydie for his stubborn pride (Litz 71). At the end of Portrait of the Artist, heseems to be calling on a substitute, spiritual parent for support, when herefers to Daedalus as “old father, old artificer.
“(Joyce 247),(Ellman16). Even at Stephen’s moment of highest decision, he thinks of himself as adirect descendant of his namesake Daedalus (Litz 71). Stephen’s past isimportant only because it serves as the fuel of the present. Everything thatStephen 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 hisschoolmates at Clongowes, he does so by acting deliberately in isolation — muchas Daedalus in his many endeavors: “They made a cradle of their lockedhands and hoisted him up among them and carried him along till he struggled toget free” (Joyce 52). When he reports Father Dolan to the Rector, hedefends his name, the symbol of his identity (Peake 71): It was wrong; it wasunfair and cruel: and, as he sat in the refectory, he suffered time after timein memory the same humiliation until he began to wonder whether it might notreally be that there was something in his face which made him look like aschemer and he wished he had a little mirror to see.
But there could not be; andit was unjust and cruel and unfair. (Joyce 47) The myth’s pattern of flightand fall also gives shape to the novel. Each chapter ends with an attemptedflight, leading into a partial failure or fall at the beginning of the nextchapter. The last chapter ends with the most ambitious attempt, to fly away fromhome, religion, and nation to a self-imposed artistic exile (Wells 252):”Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality ofexperience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of myrace. “(Joyce 247).
By keeping his audience in doubt as to whether Stephenis Icarus or Daedalus, Joyce attains a control that is sustained through therhythm of the novel’s action, the movements of its language, and the presidingmyth of Daedalus and Icarus (Litz 72).