Bird Imagery in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man The works of twentieth-century Irish writer James Joyce resound vividly with a unique humanity and genius. His novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published in 1916, is a convincing journey through the inner mind and spirit of Stephen Dedalus. Portrayed with incredible fluency and realism, imagery guides the reader through the swift current of growth tangible in the juvenile hero.
Above all heavy imagery in the novel is the recurring bird motif. Joyce uses birds to ultimately relate Stephen to the Daedelus myth of the “hawklike man;” however, these images also exemplify Stephen’s daily experiences, and longing for true freedom page169. By using imagery of birds as threatening, images of beauty, and images of escape, the reader can unify the work and better understand Stephen’s tumultuous journey through life.Order now
The opening scene of Chapter one portrays a conversation between a very young Stephen and Dante, Stephen’s nanny. She scolds him for an unconventional thought, warning him that “the eagles will come and pull out eyes”8. This obviously graphic image suggests to Stephen the threatening presence of eagles that are minding all his thoughts. Joyce’s vividness with such gruesome imagery has a real effect on Stephen; he repeats Dante’s caution in his childish song, chanting: “Pull out his eyes, Apologize” 8.
A playful, yet sensitive Stephen must immediately conform Pfeiffer 2 even his innocent unorthodox actions in fear of the threatening phantom eagles to save the consequences they will bring. His thoughts are threatened again by birds when he meets an acquaintance named Heron when walking down a dark street. Stephen immediately notes the peculiar image of Heron’s “bird face as well as a bird’s name”76.
Through descriptive images of Heron’s “mobile face, beaked like a bird’s” and his “close-set prominent eyes which were light and inexpressive,” Joyce enables the reader to not only envision his birdlike characteristics but also adds insight to Stephen’s thoughts toward his unchaste peers 76. Heron taunts Stephen, sardonically naming him a “model youth” who “doesn’t flirt and doesn’t damn anything or damn all” 76. This blatant remark by the bird-like boy is an obvious verbal threat to Stephen’s character. Continued as Heron and his friend viscously chide Stephen for his admiration for Byron’s poetry, Joyce’s bird imagery bears in this scene a restraint of Stephen’s uniqueness by threatening his self-expression.
As Stephen mentally develops in the progression of the novel, he begins his search for the “freedom and power of his soul, as the great artificer whose name he bore” would have done 170. Stephen is now at the beach, pondering his new sense of maturity as he grows “near to the wild heart of life”171. Walking down a rocky slope, he takes notice to a girl “alone and still, gazing out to sea”171. Stephen watches her, and awed by her “likeness of a strange and beautiful sea-bird,” he realizes she is the epitome of all that is “the wonder of mortal beauty”171. Painted by Joyce’s radiant imagery of the “darkplumaged dove” he sees before him, this rationalization is the basis of Stephen’s internal epiphany; she is, to Pfeiffer 3 Stephen, “an envoy from the fair courts of life” 171, 172.
This wholesome bird-like girl with “long slender bare legs that were delicate as a crane’s,” gives Stephen a perception of a true virtuous beauty he has never known before, and a calling to “recreate life out of life,” as is the role of the true artist he aspires to be 171, 172.
A few years later on the steps of a library adolescent Stephen stands, wondering “what birds are they” as he watches dozens of birds fly free above him, their “darting quivering bodies flying clearly against the sky” 224. Now more restless and philosophical, he wonders at their images. Joyce’s truly audible imagery of the birds’ “cry that was shrill and clear and fine and falling like threads of silken light” is, for Stephen, “inhuman clamour his ears” 224. Stephen Dedalus sees solace in the birds’ “flutter of wings;” they are the fundamental symbol of the freedom he is ready to have for his own 224.
He wishes to have their liberation from the society he knows as he reflects on:
“The correspondence of birds to things
of the intellect and of how the creatures
of the air have their knowledge and
know their times and seasons because
they, unlike man, are in the order of
their life and have not perverted that
order by reason”224.
In order to seek true emancipation, Stephen “must go away for they were birds ever going and coming…ever leaving the homes they had built to wander”225. Stephen resolves to leave his Irish homeland; free and wild as his images of the birds.
The attributes which mold Stephen Dedalus’ growing integrity and life decisions stem from the actions which surround him. The reader associates Stephen by the images he encounters and his reaction to them.
In James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen’s connection with bird imagery helps to define his search for a role in his society, and helps readers define and identify with his quest.