Stephen’s Flight from Women; A New Beginning
February 6, 2008
In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, women pose a threat to Stephen’s bildungsroman as they try to control Stephen by providing physical pleasure that men naturally seek. Feminist Dorothy Dinnerstein explains in The Mermaid and the Minotaur, that it is a woman who serves as “every infant’s first love, first witness and first boss… the initial experience of dependence” (318). By nature, men are attracted to woman for their warmth and comfort, but as Stephen gets closer to his mother, Dante, the prostitute, or the Virgin Mary, they weaken him, stripping him away from his masculinity. James Joyce uses the imagery of the womb to demonstrate Stephen’s vulnerability for the “maternal flesh”. However, it is also the experience with the maternal flesh that helps him realize the need to break away from the shackles of women in order to become an artist. Because Stephen can’t physically give birth like a woman, he learns that he can create art and actually have control over his life.
Starting at an adolescent age, Stephen quickly learns that women only exist to threaten him. In the first Chapter, Stephen tells his mother that he hopes to marry Eileen when he grows up, but this is highly unacceptable for Dante. As the Catholic governess of the Dedalus children, Dante plays a mother-like role over Stephen. Dante would “give him a cachou every time he brought her a piece of tissue paper” (21) as if she is training him and teaching him to become what she wants him to become. She places control over young Dedalus. Her actions are manipulative like an adult trying to win over a child by giving him or her candy. Because she holds such strong religious values, she has already planned for Stephen to become Catholic like her. Dante refuses to have Stephen marry a Protestant girl and scolds him for such unconventional thoughts. To cleanse Stephen’s foolish thoughts, she threatens him to “apologise” (21) or else “the eagles will come and pull out his eyes” (21). His mother, being the closest person that he knows, doesn’t support him, but instead she sides with Dante and makes him apologize. Having to apologize to a woman is taking away his masculinity because men are supposed to be right at all times and never wrong. It is degrading for a man to apologize and it represents weakness. Stephen shows that he is affected as he chants “pull out his eyes, apologise, apologise, pull out his eyes.” (21). The graphical images of someone pulling out his eyes threaten him.
Even though his mother may have threatened him with Dante, it is also in human nature that men were born needing to be nurtured and loved. When a baby is born, the first thing the baby does is cry because he or she is scared and it is the holding or feeding of the mother that brings warmth to the baby. It calms the child down. Because babies are so adaptive to their mother, Stephen has trouble casting away from his mother. Even when babies grow up, they usually look for someone who posses the same nurturing methods as their mother. Stephen hoping to marry Eileen is just another “screen for a deeper love for [his] mother” (Cixous 281). Stephen’s intentions were just to play the role of a father and to be able to have someone to love and to be loved.
Because Stephen “sees his mother as a powerful and beneficent source of physical pleasure” (318), he becomes very dependent for her care and protection. Without his mother, Stephen can’t connect with any one else. Upon his entering of college, Stephen witnesses for the first time the hostile world. He feels extremely uncomfortable at Clongowes, where his parents left him. Stephen stands “on the fringe of his line, out of sight of his prefect” (21) and only wants to remain “out of reach” (21). It is as if Stephen had just been released from a womb and he was the baby. He feels “weak” (21) and “small” (21) and “his eyes are weak and watery” (21). When babies first come out, they share the same feelings that Stephen is getting. Stephen appears childlike, young, and in need of his mother. He has no options, but to stay there. “Like a heavy bird” (21), he was trapped within the school and couldn’t escape with all the heavy weight from people around him. The mother and Dante’s religious thoughts keeps him from being free.
Unprepared for a “world of social Darwinism where only the ruthless survive” (320), Stephen feels socially isolated from his new environment. He struggles to fit in with the pugnacious boys in the school like Heron or Wells. He feels different from them. Vincent Heron, an old school friend, resembles of a bird with “a bird’s face as well as a bird’s name” (78). His bird like qualities triggers Stephen’s earlier years when Dante threatened Stephen to apologize. The idea of losing his eyes marks the image of castration, unmanning him or becoming more feminine. Heron teases Stephen for being unmanly and this confuses him. Because Stephen does not smoke, Heron satirizes him by calling him a “model youth” (78) who “doesn’t smoke… doesn’t go to bazaars… doesn’t flirt… and doesn’t damn anything or damn all” (78). These were things that real men do, but Stephen didn’t like any of those things. Instead, Stephen enjoyed thinking about or looking at pretty flowers and colors. “He could not get out the answers for the sum, but it did not matter. Whites roses and red roses: those were beautiful colors to think of” (25). Inside of Stephen, his inner soul was the “anima, the feminine aspect of the psyche” (328). Stephen’s character is more feminine compared to the other boys and this becomes unacceptable in the world of Darwinism, a world of masculinity, because only the strongest can survive. Stephen feels small, frail, and like an outsider, making him lonely and emotional. Stephen doesn’t know what to do with his differences, but to just let them pick on him.
Wells also bullies Stephen for his feminine behaviors. He asks Stephen if he has kissed his mother goodnight and Stephen says yes. Wells begins taunting him for such action because in the male society, men are not supposed to kiss their mothers. Slowly, Stephen looses his masculinity and becomes more feminine. Then Wells decides to shoulder him into the square ditch where Stephen gets drenched in urine. The water is “cold and slimy” (23). Stephen “shivered and longed to cry” (23). The imagery of the cold ditch is similar to a womb. When babies leave their womb, they also feel wet, cold, and slimy. Stephen is now returning back to his womb where he can hide and escape from the hostile situation, but it is unmanning him because the idea of him wanting to hide in his mother is showing that he can’t defend for himself. He even thinks of his mother immediately after being bullied and falling into the ditch. “He longed to be at home and lay his head on his mother’s lap” (25-26). He imagines his mother sitting at the fire with “her feet on the fender and her jewelly slippers” (24). Stephen searches for comfort through imagination and thinks about her mother’s feet. Her feet provide him with something to connect with physically so he wouldn’t feel so isolated. However, Stephen appears to be very dependent of his mother because he would think of her feet just to feel close to her. Thinking of feet is something quite degrading. Every time he is bullied and made fun of, he would think of his mother, but thinking of a woman is weakening him. Stephen can’t be independent if he’s always seeking comfort and being a baby.
Even when the parents first dropped Stephen off at Clongowes, his mother had already weakened him before entering the real world. “His mother had told him not to speak with the rough boys in the college” (22) and gave him a kiss. Instead of telling his son to make friends in the new male dominated environment that he was about to enter, the mother didn’t want him to talk with any of the rough guys. It’s as if she doesn’t want her son to become one of them, which causes him to struggle with fitting in with the rest of the boys. Stephen was already a teenager preparing to go to college yet the mother was speaking to him like he was child, telling him what he can and can not do. Being able to be friends with the guys would probably have helped Stephen. His father on the other hand, gives him “two fiveshilling pieces for pocket money” (22), something concrete and useful as opposed to his mother giving him a kiss and crying. At that moment, his mother was “not so nice” when she cried. Crying only showed Stephen vulnerability and weakness. His father tells him to “never peach on a fellow” (22) instead as a survival skill in the real world. His mother’s way of support isn’t even helping him.
Beginning to feel that his mother is “not so nice” (22), he starts to move away from his mother’s and Dante’s influence. First substituting Dante with Father Arnall, the priest, because “Father Arnall knew more than Dante” (24). He begins to see the system of male authority and discipline from Father Arnall. He considers leading a devout Catholic life, until one day Stephen commits the shameful sin of female temptation. Stephen shifts back to needing a woman for comfort again.
Stephen earns a cash prize and plans to have a nice family dinner. Stephen gets excited over the opportunity to bring his family closer, but soon he realizes that “his household returned to its usual way of life” (97). Stephen feels foolish and useless for having failed.
He saw clearly too his own futile isolation. He had not gone one step nearer the lives he has sought to approach nor bridged the restless shame and rancour that divides him from father and mother and brother and sister. He felt that he was hardly of the one blood with them but stood to them rather in the mystical kinship of fosterage, fosterchild and fosterbrother. (97)
Stephen feels once again out of place and isolated, but this time from his own family. He tried to bring his family together over dinner, but instead nothing changed after all the effort he put into it. He feels like he is not part of the family and “hardly of the one blood” (97). Stephen feels emotionally hurt by his family so his subconscious instinct which was “possessed by a magic not of himself…” (Beauvoir 150), “does not obey him” (Beauvoir 150). It leads him to envision women, “a figure that had seemed to him by day demure and innocent came towards him by night through the winding darkness of sleep” (97). Stephen can’t control it, but to return back to having female desires every time he feels weak. When he meets the prostitute, Stephen becomes emotionally and physically sucked in by her. Feminist believed that men had only one way of thinking and that Stephen’s “ambition throughout the novel [is] to deflower” (322) woman. Since Stephen has physically removed himself from his mother, naturally men feel the need to fill in the gap that is created when they are separated from their mothers. In this case, the prostitute substitutes the mother because he can’t go to his biological mother anymore after realizing that it was wrong to have sexual desires for his own mother. “The perfumed female who takes him in her arms recalls his nice-smelling mother” (325). The mother and the prostitute resemble one another in his mind. He’s starting to returns back to his child-like stages of being taken care of. “Seeing her face lifted to him in serious calm and feeling the warm calm rise” (99). He felt comfort and calm like a baby being soothed as he saw her face. She leads the boy into a womblike chamber. Stephen hides himself in the arms of the woman, allowing him to take refuge from reality. It becomes his place of peace like “he was in another world” (98). Instead of facing the brutal world, Stephen runs away from the truth and the womb serves as a shield. It’s only making him more and more useless because he’s becoming too dependent of having a woman there to comfort him that it’s holding him from his flight.
In a similar way, the Virgin Mary also serves as a way of escaping reality. After committing his sin of sexual intercourse with the prostitute, “the Virgin becomes a postcoital Madonna offering refuge from the turmoil of hormonal agitation.” (326). When Stephen closes his eyes to “surrender himself to her [the prostitute]”(99), it resembles the surrender of a Christian to the Holy Spirit. He is using the church to make himself feel better by confessing his sins similar to the way he is using the prostitute to comfort him by imaging that he is in a womb. Having sinned, soon Stephen dedicates his life to self-discipline and control through daily prayers. It helps him mature as it restricts him from the thoughts of whores and virgins. However, he realizes that religion was not necessarily making him a better person because religion was only holding him back. He questions himself “I have amended my life, have I not?” (140). Stephen questioning himself demonstrates a slight change in his level of maturity. If he were to become a true Catholic, he would have to bear a boring life in the church. Stephen is unsure of himself and is having doubt, but now he actually has opinions over how he wants to live his life. Before he would only follow the words of others, particularly woman, thinking that they were always right.
Women so far have existed in Stephen’s life as sexual desires and physical pleasure, but after having sinned and feeling guilt, Stephen learns a lesson. He learns to grow out of having a woman there for him in order to feel safe. As he meets the beautiful seabird girl, he sees her in a more mature way. From afar, the woman appears as an “angel of moral youth and beauty” (156). Stephen only sees her as a work of art, something beautiful, and it demonstrates Stephen’s maturity and flight from woman. He doesn’t feel sexual attractions to her, but only hope to freeze life in a sacrament of art because “the aspiring poet knows that he may look but not touch, admire but not speak” (329). Stephen is in control now. Although Stephen is still being guided by woman, he now has a new found respect for them and a different kind of influence. He used to allow his mother and Dante to control him and he would describe the prostitute as something dirty, putting her down for making him sin. Now women exist as sacred temples of earthly beauty. Stephen becomes more attached with his artistic side. The seabird girl also represents freedom to Stephen as it symbolically represents the Myth of Dedalus and Icarus. The girl appears to him angelic and pure as she rises from the sea. It reminds Stephen that he can also live a happily life. “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!” (136). Even with all the ups and downs that Stephen had to experience, the falls and the triumphs, Stephen can still “recreate life out of life”(139), symbolizing his rebirth. Deciding to turn away from his mother and religion would only open up better opportunities for him.Because of all the experiences and mistakes that Stephen has been through or committed, Stephen learns that he can be independent. The different influential women have shaped his life from being the young and baby-like Stephen to the more mature and artistic Stephen. He learns that the women in his life only serve as matriarchal threats because they are all taking away his masculinity by trying to control every aspect of his life and making him dependent of them. However, Stephen needs the experiences because with out ever feeling vulnerable, one can not grow successfully. One must needs to know what is wrong before they know what is right. Stephen has evolved from his younger years through the experience of temptation and then sinning. It made him feel guilty and this led to him going to church. Then Stephen realizes that the life of devotion and obedience did not suit him and instead he frees himself by leading a life on his own. At the end, Stephen leaves all that he has. He leaves his mother, religion, his home land, and this allows him to be the true artist that he is.