Imagery and Symbolism in "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man"

Updated on November 20, 2018
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J S Penna, a retired editor and lover of English and American literature, pauses to muse on great works she appreciates.

Irish author James Augustine Aloysius Joyce

Form and Imagery

There are various forms from which an artist may choose--lyrical, epical, or dramatic. No matter which form is ultimately employed by the artist, images are necessarily presented: this is part of the art.

James Joyce is noted for his use of imagery in his literary masterpiece "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." We will discuss a few of the significant images he uses: water, bridges, birds, stars (and light), and woman--more particularly, woman as mother figure.

Water

Joyce presents water in both a positive and negative light. The initial image is that of bedwetting. The image becomes more degraded with the imagery of ditchwater (actually, cesspool water) into which the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, is pushed while a student at Clongowes. (Also emphasized is the dampness and dankness of the school itself.) However, we must look beyond the repugnant representations to realize that despite these intended negative connotations, water in literature is usually representative of birth or rebirth: the fluid environment that is the home of the fetus in the womb. The water images, while numerous, are best represented by the occasion of Stephen's encountering the girl sea-bathing: it is the beginning of his realization of his destiny in life. As such, the experience is an awakening and a birth. One might even liken it to the early Christians' rite of baptism by immersion--the burying of the "old man" (sin and self) in a watery grave and the resurrection of the new man to new life.

Bridges

Bridges are as important to Joyce as the water they cover. In literature, they are often symbolic of a new beginning, a venture dared. In this way, bridges can represent the idea of birth as much as water does. Stephen is often seen crossing a bridge when a new insight comes to him. One such instance is just before he happens on the bird-girl.

Birds

Birds are often used in literature to symbolize everything from flight/escape, to soaring passion, to spirituality. Clearly, Joyce intended all three meanings at the various stages through which Stephen progresses. Characters in the book are often identified in terms of birds--Vincent Heron, for example, and the girl wading in the sea. (An example, Stephen might say, of the dramatic form, since the image is identified solely in relation to another.)

Literal birds appear in the novel at least once; for example, when Stephen watches birds wheeling and circling. He decides it is to fly away from Ireland--something he himself will do at the book's close. By this we see that the "escape" image carries through as much as the spiritual experience with the bird-girl.

Stars

Stars (collectively) are representative of spiritual aspirations, reaching toward the light (Truth), striving for goals. Stephen Dedalus, with his artist's mind, is entranced by the line by poet Percy Bysshe Shelley referring to (falling) bright starlight. (Shelley writes much of starlight--a topic for another time.) However, Stephen imagines lice like bright things (i.e., "stars") falling to the earth from heaven. His artist's mind analogously creates figures of light and heavenliness even from lice; they may said to be stars, heavenly objects, symbols of his aspiration and the pursuit of Light and Truth to which artists devote themselves.

In another key scene, Stephen stands and watches the stars come out after the wading girl's departure. This moment is the crossroads of his artistic existence. It is no coincidence that nearly every important image previously discussed appears in this scene as well.

Woman as Mother

The mother figure is a fairly straightforward image--yet, at the same time, it can be open to debate. Taken at face value, the image is one of the most respected roles traditionally ascribed to women, who in literature as in male-dominated cultures are often reduced to the role of seductress, the wicked Other, or other negative images.

Stephen and his friend discuss the reverence men have for their mothers. It is she who gives one life. In this sense, she is a creator, an artist: the child is conceived and grows within her. In due time, the child is expelled--as is an artist's work conceived by Imagination, fostered and nourished, but ultimately must leave the artist for the outer world.

Here we discover some echoes of the archetypal image of the Magna Mater, the Great Mother, often associated with the Earth and accompanying symbols of fecundity. It is an image very basic, very primeval, and very earthy--though moderns tend to regard the matter only in the light of primitive fertility rites. This is a point on which minds differ. Certainly there is that aspect, and it is not missing from Joyce's work. But his essential point is that of fruitfulness (as regards literary or artistic reproduction), which is parallel to the concept of the Earth Mother's bringing forth abundantly grains, fruits, and robustly healthy livestock. The Mother is revered not only for her reproductive capacities but for her formative influence in the rearing of her children--just as the author/artist not only gives birth to a work, but reshapes it gradually over time.

Why is Stephen Dedalus an artist and not a writer?

The protagonist is a thinly veiled version of the author himself. The fact Joyce made Stephen an artist rather than an author makes perfect sense, in that this enabled him to use vivid imagery that can be pictured in the reader's mind in the same way that a work of art can be seen with the eyes.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 J S Penna

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      • profile imageAUTHOR

        J S Penna 

        11 months ago

        Thank you for your kind words. I, too, found Joyce challenging. "Artist" is the only one of his works I could somewhat fathom at all!

      • Paul Kuehn profile image

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        11 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        I wish I would have had the opportunity to read this article when I had a course in Contemporary American and British Literature in college in 1963. One of our assigned readings was the Portrait of an Artist. It was very hard for me to understand and I only made a C in my course. Lately, I have been reading many of the Charles Dickens classics and really enjoying them.

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