A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: James Joyce, the Myth of Icarus, and the Influence of Christopher Marlowe

Article excerpt

Abstract: Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914) concludes at the point when Stephen Dedalus--a character substantially modelled on Joyce himself--is about to leave the Ireland of his childhood and young-adult years. Presented as a means of maintaining independence and distance as a writer, this move marks the culmination of a process of self-discovery. However, beyond this basic narrative dimension, A Portrait is hardly a simplistic novel. In this respect, the novel's oft-discussed patterns of imagery, and its complex, sometimes ambiguous, use of irony, for instance, continue to invite new interpretations. The present article, in fact, aims to provide insight into the function of Christopher Marlowe as a role-model and precursor--to-date unrecognized in Joyce criticism--of the idealized subversive artist, a writer whose work and cultural image contributed to the Stephen Dedalus-James Joyce persona as constructed in A Portrait.

Key words: James Joyce, Christopher Marlowe, Irishness, individualism, radicalism / subversion, artistic independence, exile, Faust(us), Daedalus and Icarus.

Completed in 1914, James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man presents a perspective of the development of Stephen Dedalus--a character strongly based on James Joyce himself--from childhood until the time when he decides to leave Ireland as a way to maintain independence and distance as a writer. As an account of the development of a young man's mind, A Portrait is a bildungsroman, a form that conventionally concludes at a momentous point in the hero's life, which signals the culmination of a process of self-discovery, or the moment when a life-defining decision is made. This basic structure makes A Portrait, though hardly a simplistic novel, one of Joyce's most accessible works, one that is marked by the immediacy of its concerns. Just as Dante found a guide in Virgil, we can, in turn, hold onto the hem of Joyce's coat, as the artist leads us through the circles of secular heaven and hell.

One of the aims of the present article is to illuminate the function of Christopher Marlowe as a role-model and precursor-to-date unrecognized in Joyce criticism--of the idealized subversive artist, a writer whose work and cultural image contributed to the Stephen Dedalus-James Joyce persona as constructed in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and its vision of the artist as an essentially independent social agent.

In the closing pages of A Portrait, the hero, Stephen Dedalus, prepares to leave Ireland, disillusioned with the cultural and political life of his country. When Stephen admits to Cranly, one of his friends, that he has lost faith in the Catholic religion, Cranly wants to confirm that Stephen is not, in fact, thinking of becoming a Protestant; Stephen replies: "I said I had lost the faith ... but not that I lost self-respect" (205). This exchange, very late in the novel, leads the reader back full-circle to the first chapter. In Ireland's long history as a British colony, the Catholic religion was never just a question of religious faith, but also a matter of national identity. Yet the issue is not as simple as to say that Irish identity and Catholicism are necessarily complementary, much less interchangeable. The third section of the first chapter of A Portrait, in fact, illustrates precisely this contradiction in the Irish sense of national identity. The setting is a Christmas dinner, one of Stephen's key childhood memories, a heated argument involving Stephen's father and his friend, Mr. Casey, both of whom disagree with another guest, Dante Riordan.

These characters are, of course, divided by their responses to the political downfall of Charles Stewart Parnell in 1890-91, which followed revelations of his affair with Katherine "Kitty" O'Shea. As James Fairhall observes, the Catholic Church appears to have acted with some reluctance--probably expecting Parnell to resign, or to be replaced by his own party; nevertheless, when the bishops finally became involved in the scandal, they condemned Parnell for his personal life (1995: 134-7). …