How is epiphany used in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

In James Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the author uses epiphany as a method of showing revelations that occur suddenly while the protagonist views ordinary objects or scenes from his own perspective. Whereas traditionally the literary device was used to show manifestations of God’s presence in the world He created, Joyce adapts the concept to include secular experiences.

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Epiphany is traditionally a manifestation of God’s presence in the world. The literary device was originally used by Christian writers and philosophers to demonstrate how people were enlightened by sudden revelations consistent with religious doctrine. Author James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man adapted the...

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Epiphany is traditionally a manifestation of God’s presence in the world. The literary device was originally used by Christian writers and philosophers to demonstrate how people were enlightened by sudden revelations consistent with religious doctrine. Author James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man adapted the concept of epiphany to secular rather than religious experiences.

Protagonist Stephen Daedalus is a young Irish would-be writer. His quest is to gain the knowledge and independence he desires in order to achieve his literary goals. Joyce uses the “stream-of-consciousness” technique to relate the story to his readers. The narrator is an omniscient third party who rambles randomly through the minds of the novel’s characters in order to show readers the “truth” as perceived by the protagonist. The effect allows readers to see Stephen’s thoughts as they flow from one idea to the next. This style is perfect for the use of epiphany to demonstrate when Stephen has a sudden radiance and revelation as he perceives common scenes and objects.

Stephen has lived as a youngster in an overly religious environment and family setting. He attends a strict religious boarding academy and eventually a prestigious school where he excels as a writer. He desires to choose writing as a profession, but he is so pious that his school director pushes him toward the priesthood. On one occasion, he encounters a prostitute in Dublin and after engaging with her feels deeply troubled because he cannot reconcile his sexual desires with his religious faith, morality, and family upbringing. During a walk on a beach, he sees a young girl walking in the shallow water. The beach scene is a perfect example of Joyce’s use of epiphany to advance his story:

A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh. Her thighs, fuller and softhued as ivory, were bared almost to the hips, where the white fringes of her drawers were like feathering of soft white down. Her slateblue skirts were kilted boldly about her waist and dovetailed behind her. Her bosom was as a bird’s, soft and slight, slight and soft as the breast of some darkplumaged dove. But her long fair hair was girlish: and girlish, and touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face.

She was alone and still, gazing out to sea; and when she felt his presence and the worship of his eyes her eyes turned to him in quiet sufferance of his gaze, without shame or wantonness. Long, long she suffered his gaze and then quietly withdrew her eyes from his and bent them towards the stream, gently stirring the water with her foot hither and thither. The first faint noise of gently moving water broke the silence, low and faint and whispering, faint as the bells of sleep; hither and thither, hither and thither; and a faint flame trembled on her cheek.

—Heavenly God! cried Stephen’s soul, in an outburst of profane joy.

Stephen has an epiphany. He admires the girl’s beauty and reasons that the love of such a beautiful girl should not cause him shame. It is at this point when the protagonist frees himself from his religious constraints. He is now determined to pursue his writing career and thereafter devotes his life to his art.

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James Joyce makes repeated use of epiphany as a unifying device that provides internal consistency to Stephen Dedalus’s character and the novel’s structure. Stephen develops through events and sudden realizations of their significance, rather than simply existing on an even keel. The technique fits with the overall stream-of-consciousness approach that replaces conventional plotting. These insights often accompany or follow physical changes of a type that routinely symbolize transformation.

Notable among these is crossing the bridge when Stephen comes upon the Christian Brothers who are marching across. Joyce accompanies this physical crossing with a spiritual birth, as Stephen hears his soul call him, expressed as well with the metaphor of phoenix-like rebirth as he sees his soul arise from the grave.

Other epiphanies are associated with his ideas about his soul. For example, his reunion with Father Arnall not only brings memories of Clongowne but enables him to understand what his childhood meant: “His soul, as these memories came back to him, became again a child’s soul.”

The effectiveness of the epiphanies is enhanced by their often unexpected placement or the stimulus for them. For example, Stephen’s sexual initiation with a prostitute does not spark a radical change in self-knowledge. But his discovery of the carved word “Foetus” carved in a desk does prompt a revelation about his commonality with other boys, as a “vision of their life . . . sprang up before him.”

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In A Portrait of The Artist as A Young Man, James Joyce uses moments of clarity and a recognition of another perspective as "epiphanies." The reader becomes aware of the change in Stephen's character, however momentary, and this drives the plot of the novel. In Stephen Hero, an earlier version of A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man, Stephen is referring to the clock at the Ballast Office, a seemingly insignificant building and clock but capable of making Stephen think because, "all at once I see it and I know at once what it is: epiphany." 

Stephen will face many challenges and his self-development and sense of awareness will reflect the impact of life and the economic hardships that he and his family must confront. This ensures that "epiphany' is a very personal experience. Having felt "small and weak" throughout the first chapter due to his own shortcomings, Stephen, at the conclusion of chapter one, comes to a realization that he is in a position to embarrass Father Dolan but, in a schoolboy version of humility, despite being justified in bringing Father Dolan to account, he vows that he will not.

After his sexual encounter and his epiphany at the end of chapter two; "surrendering himself;" he becomes weighed down by his own sinful acts which "kill(s) the body and (it) kill(s) the soul." By the end of chapter three, he revels in the life-changing potential that he now faces and the power and potential of "Another life! A life of grace and virtue and happiness!" As Stephen takes Communion, he feels the real power of the act of Holy Communion as he accepts that "Past is past." His feelings are very real and immediate, even if by the end of chapter four he chooses one path and then a different path. Life and experience goes "on and on and on and on."

By the end of the novel, Stephen has realized the power of his own contribution, not only to his self-development, but in promoting "the uncreated conscience of my race." James Joyce ensures continuity through the use of  epiphany because all of the revelations and realizations provide Stephen with guidance and acknowledge the contribution of each and every experience in developing Stephen's character and his ability to make a difference. 

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The concept of self awareness through revelation, or epiphany, occupies a central importance in Joyce's work.  The notion of self and emergence of consciousness that Stephen undergoes in this bildungsroman only happens through epiphanies, moments where truth is revealed and understanding is truly forged.  These moments, whether they concern Stephen's own sense of self his relationship to the world, help Stephen advance his own identity as well as allowing him to forge his "non- serviam credo."  Epiphanies permit Stephen to advance both his own consciousness as well the narrative structure of the text, as greater understanding is revealed to us in terms of voice as a result of the epiphanies.  Through Joyce's use, Stephen's epiphanies help Stephen better understand himself and help the reader better understand Stephen.

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