Why does James Joyce use the technique of epiphany in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce portrays the creative awakening of Stephen Dedalus, often regarded as Joyce’s alter-ego.

Through his experiences with family, education, and conversations with friends, Stephen liberates himself from the confines of his traditional Irish Catholic background to claim his individuality...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce portrays the creative awakening of Stephen Dedalus, often regarded as Joyce’s alter-ego.

Through his experiences with family, education, and conversations with friends, Stephen liberates himself from the confines of his traditional Irish Catholic background to claim his individuality and seek a life built on an artistic vision. His last name references the master craftsman from Greek mythology Daedalus, signaling the character’s drive to create and craft his life. Throughout the story, Stephen experiences a series of insights that lead to his major epiphany at Dollymount.

The epiphany, a flash of insight, an “aha” moment, is a necessary step to look beyond the mundane and awaken the creative side of the self. Joyce’s contemporaries such as Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung and German physicist Albert Einstein also noted the necessity for new ways of thinking to solve problems.

Stephen experiences both personal and political epiphanies, going so far as to question the political and moral authority of Ireland. When his friend Davin tells Stephen to put his dreams in second place to the country, he receives the following response: “Do you know what Ireland is? asked Stephen with cold violence. Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.” In this passage, Stephen realizes that the restriction placed on young people in Ireland threatens to devour their potential and the necessity to liberate himself.

Stephen’s mother Mary, his governess Mrs. Riordan (Dante), and his girlfriend Emma all represent traditional views of women, of Ireland, and what is permitted in terms of social and creative license. During an argument about the Irish politician Charles Stuart Parnell, Dante as defender of the faith reacts vehemently to Mr. Casey when he declares, “We have had too much God in Ireland!” The described repression indicates the need for an epiphany to break through its hold on the mind. Stephen’s character development shows how all of these concepts are connected and then questioned during his experience at Dollymount in chapter 4.

At Dollymount, Stephen first encounters a “squad of Christian Brothers” marching across the bridge. He turns away from them, feeling a mix of “personal shame and commiseration,” illustrating his struggle between his upbringing and his ongoing awakening. Once Stephen crosses the bridge, he sees the world in a new light. As his classmates swim and call out to him in a series of wordplay on his name, he hears a greater call, “the call of life to his soul not the dull gross voice of the world of duties and despair, not the inhuman voice that had called him to the pale service of the altar.” As he listens, he realizes that “his soul had arisen from the grave of boyhood, spurning her graveclothes.”

Then he sees a young woman standing in the water. She is “a strange and beautiful seabird,” a siren, a “wild angel,” and a guide to his creative and aesthetic self. She doesn’t appear to suffer from either shame or pride, but simply lives in a natural, fulfilled state of being at one with nature. Stephen’s response evokes both heaven and earth, as he experiences his epiphany, the merging between the conscious and subconscious parts of himself that will be needed for creative expression.

With its shifts in style, passages based on the author’s own experiences, and the development of the main character’s consciousness, A Portrait of an Artist of a Young Man endures as a document of artistic awakening.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

An epiphany is a sudden, unpremeditated insight into the essential meaning of an object. The observer perceives in a whole new way extraordinary beauty and unity in an otherwise ordinary thing. When such an experience appears in a work of literature, the artist presents it in a symbolic way.

It is his aesthetic belief which prompts Joyce to use the technique of epiphany in his written work, particularly in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce believed that it was the obligation of an author to record these fleeting moments of metaphysical beauty. In Stephen Hero, the first draft of the novel, Stephen explains the occurence of it thus: Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object...seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany."

Epiphanies in the novel include Stephen's otherworldly perception of the young girl wading "in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea...like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful sea creature," and the swallows seen from the steps of the library.

 

  

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team