In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce creates meaning through Stephen’s guilty conscience, which influenced by the diverse mother figures throughout the novel, make him feel guilty and unable to maintain a healthy and independent relationship with any woman. Stephen’s mother brings him to the world and protects him. With all this protection Stephen gets used to being treated in a sensible and understandable way. Dante, a feverous catholic believer, influences Stephen’s beliefs about the church, which will after convert into the reason of Stephen’s guilt. And the Catholic Virgin Mary which Stephen looks up at and sees his mom reflected on, she is also the one he goes back to after he has sinned.
After Stephen turns to a certain age, his mother starts to let go of him, and starts teaching him morals. At the beginning of the book after Stephen does something wrong “his mother said: ‘O, Stephen will apologise’” (Joyce 21). Stephen sees this as a maternal threat, perhaps the first one, and wonders how the same person that had been “a powerful and beneficent source of physical pleasure” (Henke 318), could now be the one “responsible for introducing him to a hostile external world” (Henke 318), where Stephen will have to learn how to face the consequences of his acts.
At this starting point of the novel where Stephen is just a little kid, he starts to develop, “established by Oedipus,… the idea of castration” (Brivic 281). This idea refers to the loss of eyes in Stephen, which represent the image the kid had of his mother before she forces him to apologize, and also the image that Stephen has of his mother after she becomes the source of embarrassment.
Stephen feels protected by his mother and feels that nobody can break the force of protection that surrounds him and that has been placed there by his mom, but certainly his own mother is the one that makes Stephen lose his old eyes, the eyes that viewed the mother as a loving and sensible person, and it is the same mother who makes him feel ashamed when he has to apologize in front of everyone at the house.
Stephen’s “‘Eagle epiphany’” (Brivic 281) makes him realized that the time for him to let go of his mother’s lap has come. It is now time for Stephen to go out for college and live there with the other boys, who even though are Stephen’s same age, seem to experience freedom away from their parents. While the other boys enjoy their stay at the college away from home, Stephen continues to mourn and misses his mother. In order to consulate himself Stephen creates an imaginary mom who he starts kissing every night before going to bed as he used to do when he was back at home.
Wells is now the source of embarrassment and guilt of Stephen who in front of the other kids asks him “Dedalus, do you kiss your mother every night before you go to bed?” (Joyce 26). “Reminded of his guilt, Stephen is reduced to importance and ‘does not dare to raise his eyes’ (Joyce 27)…” (Brivic 282-283). Stephen is now alone in the college and does not know how to protect himself, and this is the main reason for his creating an imaginary mother who he can kiss and feel close to him. Stephen feels a paternal threat when Wells laughs at him and Stephen feels less man than Wells and that is why he “does not dare to raise his eyes” (Joyce 27) to look at the boys’ faces.
While being at the college by himself, Stephen looks for the maternal warmth that he misses. He does not know where to find it, and he starts looking for it in prostitutes. The first time Stephen sleeps with a prostitute he starts:
… feeling the warm calm rise and fall of her breast, [and bursts] into hysterical weeping. Tears of joy and of relief shone in his delighted eyes and his lips parted though they would not speak. ‘Give me a kiss, she said.’ His lips would not bend to kiss her. He wanted to be held firmly in her arms, to be caressed slowly, slowly, slowly. In her arms he felt that he had suddenly become strong and fearless and sure of himself. But his lips would not bend to kiss her. (Joyce 99)
Stephen is inexperience and tries to find the warmth and comfort of his mother’s lap in a prostitute. He lets himself fall into the arms of this woman and that is when his torment starts. After this, Stephen starts condemning himself, and this is when everything he had heard Dante said and everything he believes and hears at church start making him feel shameful and as a sinner. The fact that he has transgressed his purity and the laws of the church start building up this feeling of guilt in his conscience for he has sinned and God did not like sinners.
At this point in the novel is when Stephen starts identifying himself and, “dreams of himself as Edmond Dantes, he identifies himself with a man betrayed by his friends and his mistress, unjustly exiled and imprisoned” (Henke 322). After Stephen sleeps with the prostitute, he feels guilty and does not dare to pray to God or to go back to church. In some way he feels betrayed by everyone for not understanding him. If he said a word to anyone, they would laugh at him again, like Wells and the other kids did when he was at the college. They would not let understand his necessities, either would they face him, instead they would all give their backs to him and take him to exile in the society.
He could not trust anyone, either could he go back to church because he was guilty and God would accuse him of sin. If Dante knew about his sin, she would make him feel like the worst of the men for letting sin get into his life, for Dante was a woman who could not tolerate sin or anything that would go against the church.
Stephen feels imprisoned because of his sin. The sin has put him against God, and only confession can take him back into the right path. But as he achieves contact with the mother through prostitution in the third chapter, the paternal threat arises, and soon Stephen feels himself pierced by the phallic force of the words of Father Arnall: ‘The preacher’s knife had probed deeply into his diseased conscience…’ (P 110); ‘The thought slid like a cold shining rapier into his tender flesh: confession’ (P199). As he wandered then in search of a prostitute, Stephen now wanders in search of a confessional, and he seeks the sheltering arms of the Virgin whose name is that of his mother. (Brivic 288).
After thinking about Father’s Arnall words, Stephen feels the need of running to the church and confesses to the priest all he has done wrong. As he used to do when he was a little kid, Stephen runs to the arms of the mother. Now that he cannot go to the arms of his own mother, Stephen looks for the warmth on the Virgin’s Mary arms. He repents and “he beat his breast with his fist humbly, secretly under cover of the wooden armrest” (Joyce 132) while he waited for his turn to confess his sin to the priest. Stephen finds forgiveness at the church that day, but this is just the beginning of his life and experience with women.
Joyce used this imagery of the priest’s words as being a sword that seems to cut right through his conscience and at the very moment when he thinks about being with the prostitute, the words of the priest and everything that the church had taught him come to play and make Stephen feel corrupted. At this very moment is when Stephen realizes in what darkness he is and that the only way to get out of it is confessing.
Stephen has his first experience with this prostitute, and this is when he starts discovering how his life and relationships with women is going to be. He meets other women and he meets Emma. Stephen’s sexual desires take him to make Emma the “object of masturbatory fantasy” (Henke 317).
Henke describes Stephen’s thoughts and says:
As the ‘jeweleyed harlots’ of transgression dance before the boy’s fevered imagination, he feels horrified by the realization that he has besmirched the icon of his beloved Emma by making her the object of masturbatory fantasy: ‘The image of Emma appeared before him and, under her eyes, the flood of shame rushed forth anew from his heart. If she knew to what his mind had subjected her or how his brute like lust had torn and trampled upon her innocence! (Henke 326).
At this exact moment Stephen feels ashamed for what he had done to Emma. He feels ashamed for his bad thoughts and for putting Emma’s image into such an impure situation. Stephen is not just using Emma without her knowing it, but he is making her his slave; the slave of his sexual desires and of his misleading fantasies.
Even though Stephen starts using Emma as the “object of his masturbatory fantasy,” in his conscience the image of Emma is telling him that what he is doing is wrong. In some way she is controlling the situation because Stephen feels guilty about it. This does not convince Stephen. In other for him to feel satisfied, he needs to first feel that he is in charge of the situation and of the circumstance. This is when Stephen realizes that what he needs is a woman without any feelings or thoughts of self-consciousness.
Stephen has a very low self confidence. Since he was a little boy his mom gave him everything. At the realization of the need for the “perfect woman” Stephen creates this imaginary bird-girl who Henke says:
…is represented as a fantasized paradigm of psychic cohesion, the Other whose realistic fragmentation would threaten the poet’s idealized aesthetic project. Because this female icon remains as mute, fetishized, and perpetually mediated object of desire, her difference assures psychological stability to the speaking/seeing subject, the authorial I/eye who frames and appropriates her figure. (Henke 330).
Henke describes this bird-girl as being “mute”. The image of a woman being mute shows Stephen’s need of control. By obtaining this control Stephen feels that his world is not controlled by women, like it used to be when he was a boy. In other for Stephen to be free and become an artist as he wants, he needs to be at liberty from the maternal control that reigns over him. The only way of doing this is having control over the relationships that he has with any woman.
Henke also uses the words “perpetually mediated object of desire” to define the image of this bird-girl. Any sexual characteristics that Stephen dreams a woman having are display by this imaginary woman. Stephen lives in a world where he needs to fantasize in order to make any sense out of things and in order for him to feel comfortable and satisfied. This is why “her [the bird-girl’s] difference assures psychological stability to the speaking/seeing subject [Stephen]” (Henke 330).
In difference to, for example, Emma, this bird-girl gives confidence and control to Stephen over the situation. The bird-girl does not talk, does not feel or see anything that Stephen is putting her under. This refers not to Stephen himself, but to his conscience. By having the bird-girl Stephen’s conscience does not feel guilty because he is supposedly not doing anything wrong for the girl does not feel or see.
Stephen did not know how to act or what to do in occasions when his mom was not with him or when he was with a woman. This is why he can never have a stable relationship with any woman. He feels less man and he feels that everyone could be better than him. He creates this imaginary woman who is always ready to do what he wants, who is there to ask no questions either to see or speak, and to whom he can do whatever he wants. This is the only way Stephen can feel that he has the control over something.
All the feelings that Stephen has at this moment and the guilt he feels throughout the novel are caused by the religious education that he was given by his mom, by Dante, and by the church.
Both the Psychoanalytical criticism essay and the Feminist criticism essay prove the guilt and embarrassment that Stephen experiences throughout the novel. With the use of imagery, Joyce creates a character that is influenced religiously by several female figures (his mother, the church, Dante, and the Virgin Mary), and who throughout the novel needs to learn how to take control over situations in order for him to success. Stephen’s lack of confidence take him to do many things that he repents of doing, but at last his purpose for all he had done was to become an artist, and his acts and experiences become essential part of his writing.