Power Over Stephen and His Attempts to Free Himself from It in James Joyce's ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’

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Throughout the process of growing up, people are influenced by everything surrounding them. This phenomenon doesn’t have to be negative, but as Stephen gets older, he begins to reject any power that isn’t himself, despite being vacuumed into always having a power when he was younger. In this essay, power is the influence other characters have over Stephen’s actions. While this said power affects Stephen’s growth, it doesn’t determine an outcome, Stephen’s own choices do. His choices attempt to get rid of any power anyone else has over him as his definition of being grown is being free from everyone else’s power and individually defining oneself. Despite Stephen’s gradual ability to take control of his own life, synonymous with growing up, Stephen is never able to truly free himself from the influence of others.

The beginning of ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ presents Stephen as a young boy who is overwhelmed by the soft power that both his mother and Dante exude; this influence is the first example of Stephen’s power-vacuum. The first reaction seen between Stephen and Dante is that Dante offering Stephen a reward, a cachou, “every time he [brings] her a piece of tissue paper” (Joyce, 4). This subtle engagement between the pair results in a dynamic where Dante has the power as she is able to reward Stephen for a chore. Dante also had power over a curious Stephen in the form of knowledge; he even explicitly says “Dante knew a lot of things” after being taught one thing by her. Dante’s associated with both ‘fire’ and warmth, two things that Stephen has positive connotations with at this young age, and knowledge, a helpful tool to resolve Stephen’s curiosity, gives Dante power over Stephen despite his ignorance to it. Dante is Stephen’s original power figure, however Dante isn’t the only woman in Stephen’s childhood who has influence over his decisions. Stephen’s mother is also able to change Stephen’s reactions. For example, after being bullied by his peers, Stephen is given advice from his mother. The book says: “His mother had told him not to speak with the rough boys in the college. Nice mother! The first day in the hall of the castle when she had said goodbye she had put up her veil double to her nose to kiss him: and her nose and eyes were red. But he had pretended not to see that she was going to cry. She was a nice mother but she was not so ice when she cried” (Joyce, 5). Both by taking the advice of his mother to not speak with the boys and by pretending to be ignorant of an obvious situation - his mother’s sadness - Stephen is influenced by his mother. Although both Stephen’s mother’s and Dante’s affect on his actions are subtle, Stephen surrenders his decision making to others at his very young age.

At the beginning of his life, Stephen is surrendered to his mother; however, this dynamic quickly shifts when his fellows’ bullying power replaces his mother’s comfort. Stephen is questioned by his friends about his relationship with his mother, already indicating distrust between them. They ask: “Tell us, Dedalus, do you kiss mother before you go to bed?” (Joyce, 9). This provocative question is taken literally by a young Stephen, who first answers yes, and after being laughed at, answers no, yet he is teased by his fellows no matter his answer. Instantaneously, Stephen’s mother’s power is lost as Stephen’s begins to question his relationship with his mother and why he actually kisses her goodnight. Stephen feels “his whole body hot and confused in a moment” (Joyce, 11). The original positive warmth that Stephen’s mother provided is now replaced by the embarrassment of incorrectly answering his fellows’ question, which resulted in the ‘hotness’ of his body. Furthermore, not only are the fellows able to take the power from Stephen’s mother, but Stephen allows them to keep their power by allowing himself to be affected by their actions. Stephen remembers the instance where a fellow, Wells, “shouldered him into the square ditch the day before because he would not swap his little snuffbox for Well’s seasoned hacking chestnut, the conqueror of forty” (Joyce, 10). Stephen is aggressively bullied for a small play in a game which he had the right to make, and although this was obviously an awful experience for Stephen, his continually dwelling on the fact only furthers his trauma.

Stephen’s primary school years aren’t solely accompanied by his comrades’ physical and emotional bullying, but also by his teacher’s, whose bullying, being in a mentor position, hurts Stephen even more. After being hit by a teacher because Stephen’s glasses broke, he describes the feeling as “a hot burning stinging tingling blow like the loud crack of a broken stick made his trembling hand crumple together like a leaf” (Joyce, 44). This is the first time this many adjectives, specifically strong ones, that are used in a combination like this, indicating that this moment truly angered him and foreshadows a reaction. The book continues to describe the situation including a simile saying, “to think of [his hands] beaten and swollen with pain all in a moment made him feel so sorry for them as if they were not his own but someone else’s that he felt sorry for” (Joyce, 44). Rather than complaining about the pain, Stephen’s separation of his hands and his body separates the pain from himself. Being someone that wants to help others and doesn’t like seeing others in pain, Stephen has to make his hands someone else’s when he is in pain so that he can heal them. The thoughtful reflection that Stephen, a young child, is able to give after being flogged is not only impressive, but also extremely revealing to who he is as a character: a kind, good hearted person. Stephen began to grow an emotional wall because of the power that his comrades abused, and soon it seems he will also grow a physical one because of his teachers.

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The power that Stephen’s comrades had over him ignited his rejection of their power when he tells the dean that he shouldn’t have been flogged, and he begins to feel equal to them rather than below. After a long a long philosophical discussion with himself about whether or not he was willing to stand up for himself, Stephen talks to the rector, the head of school. He explains his situation and in response the rector says: “Very well, [...] it is a mistake and I shall speak to Father Dolan myself. Will that do now? Stephen felt the tears wetting his eyes and murmured: – O yes sir, thanks” (Joyce, 50). Stephen is finally able to stand up to the teachers, despite it being an emotional and overwhelming experience as shown by the tears, for a mistake that one of them made which caused him much pain. By doing this, Stephen regains power from them. The teachers’ lack of influence on Stephen's decisions, related to his Catholicism or other, is confirmed when the book narrates that his masters’ “voices had now come to be hollow-sounding” (Joyce, 75). Immediately after this moment, he also regains power over the fellows. Stephen’s exit from the rector’s room is described as follows: “He could hear the cries of the fellows on the playgrounds. He broke into a run and, running quicker and quicker, ran across the cinderpath and reached the third line playground, panting. The fellows had seen him running. They closed round him in a ring, pushing one against another to hear” (Joyce, 51). The cinderpath is where Stephen was pushed down and bullied where his glasses broke, but as he came outside, he thought nothing of it. This represents the bullies losing their power, and in this transition, Stephen gains some power himself as the fellows so desperately want to hear about Stephen’s experience standing up for himself. This is the first time that Stephen consciously takes stand against the people that have power over him (in this case the teachers and students), rather than it being subconsciously replaced as with the fellows and his mother.

For a moment, Stephen is in control of himself, but his inevitable power vacuum means that something or someone needs to replace this power, and he chooses to give this power to the prostitutes. The first women with influence over Stephen are Dante and his mother; however, he is given them as parental and guardian influences: positive. This is the first time Stephen chooses the prostitutes as those who hold the power, a significant leap from the warmth of childhood and mothers to the sexual desires of adulthood. The prostitute tries to encourage Stephen’s sexual desires when he is still extremely unsure of how the night will go. After being told to give a prostitute a kiss, Stephen thinks that “his lips would not bend to kiss her”, but eventually Stephen “closed his eyes, surrendering himself to her, body and mind, conscious of nothing in the world but the dark pressure of her softly parting lips. [...] Between them he felt an unknown and timid pressure, darker than the swoon of sin, softer than sound or odor” (Joyce, 91-92). The prostitute has explicit sexual power over him, taking physical control of him with the kiss, but Stephen allows her to have more than just the physical power by surrendering his mind. This allows her to get in his head, and Stephen begins to think about the religious connotations of his action. Specifically, Stephen considers the gap between the prostitute’s lips, which represent this experience as a whole, and describes it as something ‘darker than’ sin, a hyperbole, as in Catholicism sin is the darkest crime. The prostitutes have power over Stephen through his fear of sin.

After briefly experimenting with prostitutes, Stephen attends a mass where he is reminded of his relationship to Catholicism and God and gives the power back to his priest; this inspires Stephen to become a strict Catholic again. A long sermon about the horrors of hell reignites Stephen’s religious passions and gives power to the priest as Stephen spends time considering the words of the priest. The priest notices Stephen’s new devotion to God and recognizes Stephen as someone who could possibly become a priest himself. Stephen’s priest says, “To receive that call, Stephen, [...] is the greatest honor that the Almighty God can bestow upon a man”, where ‘that call’ is the offering to become a priest (Joyce, 146). Stephen is being told that he can fulfil his destiny by fully believing in the priest and the priest’s power over himself. The priest continues: “No king or emperor on this earth has the power of the priest of God. No angel or archangel in heaven, no saint, not even the Blessed Virgin herself has the power of a priest of God: the power of the keys, the power to bind and to loose from sin, the power of exorcism, the power to cast out from the creatures of God the evil spirits that have power over them” (Joyce, 146). In this passionate address to Stephen, the priest uses the word ‘power’ eight times in attempt to show Stephen who he can become if he takes on the position of a priest. However, the priest focuses on the power he has over the divine rather than the power he has over Stephen, and encourages him to become someone who can also have this power. At the end of his statement the priest claims that not only does he have the power, but also “the authority to make the great God of Heaven come down upon the altar and take the form of bread and wine” (Joyce, 146). Stephen’s priest says that he has power and authority over God, a bold statement to make. Stephen subconsciously recognizes this absurdity and the corruptness of his church, which prompts “a flame [...] to flutter again on Stephen’s cheek as he heard in this proud address an echo of his own proud musings” (Joyce, 146). Pride is a sin, and by recognizing that the priest is acting on sin and encouraging his own sin in this moment, Stephen begins to acknowledge the negatives of the power the priest has over him.

The priest’s power comes to an end when Stephen has a small moment of concern, suggesting that if such a little moment can have such a big impact on Stephen, the priest didn't deserve to have power of him in the first place. When walking across a bridge, Stephen notices that “a squad of Christian brothers was on its way back from the Bull and had begun to pass, two by two, across the bridge” (Joyce, 153). At this moment this organized ‘squad’ represents Stephen’s religiousness or his future in the church. He continues: “Soon the whole bridge was trembling and resounding. The uncouth faces passed him two by two, stained yellow or red or livid by the sea, and as he strove to look at them with ease and indifference, a faint stain of personal shame and commiseration rose to his own face. Angry with himself he tried to hide his face from their eyes by gazing down sideways into the shallow swirling water under the bridge” (Joyce, 153). A beginning that suggests the negatives of religion towards Stephen with unsure vocabulary such as ‘trembling’ is continued with the stain of colors. ‘Livid’ is both the color of bruises and also an adjective meaning angry, which both have negative connotations. Stephen perceiving the boys as angry suggests, if put in the same position, he would also be angry, and he recognizes there is no way to hide that. Furthermore, both the connection with bruises from the color ‘livid’ and the synonymous describes reaction of ‘shame’ to both this moment and after being beating suggest Stephen recognizes his teachers and the priests as people with similar power over him which needs to be gotten rid of.

Void of power, Stephen turns to his relationship with Emma for fulfillment, but ultimately realizes poetry is more important to him than any girl. Throughout Joyce’s novel, few moments of Stephen’s art are displayed, until his villanelle about Emma. In it, Stephen writes: “Your eyes have set man’s heart ablaze” (Joyce, 207). It is clear Stephan cares about Emma, he goes so far as to write a poem about her, but the subtle connection to heat suggests she has the negative connotations fire has throughout the book. Stephen comes to this conclusion when he realizes that Emma is preventing him from becoming his true self, which is a poet. After misquoting Thomas Nash, an English poet, by replacing the word ‘brightness’ with ‘darkness’, Stephen realizes that Emma is the reason for his carelessness and says, “Well then, let her go and be damned to her” (Joyce, 217). This conscious removal of Emma herself and her power from his life because of her effect on his poetry and artistry begins to reveal Stephen’s realization that he wants to be alone. His final cut-off from Emma occurs in his journal, where he writes: “[Emma] asked me, was I writing poems? About whom? I asked her. This confused her more and I felt sorry and mean. Turned off that valve at once and opened the spiritual-heroic refrigerating apparatus, invented and patented in all countries by Dante Alighieri” (Joyce, 234). Stephen responds to Emma’s question in a closed off and negative way, but no complacently: he fully recognizes his rudeness. Despite this, he still discards any power Emma could have left, closing his ‘valve’ as if he has turned it to a robot with on and off switches. Moreover, throughout the transition of power from person to person, Stephen has feelings of ‘shame’ and heat, however his final conclusion with anyone of power comes with the opening of something cold: a ‘refrigerating apparatus’ made by a poet. This is Stephen’s attempted final goodbye to the hotness of everyone’s power over him other than himself.

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Power Over Stephen and His Attempts to Free Himself from It in James Joyce’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’. (2023, September 19). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 20, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/power-over-stephen-and-his-attempts-to-free-himself-from-it-in-james-joyces-a-portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-man/
“Power Over Stephen and His Attempts to Free Himself from It in James Joyce’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’.” Edubirdie, 19 Sept. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/power-over-stephen-and-his-attempts-to-free-himself-from-it-in-james-joyces-a-portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-man/
Power Over Stephen and His Attempts to Free Himself from It in James Joyce’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/power-over-stephen-and-his-attempts-to-free-himself-from-it-in-james-joyces-a-portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-man/> [Accessed 20 Apr. 2024].
Power Over Stephen and His Attempts to Free Himself from It in James Joyce’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Sept 19 [cited 2024 Apr 20]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/power-over-stephen-and-his-attempts-to-free-himself-from-it-in-james-joyces-a-portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-man/
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