The Tool of the Martyr
A Study of Epiphany in James Joyce’s
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

By Randy Hofbauer

Throughout his entire novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, it can be said that James Joyce does not consider his revelations to be from the divine, or at least to not be influenced by the divine, especially being that he does not have ties with the Catholic Church, his native religion. However, using the sacred to describe secular revelations given to Stephen Dedalus, James Joyce uses the concept of “epiphany” (“act of appearing”(1)) to bring about new enlightenment to the hero of his novel which further his quest away from the cloth and therefore, closer to his dream of being an artist. “The Joycean epiphany is still ‘a sudden spiritual manifestation’ in which an object’s ‘whatness’ or ‘soul’ can be seen as leaping ‘to us from the vestment of its appearance’.”(2) The reader must understand that epiphany prepares him throughout the novel to accept and be strong in his eventual “martyrdom” of his old life and his rebirth to the new, where his suffering is no longer and he achieves the highest place he desires in the end: that of an artist.
It is noticed that Stephen’s name itself is derived from St. Stephen, the first martyr, who is mentioned in the book of Acts. Before being put to death, Stephen gives his own personal defense for his faith in Christ and therefore, when he cannot be refuted by the Sanhedrin, he is stoned. One of the most significant connections Joyce has made between Stephen and his character is that both receive epiphanies through their death in their old lives and rebirth into the new. St. Stephen is recorded to have said before he died, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God....LORD Jesus, receive my spirit!...Lord, do not hold this sin against them!”(3) One can almost see a similar tone to Stephen’s last words in the novel, “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.”(4) Stephen, as displayed throughout the novel, achieves several epiphanies, mainly those of his inspiration to write, his realizations of the errors in the church, his thoughts on the beauty of women and in the end, his leaving Ireland for Paris.
Deborah Pope, in her essay “The Misprison of Vision: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” claims that “Joyce commonly uses the language of spirituality and conventional theology to expand and redirect the nature of the emotional intensity occasioned by a secular epiphany.”(5) Even Stephen himself explains his usage of words he does not understand when he says “Words he did not understand he said over and over to himself till he had learnt them by heart; and through them he had glimpses of the real world about him.”(6) It is attempted to be shown that through this divine language, Joyce intends to give a dimension to the martyr that is shown in such stories as that of St. Stephen. The person generally has to defend his/her viewpoint and then endures suffering for what he/she believes is correct. After all of this, the martyr receives an epiphany through the suffering and learns from it, allowing it to let him/her grow stronger. Stephen portrays this throughout the novel.
For an example of divine language for secular epiphany (Pope refers to this story in the book), Stephen’s meeting with the prostitute and his eventual succumbing to her sexually is described in a manner quite reminiscent of man’s relationship to God, where Joyce writes: “It was too much for him. He 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.”(7) It is interesting to note Stephen’s captivity to the prostitute in his surrendering himself to her being juxtaposed against the image of the Virgin Mary, where Joyce writes that “The glories of Mary held his soul captive...symbolizing the preciousness of God’s gifts to her soul.”(8)
Such phrases as “surrendering himself...body and mind”, “conscious of nothing in the world” give us a sense of man’s encounter with the spiritual. Joyce gives this situation as the first major sin that Stephen creates in a long series of tormenting carnal living that he experiences throughout the book (i.e. noticing the beauty of the woman on the beach) and thus creates it as an epiphany to give the reader the sense that Stephen is slowly realizing what the world has to offer against what the church has to offer. The juxtaposition of the sex scene with the prostitute against the sacred devotion to Mary creates a glimpse of Joyce’s intentions of showing that he did in fact use sacred language to describe a secular act that creates an epiphany to Stephen.
Dante Alighieri, in his epic poem The Divine Comedy, travels through hell and purgatory with the poet Virgil until he reaches paradise, where he experiences what heaven is like. It stands firm as one of the strongest epiphanies in the history of world literature and shows its impact in Joyce’s use of Dante’s name for the character that offers Stephen one of his first revelations in the book. Stephen gets his first image of a martyr at the Christmas dinner table when he witnesses the clash of the Irish state (represented by Mr. Dedalus) with the Irish Church (represented by Dante). One of the most amazing things is the prophetic word that Dante gives to Mrs. Dedalus regarding Mr. Dedalus’ views when she tells him that “he’ll remember all this when he grows up...the language he heard against God and religion and the priests in his own home.” This is clearly repeated later on in the book through Stephen’s discovery of the secular world and his choice of it over the sacred.
The major incident of Stephen’s pandy batting is an example of a just man facing an unjust punishment, or the portrayal of Stephen as a martyr, like St. Stephen. Stephen does his best in school, he wins an essay competition and is a very bright student, yet he must face severe punishment. But through the punishment, Stephen emerges stronger in many ways, reflecting the true nature of the martyr who gains more strength the more he/she is persecuted.. “And now the earthbound spirit, pandy batted to shameful lowliness, finds the courage to attempt the air.”(9) Stephen proceeds to walk down the hall where all the pictures of the martyrs hang, giving an allusion to his “inheritance” of their lives and deaths, to the head of the school to report what has just happened and, afterward, have himself lifted up by his friends as a hero. This can also be classified as an epiphany in the Joycean sense, as Stephen has just realized his heroic deed that has brought him this “fame and fortune”, so to speak, and caused him to gain a form of independence as well as honor for stepping forth in defense of who he is and what he believes.
Another major epiphany that Stephen has regarding the religious happens not long after Father Arnall’s sermon at the retreat. Stephen has been contemplating the concept of hell and loathing it, dreaming about it and experiencing it unconsciously. Though this is not the religious reflecting the secular, the notions of hell and the terrible sins he realizes that he has committed further his notion that he is doomed and is not made out to accept the cloth. He dreams terrible dreams of foul stenches and sights that disgust him terribly, “an evil smell, faint and foul as the light, curled upwards sluggishly out of the canisters and from the stale crusted dung.”(10) Joyce truly describes hell, from Father Arnall’s and Stephen’s perspective, as a cesspool of complete filth, causing a stronger reaction to the senses in that usual fire and brimstone sermons are not enough, it should make one feel it deep within their stomach, to smell it, to taste it and to feel it. This epiphany becomes so strong that eventually it drifts from the unconscious state to the conscious, where Joyce climaxes the event with writing;

He sprang from the bed, the reeking odour pouring down his throat, clogging and revolting his entrails. Air! The air of heaven! He stumbled towards the window, groaning and almost fainting with sickness...he vomited profusely in agony.(11)

Perhaps the most important note on perceiving the error in Stephen’s point of view is this: Stephen does not picture any form of redemption from Father Arnall’s sermons, but merely the absolute agony faced in damnation. Though it is originally intended to “scare him straight”, it instead brings more despair within him to the point that he has the choice to either cause himself to forget the despair or keep it. Father Arnall himself even brings out the concept of redemption strongly at the end of his fiery sermon when he says:

I pray to God that my poor words may have availed today to confirm holiness in those who are in a state of grace, to strengthen the wavering, to lead back to the state of grace the poor soul that has strayed in any such be among you.(12)

Unfortunately, though, Stephen cannot accept the invitation to repent. He is too caught up in his prior sins and is suffering so much that he cannot do it. Stephen explains in a conversation he has with Cranly later in the novel where he explains his failure to have his faith in God. Joyce writes “I tried to love God, he said at length. It seems now I failed. It is very difficult.”(13) Stephen lacks faith in the first place because he never had a true religious conversion and therefore cannot understand the true message behind the sermon.
Stephen, however, does benefit from the notion of fire in Father Arnall’s sermons. Father Arnall brings about the concept of the differences between the earthly use of fire and the eternal use of fire in hell, how on earth it is for the good of man while in hell, it is for the punishment of the wicked. Stephen brings this about once again when he quotes Aquinas to the dean, saying once again that the warmth of fire is good on earth but in hell, it is evil. Stephen is exclaiming, from a sacred sermon, a philosophy that he has somewhat secularized in that he is now using it for himself for the purpose of discussing fire itself without the religious context as in Father Arnall’s sermon.
Stephen’s testimony of his renouncing of all ties to the Church is very well summarized in a statement found in Stephen Hero. While the argument between Stephen and Cranly is brought out in Portrait, Stephen’s statement is not so well summarized when he states “I am a product of Catholicism; I was sold to Rome before my birth. Now I have broken my slavery but I cannot in a moment destroy every feeling in my nature.”(14) in regards to committing a sacrilege in serving the Eucharist while standing in the place where his faith currently lies. A few lines later, he even states clearly his intent to not submit to the Catholic Church.
Stephen’s separation from his family traditions is a strong point in the book, coming to epiphanies about his father in particular and his struggles with him. It is interesting to note that during the dinner argument over the separation of church and state, one notices that Dante calls Mr. Dedalus a “blasphemer, Devil!”(15) which gives the reader a sense of the character of Mr. Dedalus and once again, giving the reader a prophetic vision of things Stephen will come to realize throughout the rest of the novel. Stephen is ashamed of his father, as shown earlier while at Clongowes, when not only is Stephen’s name insulted, but he is asked what his father is, to where Stephen briefly replies, “A gentleman” to which the question is then asked, “Is he a magistrate?”(16) Stephen realizes that his father does not stand on the same social level as all of the other students, and it bothers him in many ways, one can see through his fantasizing about the Count of Monte Cristo and spending time in study hall instead of outdoors.
Stephen first hears about the people who dislike his father when he hears him speaking with Uncle Charles about his enemies and a fight that would take place. Joyce clearly tells the reader that Stephen has another epiphany of his own, in fact, an oracle of things to come. “...and again an intuition or foreknowledge of the future came to him.”(17) Stephen comes to realize why his father chose to move from Blackrock to Dublin, and realizes all the problems that his father actually has. Mr. Dedalus has a certain contradictory nature to himself in that what he advises Stephen and what he actually does are two different things. He sends Stephen to a Jesuit school when he himself has said such horrible things regarding the Church.
Another incident occurs when Stephen goes out with his father from one bar to the next and notices his father’s actions of flirting with barmaids and his getting drunk. hen it comes to Johnny Cashman asking Stephen is Cork girls or Dublin girls are cuter, Mr. Dedalus states to “Leave him alone. He’s a levelheaded thinking boy who does not bother his head about that kind of nonsense.”(18) Mr. Dedalus states a complete insult regarding his son when he tells Cashman that “There’s that son of mine there not half my age and I’m a better man than he is any day of the week.”(19) It is not long after this incident that Stephen sleeps with the prostitute, showing his need for love, which he clearly does not feel from his father.
Beauty comes about through major epiphanies that Stephen has throughout the novel and eventually makes him comfortable with his denial of his faith and the acceptance of his vocation as an artist, delving specifically in secular matters as opposed to the spiritual. Whether the beauty of the world around him or the beauty of the female body, he comes to realize the secular beauties that are all around him. One can see that Stephen speaks using a purely metaphysical language, that Joyce specifically chooses to describe the concrete in such an abstract, spiritual manner. Once again, he uses the sacred to describe the secular. For example, in his book, The Antimodernism of Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, Weldon Thornton explains his epiphanies on the beauty around him, saying that “Joyce shows us how inextricably linked are mental and physical, psychological comprehension and phonetic accident, value and verbal vesture, through the medium of language we speak.”(20)
Stephen notices beauty before his faith and believes it to be a hindrance against his pursuit of the cloth, but eventually comes to accept it. A major key point in the book where Stephen suddenly shouts praise through sacred language to the secular beauty of a woman is near the end of book 4, when he sees the woman on the beach. Stephen does not worship God, but that which is beautiful. Joyce writes “and when she felt his presence and the worship of his eyes her eyes turned to him in quiet sufferance of his gaze...”(21) It is not long after this when Stephen feels the beauty so overwhelmingly that his soul shouts “Heavenly God” in a joyful manner. Stephen sees the beauty of that which is created by God and worships that, not God Himself. His shouting of “Heavenly God” reveals that he has received an epiphany through the woman’s beauty that makes him realize that while before he took much shame in his enjoyment of the female gender, he has now reached a point that is comfortable with taking pleasure and joy in it.
Stephen writes a villanelle that speaks of beauty, whether of tortured longing or true love. Through the villanelle he touches on major Christian themes of worship used to describe the beauty of a woman, such as the phrases “lure of fallen seraphim”, “smoke of praise”, “rise in one eucharistic hymn”, “chalice flowing to the brim”, this may perhaps be the strongest usage of sacred language by Stephen throughout the book, and it is used to describe the secular. The reader can take note that a feel much like the Biblical psalmists arises from the villanelle, giving the reader the feel, once again, that Stephen is bringing about his worship to that which is created by God and not to God Himself.
Right after this incident, Stephen begins to contemplate the moon and other natural creations. He looks at a flower, and thinks about the flower “trembling and unfolding, a breaking light, an opening flower...breaking in full crimson and unfolding and fading to the palest rose...”(22) Stephen’s thoughts here are reflected on again through sacred language, he is picturing the concept of fully opening oneself up and being set free, the crimson giving an imagery of the sky that Daedelus glided across on his wings, giving epiphany of the soon to be freedom that Stephen would receive.
Stephen, in a discussion with his mother, explains his problems with the Church and thus, brings about more proof that his family simply does not understand him, just as the Church does not. He begins discussing it with his mother, saying that he talked to her “to escape held up relations between Jesus and Papa against those between Mary and her son.....This means to leave church by backdoor of sin and reenter through the skylight of repentance. Cannot repent.”(23) Joyce makes the ultimate statement of separation from his father and from Christ. He admits that he is a failure and that he cannot repent of his sin as requested by his mother and the clergy, therefore he does not have a place amongst the people.
The final epiphany of the book comes with Stephen’s leaving Ireland. Much like Joyce and very autobiographical in nature, Stephen is finally accepting of his exile from society, both religious and secular. Joyce uses amazingly new narrative techniques through his stream-of-consciousness style, showing that

[At the] end, Joyce challenges the laws of conventional narrative by turning his own mind to intricate arts that result in a death and a doubling through the creation of a ghostly presence for the artist in a voice that repeats itself.(24)

Joyce uses this story himself to break free of the laws and orthodoxy of the modern novel. He writes in a voice for Stephen that is his own voice of an artist, giving Stephen the same feel. Though the work is mainly autobiographical, Joyce still manages to speak through Stephen in quite an indirect, yet intensely powerful manner that is reflected throughout his other works, giving rise to an avant-garde approach that lets the reader experience both the thought process of the author and the character in one major experience. It is, in itself, an epiphany to the reader in that it reveals things a novel is meant to reveal through unconventional methods which cannot be done as easily, ironically, through conventional methods
Stephen, with his Irish heritage and his Catholic roots are both gone and being freed of all fetters, has his ultimate epiphany of his struggles as one who is dying to his previous life and being born to his new one (as stated previously). Stephen ultimately accepts the myth of Daedelus into his life and allows the symbolic nature of Daedelus’ wings to “grow” on him so that he can leave his homeland and past behind him and start anew in a completely independent state. Stephen accepts the entirety of the framework of epiphany in this novel: his name. He comes to understand his role “more nearly akin to the son....[his natural father and the Jesuit fathers] no longer call him son....His wings take him from the fatherland. The labyrinth leads him toward a father.”(25)
Through the book, Stephen’s epiphanies bring about thoughts that he never thought before and ideas that he had never considered. From what originally started as a strong Irish Catholic heritage, Stephen gains the new viewpoint of an exiled skeptic and artist. Through his acceptance of epiphany and his decision to adjust his life accordingly to what is revealed to him, Stephen eventually becomes a “hero” in the sense of being a martyr, refusing to succumb to what other people say but accept what he feels his ultimate destination is. That is to spread his wings and fly freely like Daedelus’, which becomes his ultimate framework behind all epiphany received by him throughout the novel.

Notes

(1) From the Greek word, meaning “act of appearing”, taken from “ejpifavneia.” Bauer, Walter. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, trans. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, 3d ed. Revised and Augmented by F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2000. Pg. 245.
(2) “Introduction.” Ed. Harold Bloom. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988. Pg. 3.
(3) Acts 7:56, 59b, 60b
(4) Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Penguin Books, 1977. Pg. 253.
(5) Pope, Deborah. “The Misprison of Vision: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Ed. Harold Bloom. Modern Critical Views: James Joyce. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. Pg. 113.
(6) Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Penguin Books, 1977. Pg. 62.
(7) Ibid. Pg. 101.
(8) Ibid. Pg. 104.
(9) Burgess, Anthony. “Martyr and Maze-Maker.” Ed. Harold Bloom. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988. Pg. 48.
(10) Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Penguin Books, 1977. Pg. 137.
(11) Ibid. Pg. 138.
(12) Ibid. Pg. 134.
(13) Ibid. Pg. 240.
(14) Joyce, James. Stephen Hero. New York: New Directions, 1963. Pg. 139.
(15) Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Penguin Books, 1977. Pg. 39.
(16) Ibid. Pg. 9.
(17) Ibid. Pg. 66.
(18) Ibid. Pg. 94.
(19) Ibid. Pg. 95.
(20) Thornton, Weldon. The Antimodernism of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1994. Pg. 114-115.
(21) Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Penguin Books, 1977. Pg. 171.
(22) Ibid. Pg. 172.
(23) Ibid. Pg. 248.
(24) Riquelme, John Paul. “The Preposterous Shape of Portraiture.” Ed. Harold Bloom. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988. 104
(25) Levin, Harry. “The Artist.” Ed. Chester G. Anderson. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Penguin Books, 1977. Pg. 415.

Works Cited

Bauer, Walter. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, trans. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, 3d ed. Revised and Augmented by F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2000.

Burgess, Anthony. “Martyr and Maze-Maker.” Ed. Harold Bloom. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

“Introduction.” Ed. Harold Bloom. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.

Joyce, James. Stephen Hero. New York: New Directions, 1963.

Levin, Harry. “The Artist.” Ed. Chester G. Anderson. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.

NASB Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999

Pope, Deborah. “The Misprison of Vision: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Ed. Harold Bloom. Modern Critical Views: James Joyce. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.

Riquelme, John Paul. “The Preposterous Shape of Portraiture.” Ed. Harold Bloom. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

Thornton, Weldon. The Antimodernism of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1994.


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