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James Joyce
Maura Harrington
ON THE WINGS OF ANGELS:
STEPHEN'S FLIGHT AS A NATIONAL PLIGHT

At the end of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus tells his confidant Cranly: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning” (268-69). Although Stephen seems to think that his new plan for behavior is precedented only by Satan’s, in reality, his own childhood experiences have presaged this modus operandi. Additionally, using “silence, exile, and cunning” is a common Irish pattern of subversive behavior and has led to the development of the Irish national character through the centuries. While Stephen ostensibly wants to escape the influence of his homeland and religion so that he can be free to create himself, in actuality his plan of behavior solidifies his connection with both Roman Catholicism and his homeland.

The discussion between Stephen and Cranly over whether Stephen should fulfill his Easter duty to please his mother, even though he is in an agnostic state, is dripping with imagery of religious and intellectual rebellion. When Stephen remarks to Cranly: “I will not serve,” Cranly is quick to reply: “That remark was made before” (260), noting the connection between Stephen’s declaration and the sin that is supposed to have caused Satan’s fall. Joyce quickly cements this association with Satan by observing that Stephen replies to Cranly’s response “hotly” (260), and follows this up with additional imagery that evokes sin and hell. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Cranly is “embarrassed” (260), and as the first humans ate fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Cranly is nibbling on figs. At Stephen’s request, Cranly ceases to eat the fruit, and “[throws] the fig rudely into the gutter. Addressing it as it lay, he [says]: – Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire!” (260). While this is a quote not from Genesis but from the Gospel of Matthew 25.41, it is in reference to condemnation to hell, and is therefore associated with sin. Having nibbled on the fruit while discussing a seditious topic with Stephen, Cranly is embarking on an analysis of good and evil, while according to contemporary standards, he should rather be obedient and have faith.

To Stephen, the idea of self-creation is the bedrock of all creativity. He sees that when he was a credulous communicant in Catholicism, he “was not [him]self, as [he is] now, as [he] had to become” (260). The diary which ends what turns out to be a self-portrait focuses on creativity. Stephen’s final prayer: “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead” (276), while perhaps a reference to that which created him, also hearkens back to the idea of Satan as artificer. To him, the ultimate rebel is a father because he provides for the young artist a precedent in action. Additionally, the idea of a father as artificer as a patron for his artistic endeavors is significant. Stephen’s invocation follows shortly after Stephen’s declaration: “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” (275-76). Stephen is setting out not only to create art but also to create conceptions of good and evil. Significantly, Stephen notes that his brand of creativity is related to his sense of national identity; despite his desire to avoid his nationality, he cannot create himself without it. Interestingly, Cranly has also suggested that there is a connection between Stephen’s religious experience and national experience. Asking Stephen whether he would commit the “particular sacrilege” of a communion without certain belief “if [he] lived in the penal days” (265), Cranly evokes the Irish predilection for associating Catholicism with nationalism. Particularly, it is notable that during the penal times, the Irish practiced silence and cunning when they were, in effect, in exile in their own land. Stephen, then, is not acting in a way that is as revolutionary as he thinks; he is merely reverting to pre-established modes of behavior. And, in fact, these modes of behavior date not only to the days of the enforcement of the penal codes, but at least to the early days of Christianity in Ireland. In Irish tradition, since the Irish were not given the opportunity to be “red martyrs,” giving up their lives, many religious chose to make other types of sacrifices. Some religious, known as “green martyrs,” secluded themselves in small cells in the wilderness and lived in silence. Other monastics, known as “white martyrs,” imposed penance upon themselves by exiling themselves into the mist on the sea, and beginning a new life on the Continent or elsewhere. Stephen’s plan to “use…silence, exile, and cunning” (269) in his creation of the “consciousness of [his] race” is neither new nor particularly rebellious, except to those who would prefer that the Irish do not succeed in the formation of a strong identity.

While Stephen fancies himself very inventive in his desire to strike out and create himself anew, he is following the precedent of others that has been set for him in previous situations in his life. During his retreat at Belvedere, Stephen listens to the voluminous preaching of Father Arnall, who concentrates heavily on that which leads individuals to damnation and on what damnation encompasses. According to Father Arnall’s sermon, the actions of Satan and of his first human victims were characterized by silence, exile, and cunning. Father Arnall describes sin as a self-elevation which leads to an inevitable fall. Father Arnall tells the boys that “Theologians consider that it was the sin of pride, the sinful thought conceived in an instant: non serviam: I will not serve. That instant was [Satan’s] ruin” (126). It was his “rebellious pride of the intellect [that] made Lucifer and a third part of the cohorts of angels fall from their glory” (144). It seems that Stephen later latches on to a similar intellectual pride, hoping that he will gain an infamy similar to that of Satan for his rebelliousness. Satan used his cunning to spur humans on to sin: “He came to the woman, the weaker vessel, and poured the poison of his eloquence into her ear,” making her a false promise of wisdom and of deification (127). Adam and Even had been told to avoid disobedience to God and “not to eat of the fruit of the forbidden tree” (126). Their consumption of the forbidden fruit of knowledge bears a striking parallel to the fact that later, Cranly is eating a fig while he and Stephen are discussing and questioning one of the central articles of faith in the Roman Catholic Church: the transubstantiation.

The prominent theme of banishment in Father Arnall’s version of the Fall of Man presages Stephen’s own eventual self-imposed exile. Once Eve and Adam follow the advice of Satan, in a way that parallels Satan’s banishment from heaven, they are exiled from the Garden: “…and Michael, prince of the heavenly host, with a sword of flame in his hand, appeared before the guilty pair and drove them forth from Eden into the world, the world of sickness and striving, of cruelty and disappointment, of labour and hardship, to earn their bread in the sweat of their brow” (127). The banishment from Eden by the Archangel Michael, whose name in Hebrew means “Who is like God?,” highlights the first humans’ sin of attempted transgression into the realm of God. While the exile of Adam and Eve is one of disappointment and despair, as Father Arnall and religious tradition present it, it is only through this evil that humans are allowed to create their own experience, which Stephen, when he is older, considers valuable. Father Arnall portrays Adam and Eve as almost helpless in the face of evil and as quiet, not arguing with their sentence. They are followed by a humble descendant, Jesus of Nazareth, who “was born in a poor cowhouse in Judea and lived as a humble carpenter for thirty years” (127), as Father Arnall recounts.

Not only do silence, exile, and cunning have religious or anti-religious overtones in Stephen’s mind but they are also significant in other ways, as earlier in Stephen’s childhood, one of his experiences inextricably linked the tools of rebellion not only with religious revolt but also with an experience involving intense national feeling. Early in his career at Conglowes, Stephen is subject to being set apart from the other boys and is ostracized. Wells’ throwing Stephen into the filthy puddle outside the school caps off the young Dedalus’ partition from the others. It is when Stephen becomes sick, possibly from his sojourn in the cesspool, that he is faced with the reality of his difference. Although he is not culpable for his descent into the mud, Stephen perhaps feels some guilt. However, he alleviates his guilt to the point of feeling “glad” by living up to his father’s expectation that he keep silence and “never…peach on a fellow” (19). When he falls ill, the prefect comes in and announces to Stephen “that Father Minister had said he was to get up and dress and go to the infirmary” (20). This rude awakening to consciousness is not unlike Adam and Eve needing to quickly clothe themselves after their Fall. Significantly, when he is ill, Stephen must go into a type of exile, and he “must pack off to Brother Michael” (20) who has the same name as the angel who drove Adam and Eve from the Garden. Because of Brother Michael’s station, the audience (and presumably Stephen) never learns his surname, and therefore the only way in which he is identified is by his Christian name, the same appellation as that of the Archangel. Stephen himself, even in his illness, wonders about Brother Michael’s position, questioning: “Was he not holy enough or why could he not catch up on the others?” (21). By pondering this, Stephen highlights the somewhat ambiguous place of angels, especially in the critical view of Christianity that Stephen later adopts. Additionally, by questioning the place of Brother Michael in his religious order, it is possible that Stephen is committing his own version of a sin of pride, presuming to make authority subject to his scrutiny.

While in his exile in the infirmary (Stephen’s own “world of sickness” [127]), Stephen begins to link silence, exile, and cunning with Irish political life. Stephen meets Athy, a fellow student who is also under the weather. To a person who is as young and as out-of-place as Stephen, Athy’s riddle-posing must seem Sphinx-like. When he first is unable to solve the riddle, and when Athy subsequently tells him the solution and asks him to determine another way in which the riddle could be stated and Stephen is unable to, Stephen feels inadequate. Unable to match Athy’s wit, which is actually merely a standard joke, and being at the mercy of Athy, who retorts “There is another way but I won’t tell you what it is” (24), Stephen is left to wonder “Why did he not tell it?” (24). Musing on his own lack of cunning, in comparison to his more sophisticated schoolfellow, the next words that Joyce records Stephen hearing are related to the death of Parnell. Parnell himself, during his political career, used cunning in his obstructionist Parliamentary techniques, met the allegations of his living with another man’s wife without defending himself, and was exiled from many of his followers upon the breaking of his scandal. In the young boy’s mind, the experience of illness becomes tied to a realization of his own inadequacy and to the concurrent demise of Parnell. To the young Stephen, then, silence, exile, and cunning, related both to political freedom and to spiritual development, attain a respectable status, and are acceptable tools to use in order to be creative.

Since Stephen begins to value his own freedom of thought so early in life, his claim at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that he will “go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience” (275-76) is not exactly a departure from his experience throughout the novel. While Stephen himself has always valued tools to recreate himself, he does not do this without precedent. These “arms” (269) are not Stephen’s alone; they have been used before by those whom he admires or of whom he is ashamed, to varying degrees, but who nonetheless have a tremendous influence on his personal identity. Left to question to what extent he himself is like God, as the Hebrew meaning of the name “Michael” would prompt him to do, the young Dedalus will take wing and soar into a plane of creativity which is new to him, but which may have previously been visited by others. Although he may leave his country, his country will never leave him; in his exile, Stephen makes himself more Irish than he would have been had he remained.

Work Cited
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ed. Seamus Deane. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.