Joseph Campbell Foundation

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man embodies the timelessness of myth in Western literature recognized by Joseph Campbell in his comparative mythology. Campbell admittedly was shaped by James Joyce’s writing in his scholarly pursuits. In a conversation with Bill Moyers, regarding the place of myth in personal development, he praises Joyce’s work: “In my own life I took my instruction from reading Thomas Mann and James Joyce, both of whom had applied basic mythological themes to the interpretation of the problems, questions, realizations and concerns of young men growing up in the modern world.” (Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth, 1991 p.177) Campbell ’s brief analysis of Joyce’s body of work is particularly apropos when applied to Portrait. Stephen experiences his own journey of self exploration, which Joyce communicates through numerous allusions to Daedalus and Icarus, as he matures into an artistic young man in the early twentieth century. Campbell ’s appreciation for Joyce’s use of mythology illustrates the compatibility of his interpretive framework with Portrait’s multilayered imagery. Although it may not address all of the facets of Joyce’s work, archetypal criticism, as understood by Campbell , provides a great starting point to understand Portrait’s symbolism.

Before Portrait can be critiqued internally, the myth of Daedalus and his son, Icarus, should be addressed to reveal the wealth of ideas that inspired Joyce in his characterization of Stephen. Daedalus, a rather sordid character, was a master artisan whose inventions are the causes and cures for his social mishaps with leaders in Greece and Crete . A brief overview of Daedalus’ creations includes a lifelike statue, a bull costume, a labyrinth, and wings (Rhoda A. Hendricks in Classical Gods and Heroes: Myths as Told by the Ancient Authors, 1972 p.103–104). An interesting chain exists within this list of his superhuman accomplishments. Daedalus’ departure from Greece starts with his inability to accept his own successes without envying the potential he sees in his nephew. This initial familial conflict leads to the murder of his nephew and his departure to Crete . Upon arriving in Crete , he creates the means for Pasiphae to consummate her relationship with a bull, resulting in the birth of the Minotaur. Daedalus, then, is commissioned by King Minos to make the labyrinth to contain the Minotaur, which eventually becomes his own prison when Minos discovers Daedalus’ role in the bizarre situation. He finally proceeds to make wings to escape his own creation but loses his son in the process whose hubris prevents him from using his father’s creation properly.

In this brief synopsis of Daedalus’ life, a number of themes emerge that are relevant to an archetypal critique of Portrait. Daedalus encounters numerous relational problems both inside his family and with authority figures. He finds himself in various quandaries in light of his artistic brilliance, and it seems that his artistry and troubles are reciprocal in nature. Troubled relationships inspire the creativity which enables an escape and new opportunities. This process increases the loss in Daedalus’ life, culminating in the death of his son. It is difficult to piece together the motives that drive Daedalus to create. Daedalus is portrayed as both hero and villain. His character is admirable and yet questionable at the same time. He gains the respect, envy and hatred of two great societies in the course of his journeys, which is quite an accomplishment for such a seldom mentioned figure in Greek myth.

This tangled web of broken relationships, successes, and failures provide a wealth of imagery into which Joyce freely delved. The significance of these themes is striking when considering Stephen’s relationships and creative development. The cyclical nature of Daedalus’ life is clearly seen in Stephen’s developing sense of the place of art in his life. Increasingly, Stephen identifies with mythical winged figures as metaphors for his own artistic experiences (James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1993 p.195). Stephen seeks the escape that Daedalus experiences, and he feels a similar sense of loss. By departing from Ireland to France , he pursues a similar release as Daedalus sought in departing Greece . Both men possessed guilt and were scrutinized by their peers for the inner demons that manifested in their iniquitous behavior. Joyce frequently alludes to the rising and falling of Icarus metaphorically when discussing Stephen’s soul as it likewise ascends and descends through many social and familial woes (Joyce p.144). The paradoxes in these myths also shed light upon Joyce’s choice of narrative structure. Joyce’s style parallels the disjointed and mentally challenging character of Daedalus. The fragmented journal entries that close the story mimic the fragmented record of Daedalus in Greek literature. Suffice it to say, Joyce possessed a wealth of inspiration from the Daedalus myth, and its significance within Portrait is marked.

Joyce’s dependence upon myth is much more established in literary scholarship than the relationship between Campbell ’s comparative mythology and Joyce’s portrayal of Stephen in Portrait. Although a direct relationship is not possible due to the fact that Campbell’s body of work is written later than Joyce’s, there is a helpful connection when viewing Joyce’s characterization through the unique perspectives that Campbell gleans from his vast knowledge of mythological themes. Campbell sees four functions of myth: mystical, cosmological, sociological and pedagogical ( Campbell p.38–39). Myth has a symbolic importance that transcends petty arguments over historicity that stifle scholars from seeing the wealth of human inspiration contained in mythology. The value of myth is augmented by each of these functions because they collectively teach us how to enjoy life and understand our world more completely. Myth clarifies order and defines roles in society; Campbell is emphatic about the connection between the place of rituals or ordeals in a society and its overall social wholeness ( Campbell p.10). Healthier societies have a clearer sense of their mythical foundations.

Joyce likewise emphasizes the importance of myth within Stephen’s quest. Stephen’s nagging quest for personal meaning is wrapped up in the mythical content of his surname. Just as the mythic predecessor found his life interwoven with his artistic creations, Stephen has an intuitive sense that his own vocation as an artist bears a similar resemblance to the father-son dichotomy. From his earliest struggles at Clongowes to the diary entries at the close of the book, Stephen explores his name and its symbolic value in literature.

The conflicted natures of both mythical and literary Daedalus figures illustrates a principle Campbell values greatly in his approach to archetypal analysis. This juxtaposition of psychic forces is a necessary aspect of myth that instructs people about the dual nature of humankind. Unlike the purely good and purely evil characters of fairy tales, mythology is raw in its portrayal of the sordidness of life. Campbell designates a series of opposites that permeate Stephen’s mental wrestling in Portrait: male and female, human and God, good and evil ( Campbell p.56). Stephen’s struggles with his parents, peers and women fall in the first pairing. His spiritual cycle of transfigurations in each chapter of the book evinces the second. And his perpetual struggles with his own sexuality and the morality of its expressions through masturbation and a sexual escapade with a prostitute encompass both the first and the third pair of opposites, rounding out Campbell ’s trichotomy.

The labyrinth motif is particularly significant in Stephen’s pursuit of his art. Campbell explicates, “And here is the labyrinth motif. The trails are deliberately confused, but if you know the secret of the labyrinth, you can go and pay its inhabitant a visit” ( Campbell p.142). This may appear cryptic on the surface, but it unlocks a tremendous insight into Stephen’s inward journey. The labyrinth contained the dreaded Minotaur, an archetype of evil. The labyrinth itself is an archetype of life in all of its complexities. One must go into the heart of the labyrinth and face the evil therein in order to successfully return from the grasp of evil; otherwise, he or she is stunted in his or her development as a human. Stephen has to delve into the complexities of life in order to understand how to convey his creative impulses. His indifference toward the labyrinths is part of the immaturity that prevents him from becoming the artist he needs to be. Stephen must navigate the labyrinths on various levels in his relationships with family, friends, authority figures, strangers, etc. to become an inspirational artist with a message, which is his underlying passion.

Campbell ’s magnum opus focuses upon the plight of the hero in mythology, and it would be a shame to not mention it in light of Portrait. The emphasis upon labyrinths is just one way of metaphorically conveying Campbell ’s message of the monomythic hero’s journey. The departure and return of the hero are bookends for the heroic journey itself and they are necessary components of a threefold narrative structure that is repeated immeasurably in world literature. As mentioned above, he sees the labyrinth as a character building force that proves the hero’s mettle ( Campbell p.154). Stephen could only become heroic by enduring the trials he faces along the way. Interestingly, Campbell also recognizes that heroism is a matter of semantics: “Whether you call someone a hero or a monster is all relative to where the focus of your consciousness may be” ( Campbell p.156). Stephen’s internal struggles with his hormonal drives and their influence upon his thought life demonstrates that he is in the middle of a heroic struggle that will either shape him into a heroic or demonic figure. Joyce’s portrayal encompasses this aspect of Campbell ’s archetype beautifully. Once again like the mythic Daedalus, Stephen’s admixture of vices and virtues serves a purpose that is greater than its components in shaping him as a young man. Joyce states: “The snares of the world were its ways of sin. He would fall. He had not yet fallen but he would fall silently, in an instant” (Joyce p.144). Despite his attempts to mortify his body, Stephen’s youthful lusts warred against his soul. Much to the reader’s regret, Joyce does not give a clear indication whether Stephen makes it through the labyrinth, since he is still too young to clearly know which side he would take on this psychological battle.

In light of the benefits of archetypal criticism in its application by Joseph Campbell, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man provides a beautiful case study of the value of mythological studies in analyzing Western literature. Joyce certainly was inspired by the Daedalus myth in his depiction of Stephen Dedalus, but, without Campbell ’s insights, it is more difficult to see how rich the relationship truly is. Portrait contains much more pungency when understood in this light.

Originally published at February 24, 2010.

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