A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
by James Joyce
Birds and Flight
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
The association of flight with Stephen’s experience stems from his affiliation with Daedalus. As we mentioned elsewhere, Daedalus was known for creating wings of feather and wax; this is the source of the "hawklike man" image that pops up now and again. Stephen envisions his soul flying on metaphorical wings of his own construction; like Daedalus, he must fly to escape what he perceives to be his prison (Ireland), and the "nets" it casts to entrap him (religion, language, nationality). The bird association also stretches to the Egyptian god Thoth, mentioned once in Chapter Five by Stephen. Thoth, a bird-headed deity, was the god of scribes – and by extension, writers.
Bird flight represents the freedom Stephen longs for, and whenever it shows up in the book, you can be sure that he’s feeling particularly antsy. For example, when Stephen watches the birds wheeling above in Chapter Five and asks, "What birds were they?" Joyce clearly ties his protagonist’s unrest to the erratic patterns the birds weave in the sky. Birds are a sign of the mysterious, distant future he sees for himself – in the ancient world, divination by observing the flight of birds (augury) was a common practice, and Stephen makes reference to it, seeking meaning in the birds he observes.