A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
by James Joyce
There are some real father-issues in this book. Stephen’s father is possibly the most sentimental character in the book – not only because he’s a very emotional being (quite prone to drunken weeping) but also because he inspires a complicated mix of feelings in Stephen, and by extension, in us. He sums up a lot of what Stephen sees as pathetic – loss of potential, lack of responsibility, alcoholism – but at the same time, we see him as essentially a good man, and a loving though inept father. We know that he’s seen better days, and there’s the implication that back in the day, the Dedalus family was successful. Back in Cork, their original hometown, they had some property (which has to be sold to settle debts in Chapter Two) and prestige. The Mr. Dedalus of Stephen’s time, however, is sadly nostalgic and far past his prime. He’s recognizable as one version of a character we’re all familiar with in coming of age movies, the down-on-his-luck dad trying to make good (with varying results).
Mr. Dedalus never does make good, though. Instead of cleaning up his act, he sinks lower and lower into poverty and despondency, taking his family with him. He is particularly bogged down by his bitterness at the political state of Ireland. He was a believer in Parnell and in Irish Home Rule, but he has become disenchanted by the current situation. He feels like the great age of Irish politics is past and is pessimistic about the future. In fact, he’s pretty pessimistic about everything by Chapter Five; it seems that he’s even stopped really being a functioning member of the household. It’s heartrending to see that time and circumstances have reduced Mr. Dedalus from the jolly, loving dad of Stephen’s childhood to the cantankerous, always-angry old man upstairs, who yells down at his children and refers to Stephen as a "lazy bitch" – as Stephen notes snidely, this one tiny phrase accomplishes quite a hilarious gender switcheroo. Mr. Dedalus’s high spirits and hopefulness that we observed in earlier chapters have drained away by the end of the book. He has become just one more thing that Stephen must escape from in his self-enforced exile from his homeland. In the closing lines, Stephen addresses his mystical father figure, Daedalus, when he says "Old father, old artificer," and this is his final renunciation of his family, home, and country.