Study Guide

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By James Joyce

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Birds and Flight

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.


Water imagery is present everywhere in this book. From the bog-like pool into which Wells (double whammy!) pushes Stephen at Clongowes, to the open sea that bears witness to his epiphany: water just always seems to be around. One might argue that it’s a symbol for the state of Stephen’s soul at any given time. For example, in the Clongowes instance, Stephen can’t get the feeling of the cold, slimy, filthy water out of his mind; it’s also the moment where he’s getting sick and feels scared. Likewise, when the Dedalus clan packs up and moves to Dublin, one of the first things he notices about the city is its squalid harbor water, covered in yellow scum, reflecting his unhappiness at their move from the clean, open country. In Stephen’s holier-than-thou religious period, he imagines temptation as a flood that moves slowly towards him; he uses his willpower to escape from it unscathed (undampened, actually). Finally, the water scene to end all water scenes is at the close of Chapter Four, when Stephen has an artistic epiphany at the beach. For once, the water here is clean and natural, richly colored and alive with vibrant seaweed. Stephen’s soul, too, is cleansed and full of wild new life.


From the very first page, music is constantly in the background. It’s not Stephen’s primary artistic passion, so it never really steps to the foreground, but it’s always a lingering presence. Stephen is a singer; we don’t know how talented he is (he is asked to perform several times, which indicates that he must be pretty good), but it’s never a central part of his identity, as far as we’re concerned. However, his "sensitive nature" is very receptive to musical cues, and he often thinks of language in terms of its musicality and rhythmic nature. He refers to phrases making up "chords" with words, an idea that combines the concept of musical harmony with poetic beauty.

Music appears at several key points. For example, when he is about to leave the Director’s office in Chapter Four (on the brink of deciding whether or not to join the Jesuits), the priest’s "mirthless" response to a sudden burst of music from the street shocks Stephen, making him realize that he could never become a priest himself. Later in the chapter, Stephen imagines an "elfin prelude" that expresses his excitement at the prospect of going to university. For Stephen (as for many people), music is tied to a level of non-verbal, almost primal experience of emotion. It relates to his more intellectual poetic activities, but also to his spontaneity and his immediate reaction to the outside world. Joyce himself was really interested in trying to represent music in words; we see him do this both in Finnegan’s Wake and in a truly monumental episode in Ulysses (if you’re interested, it’s Episode 11, "Sirens").

Skulls and Masks

The image of the skull is very present in Stephen’s interactions with his Jesuit teachers, emphasizing the deathly and passionless character he eventually comes to recognize as a sign of the priesthood. The skull is a commonly used Christian symbol; it represents Golgotha, the supposed location of Christ’s death. A skull also pops up in the graveyard scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a play whose title character greatly resembles Stephen (they both think way too much about things). As early as Chapter One, Stephen notes a skull present in the Rector’s office at Clongowes. Later, he emphasizes the prominent curves of the skull of the Director of Belvedere. After his falling out with Cranly at the end of the novel, he comments on the "death mask"-like quality of his friend’s face, which reminds him of the severed head of St. John the Baptist (in his first description of Cranly much earlier, he also calls it a "priestlike face"). Finally, Lynch is also described in terms of a mask; however, his face is a "devil’s mask."


Color plays a substantial role in Chapter One – the colors green and maroon are associated with Parnell and Michael Davitt, two leaders of the Irish nationalist movement. Though the two colors seem to be in harmony at first, Stephen remembers Aunt Dante cutting the green velvet off and telling him that Parnell is a bad man. This confusing episode, and the arguments between Dante and Stephen’s father that follow, represent "politics" to him at this stage of childhood. To Stephen, the two colors represent conflict and, when Fleming colors a world map with green and maroon (a coincidence), Stephen wonders "which was right, to be for the green or for the maroon." We also see the red and white teams in the Wars of the Roses-themed math competition. Again, color represents conflict and opposition. Though it’s a symbol that doesn’t come up as obviously in the rest of the text, it highlights the idea of visually representing an ideological conflict, which is very important to Stephen as a child because of his limited understanding of those abstract differences.

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