Bird Imagery in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
In our world today, birds symbolize freedom, movement, and peace. In the novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce portrays each of these ideas through his use of visual imagery to describe birds. Each time Stephen sees birds in the novel, it marks a point of realization and hope for him in his journey to leave Ireland and follow his passion. Stephen’s first major realization is when he sees the ‘birdgirl’ at the beach and feels as though his soul is calling to him to embrace his inner desires of being an artist and flying away from Ireland. Stephen’s newfound desire is seen again when he is speaking with his friends about philosophy. He says that there are nets put onto the souls born in Ireland to prevent them from flying away, but that he will not stand by that, alluding to his desire for freedom. Finally, when Stephen views the birds at the library, he notices their movement, representing his desire to escape from the political and religious pressures of Ireland to become an artist. The repeated description of birds throughout the novel also emphasizes the meaning of Stephen’s last name, Daedalus, in Greek mythology. As each of these moments in the book are part of Stephen’s journey to discovering his true passion, Joyce uses visual imagery of birds to depict Stephen’s journey to ‘fly away’ from the nets that are holding him back and to embrace his namesake.
While Stephen is walking through the college, thinking about his future, and whether or not he wants to join the order, he sees and hears many things that remind him of birds, such as hearing his name and seeing a vision of a hawk like man. This acts as a sign for Stephen to embrace his namesake and become an artist. Then, his destiny becomes even more clear as he reaches the beach where he sees a girl in the water who changes his view on the world. The book states, “A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird” (Joyce 158). Birds represent peace and renewal, as well as movement. Therefore, as Stephen looks at the girl, he realizes that she is a sign telling him to be free. The fact that Stephen sees the girl as a bird portrays the renewal of his soul as he can now become an artist. Stephen even compares the girl to an angel on the next page, again representing flight and renewal. Joyce wrote, “...A wild angel had appeared to him, the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life, to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!” (Joyce 159). Joyce’s word choice creates an image of the birdgirl leading Stephen down a new path in life. The comparison of the girl to an angel emphasizes the idea of flight, wings, and movement. The girl throwing open the gates creates a powerful image of the girl leading Stephen down a new path in his life, to freedom. The phrase ‘gates of error and glory’ mean that Stephen can now explore the world in all its glory and make mistakes along the way, because that is what freedom is. Therefore, Stephen’s encounter with the birdgirl at the beach marked a turning point in his life and introduced him to his destiny of freedom and movement, which is seen throughout the rest of the book.
Stephen’s newfound desire for freedom and movement is seen through the visual imagery Joyce used when Stephen is speaking with his friends about Ireland and philosophy. Stephen says, “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets” (Joyce 188). The use of visual imagery is very prominent in this quote as Joyce’s descriptive language creates an image of the soul as a bird trying to fly away. The phrase ‘there are nets flung at it’ develops the image of entrapment, and the word ‘flight’ develops the comparison of a man’s soul to a bird. This use of visual imagery portrays the idea that Stephen feels trapped in Ireland by the political and religious pressure, the ‘nets’. The phrase ‘fly by’ means that Stephen is not going to be trapped by the nets, he is going to try to fly past those nets and leave Ireland. This portrays the idea that Stephen longs to be free to move, just like a bird. As Stephen says that he is going to try to ‘fly by’ the nets, this alludes to the meaning of his last name. In Greek mythology, Daedalus is known as a man who built wings in order to fly away and escape entrapment. Joyce’s portrayal of Stephen’s desire to fly away from Ireland emphasizes the importance of Stephen’s last name in the novel. The visual imagery used in this quote shows the effect that the bird girl had on Stephen as he now longs for freedom.
Another instance in which Joyce uses visual imagery to describe birds and Stephen’s desire for freedom is when Stephen observes the birds at the library. As Stephen thinks about Emma, Ireland, and his future, he sees birds flying above the library and tries to decipher the meaning of them. Joyce wrote, “What birds were they? He stood on the steps of the library to look at them...He watched their flight; bird after bird: a dark flash, a swerve, a flash again, a dart aside, a curve, a flutter of wings” (Joyce 208). Joyce’s detailed description of the bird’s movements portrays the idea that Stephen wants to be able to move freely and explore the world. The fact that Stephen wonders what kind of birds they are refers to his desire to learn and explore his curiosities. In the same section of the book, Stephen says that the sounds and movements of the birds soothe his ears and eyes. The fact that Stephen finds solace in watching the birds shows that he desires to have their freedom and peacefulness. Again in this section, Stephen compares himself to the birds when he says, “Then he was to go away for they were birds ever going and coming, building ever an unlasting home under the eaves of men’s houses and ever leaving the homes they had built to wander” (Joyce 209). Joyce uses the image of building a home and leaving it to portray the idea that like the birds, Stephen is going to leave his home to explore the world. Through this comparison between Stephen and the birds, Joyce portrays the importance of Stephen’s last name once again. Finally, at the end of the novel as Stephen prepares to embrace his namesake, build his wings, and fly by the nets of Ireland, he calls upon Daedalus one final time to hold him in good stead. This represents the idea that Stephen has finally accepted his destiny to be an artist and leave Ireland. The fact that Stephen calls upon Daedalus to hold him in good stead means that Stephen wishes to live up to his namesake in his artistic journey.