Character Development via Stream of Consciousness


A paper analyzing one aspect of Modernity in James Joyce’s A Portrait of an Artists as a Young Man, written for Modern British Literature ENGL 3309 at Texas Tech University, Fall 2018.


Character Development via Stream of Consciousness: Stephen’s Views of Gender

Stephen Dedelus, in ‘A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man’ by James Joyce, is an expression of complex character development over a window of his life. Joyce uses the stream of consciousness to show character development in Stephen through his inner fears and struggles, apparent in Stephen’s contrasting feelings for his mother and his relationship with his father, and his effort to define his gender role. This use of stream of consciousness has been a powerful influence on the post-modern world, seen as a style of character development used in post-modern writing. Stream of consciousness shows the motivations that drive Stephen through layers of character development, an influential focus in modernist works. The style and influence of Joyce’s writing can be analyzed by studying Stephen’s growth over reoccurring topics in Portrait, giving insight to the development of his character as the voice of Stephen’s stream of consciousness changes from a short-structure writing style to complete thoughts in ordered paragraphs with Stephen’s increasing age. Stephen develops his views of gender from his interactions with his parents and his views of the world though dialectic thinking, associating things with either femininity or masculinity.

Joyce immediately establishes Stephen’s desire for female comfort to be a source of many of Stephen’s internal conflicts through his relationship with his mother. Stephen’s early views of his mother and father are expressed by his contrasting them in his rudimentary thoughts, “His mother had a nicer smell than his father” (Joyce 21). Already we see Stephen’s relationship with his mother, establishing her role as a caregiver, and contrasting her to his father. His early days as school reflect that he associates his mother with comfort, his stream of consciousness showing us this when he thinks of her as “nice mother” (Joyce 22), and when he daydreams of being home, envisioning his mother sitting at the fire with Dante (Joyce 24). As Suzette Henke explains: “At the psychological juncture between pre-oedipal attachment and oedipal separation, Stephen first sees his mother as a powerful and beneficent source of physical pleasure” (Henke 318). This early association establishes Stephen’s perception of comfort with the female gender in his mind and is the grounds for his views of gender roles as he becomes older.

Even as an adult the childish ritual of his mother washing him continues, and Stephen dialectically thinks of it as part of the male-female/son-mother status quo, rather than a somewhat odd behavior for an adult man. “-Well, it’s a poor case, she said, when a university student is so dirty that his mother has to wash him. –But it gives you pleasure, said Stephen calmly” (Joyce 157) as if he is allowing her to wash him was a gift to her. A representation of the dynamic between her feminine servitude and his masculine power. Stephen’s assumption of the mantle of masculinity in his son/mother relationship is expressed again when Stephen tells Cranly that he argued with his mother about attending Easter communion (Joyce 211). He establishes that his mother has no control over his actions, and continues to establish that same status for the church, declaring to Cranly that he is not a believer in the Eucharist (Joyce 212). Cranly presses Stephen on his beliefs and his family, tying Stephen’s refusal to give his mother some happiness by obeying her request to Stephen’s belief, or lack of, finding a weakness in Stephen’s claims. “I said that I had lost the faith, Stephen answered, but not that I had lost self respect” (Joyce215), suggests that while Stephen speaks of revolt against the church, his internal conflicts are more complicated than his black-and-white way of categorizing the world allows him to admit.

Stephen’s relationship with his father is a stark contrast to his mother. When Stephen’s parents drop him off at Clongowes, he views his mother’s crying as “not so nice” (Joyce 22), an elementary association of weakness with femininity. Contrasting that, Stephen’s father gives him “pocket money” and tells him that “if he wanted anything to write home to him and, whatever he did, never to peach on a fellow” (Joyce 22). This statement from Simon Dedelus defines more than one aspect of the male gender role by showing that his father can provide for him if he asks and that he should not tattle-tell on classmates. This scene ties the use of money and words to the power of masculinity and offers a different version of comfort than Stephen associates with his mother.

Interestingly, when Simon cries upon seeing Stephen at his first Christmas out of the nursery (Joyce 40), Stephen explains it rather than having the negative reaction he has to his mother’s crying. This silence is both a foreshadowing of Stephen later becoming disillusioned with his father, and telling because he reacts differently to the same emotionally expression from both parents. The events of that Christmas dinner strongly emphasize the powerlessness of his mother’s words, as her attempt to stop political talk falls on deaf ears, even when she encourages Dante to remain silent (Joyce 41, 44 & 47). Simon Dedelus, Uncle Charles and Mr. Casey dominate the conversation at the table, and despite Dante’s passionate dedication to her beliefs, she gains no ground against the men’s argument, finally leaving the dinner (Joyce 48).

Throughout the book, as Stephen’s father loses his wealth, Stephen no longer associates his father with the power of masculinity. Stephen’s complete disconnect of his father with any virtues of manliness seem to fall away under the burden of his father’s careless alcoholism, which drives the family into poverty. Stephen’s stream of conscious shows his lack of pity for his father’s fall:

He listened without sympathy to his father’s evocation of Cork and the scenes of his youth, a tale broken by sighs or draughts from his pocketflask whenever the image of some dead friend appeared in it or whenever the evoker remembered suddenly the purpose of his actual visit. Stephen heard but could feel no pity.

(Joyce 87)

Stephen’s complete lack of pity for his father alienates Simon from the power and masculine strength in Stephen’s eyes. Their trip together, submerged in Simon’s weeping remanence of his glory days, leaves a clear picture of how Stephen has come to the place he is in, despite having started well off. While Stephen often sees himself as the victim, usually of his own choices, here he is indeed suffering from the actions of another, which conflict with his view of the masculine role.

Stephen’s mantra through things he does not comprehend is “by thinking about things you could understand them,” which leads to him using his dialectic analysis to categorize his experiences. Stephen’s reaction when Father Dolan paddles Stephen’s hands is a new experience for, which he had previously tried to think himself to understanding. Once the event happens, he has actual experience and his stream of consciousness shifts to actual events as he tries to keep from crying (Joyce 57-58). His shame is multifold, generated from the unfair punishment and from the unmanly reaction he has. Stephen is continually trying to think his way through every unknown situation, and at that moment he is publically robbed of any control of self he thought he had, not unlike when Dante is driven away at Christmas dinner.

Stephen’s foray into sexual sin, driven by the perception that sex brings on manliness, is ironically a reversal of gender roles. “As he stood silent in the middle of the room she came over to him and embraced him gaily and gravely” (Joyce 99). Here Stephen takes on the feminine role, represented by his silence and lack of action. “Her round arms held him firmly to her and he, seeing her face lifted to him in serious calm and feeling the warm, calm rise and fall of her breast, all but burst into hysterical weeping” (Joyce 99). A scene that reads like a modern-day romance novel if you swap the character’s genders. Ironically by attempting to achieve manhood Stephen takes on the feminine aspect of the experience. This tilting of gender role also seen in his interactions with Cranly. “-And you made me confess to you, Stephen said, thrilled by his [Cranly’s] touch, as I have confessed to you so many other things, have I not?” (Joyce 218) This intimacy of confession and the femininity in Stephen’s reaction to Cranly’s touch is ironic since his planned “journey into exile will release him from what he perceives as a cloying matriarchal authority” (Henke 334).

Despite Stephen perceiving himself as an individual that thinks through each element of his life, his stream of consciousness betrays him. He goes through each significant moment in his life heavily influenced by the people and institutions around him, and how he associates them with gender. Henke describes Stephen as “emotionally static and incapable of meaningful connection with other human beings” (335). Stephen’s self-alienation from each aspect of the world that he believes in not only isolates him from emotional growth but defines his self-inflicted victimhood. Joyce gives insight to Stephen’s internal character conflicts, via the stream of consciousness, as his character develops, seen in his complicated interpretations and reactions to his mother, father, and his own gender role. The final character attributes are not focused on whether Stephen’s growth has made him better, but rather on the development he achieved by growing older, experiencing and trying to think through understanding the world. Stephen is a flawed character, but Joyce painted him in three dimensions, including all the good and the bad in Stephen’s inner mind.

Works Cited

Henke, Suzette. “Stephen Dedalus and Women: A Feminist Reading of Portrait.” Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, edited by R. B. Kershner, Second ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006, pp. 317–336.

Joyce, James. “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, edited by R. B. Kershner, Second ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006, pp. 20–224.