The Daedalus Myth: Its Role in A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST...

James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a novel of complex themes developed
through frequent allusions to classical mythology. The myth of Daedalus and Icarus serves as a
structuring element in the novel, uniting the central themes of individual rebellion and discovery,
producing a work of literature that illuminates the motivations of an artist, and the development of his
individual philosophy.

James Joyce chose the name Stephen Dedalus to link his hero with the mythical Greek hero,

Daedalus. In Greek myth, Daedalus was an architect, inventor, and artisan. By request of King

Minos, Daedalus built a labyrinth on Crete to contain a monster called the Minotaur, half bull and
half man. Later, for displeasing the king, Daedalus and his son Icarus were both confined in this
labyrinth, which was so complex that even its creator could not find his way out. Instead, Daedalus
fashioned wings of wax and feathers so that he and his son could escape. When Icarus flew too high
-- too near the sun -- in spite of his father’s warnings, his wings melted, and he fell into the sea and
drowned. His more cautious father flew to safety (World Book 3). By using this myth in A Portrait
of the Artist as a Young Man (Portrait of the Artist), Joyce succeeds in giving definitive treatment to
an archetype that was well established long before the twentieth century (Beebe 163).

The Daedalus myth gives a basic structure to Portrait of the Artist. From the beginning, Stephen,
like most young people, is caught in a maze, just as his namesake Daedalus was. The schools are a
maze of corridors; Dublin is a maze of streets. Stephen’s mind itself is a convoluted maze filled with
dead ends and circular reasoning (Hackett 203):

Met her today point blank in Grafton Street. The crowd brought us together. We both stopped. She
asked me why I never came, said she had heard all sorts of stories about me. This was only to gain
time. Asked me, was I writing poems? About whom? I asked her. This confused her more and I felt
sorry and mean. Turned off that valve at once and opened the spiritual-heroic refrigerating
apparatus, invented and patented in all countries by Dante Alighieri.
(Joyce 246)

Life poses riddles at every turn. Stephen roams the labyrinth searching his mind for answers
(Gorman 204). The only way out seems to be to soar above the narrow confines of the prison, as
did Daedalus and his son. In Portrait of the Artist, the world presses on Stephen. His own thoughts
are melancholy, his proud spirit cannot tolerate the painful burden of reality. In the end, he must rise
above it (Farrell 206).

At first, Stephen does not understand the significance of his unusual name. He comes to realize, by
the fourth chapter, that like Daedalus he is caught in a maze:

Every part of his day, divided by what he regarded now as the duties of his station in life, circled
about its own centre of spiritual energy. His life seemed to have drawn near to eternity; every
thought, word and deed, every instance of consciousness could be made to revibrate radiantly in
heaven...
(Joyce 142)

Throughout the novel, Joyce freely exploits the symbolism of the name (Kenner 231). If he wants to
be free, Daedalus must fly high above the obstacles in his path.

Like the father Daedalus and the son Icarus, Stephen seeks a way out of his restraints. In Stephen’s
case, these are family, country and religion. In a sense, Portrait of the Artist is a search for identity;

Stephen searches for the meaning of his strange name (Litz 70). Like Daedalus, he will fashion his
own wings -- of poetry, not of wax -- as a creative artist. But at times Stephen feels like Icarus, the
son who, if he does not heed his father’s advice, may die for his stubborn pride (Litz 71). At the end
of Portrait of the Artist, he seems to be calling on a substitute, spiritual parent for support, when he
refers to Daedalus as old father, old artificer.(Joyce 247),(Ellman 16). Even at Stephen’s moment
of highest decision, he thinks of himself as a direct descendant of his namesake Daedalus (Litz 71).

Stephen’s past is important only because it serves as the fuel of the present. Everything that Stephen
does in his present life feeds off the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, making him what he is (Peake

82).