How did James Joyce present the element of “epiphany” in his novel “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”?

James Joyce’s attitude to his protagonist Stephen in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” is a complex question, on which many critics have disagreed. For many years, critics assumed that Stephen Dedalus was a faithful autobiographical portrait of the author. In this view, Stephen is, for all intents and purposes, the young James Joyce, and he is presented in a wholly admirable, even heroic light by the author (the original draft of Portrait was called “Stephen Hero”). Stephen is a hero who breaks through the restrictions of family, church, and nation to shape his own destiny according to his inner lights. He overcomes the limitations of his culture and environment and soars into a higher realm. Other critics, while accepting that it was Joyce’s intention to present a heroic Stephen, have censured Stephen because he comes across as a bit of a prig and tends to isolate himself from everything around him-not admirable qualities.

By epiphany, Joyce meant a sudden revelation, a moment when an ordinary object is perceived in a way that reveals its deeper significance. An epiphany can produce in the perceiver a moment of ecstasy. The word epiphany does not actually appear in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Y00ungman”, but Joyce does use it in “Stephen Hero”, the draft on which “A Portrait” was based: “By an epiphany, he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation. …. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.”

An epiphany occurs as part of the perception of beauty, Stephen says, as he explains his aesthetic theory to Cranly (in A Portrait, it is Lynch to whom he explains the theory). He bases this theory on the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, the medieval Catholic theologian. According to Aquinas, the three things needed for beauty are integrity, symmetry, and radiance. It is when the last quality, radiance, is perceived, that an epiphany occurs. This is how Stephen explains it in “Stephen Hero”:

“Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object… seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany.”

When this episode appears in “A Portrait” (in Chapter 5), the three qualities from Aquinas are altered slightly, to become wholeness, harmony, and radiance. Stephen explains,

“The instant wherein that supreme quality of beauty, the clear radiance of the esthetic image, is apprehended luminously by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness and fascinated by its harmony is the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure, a spiritual state” (p. 231).

The most famous epiphany in “A Portrait” is the moment Stephen perceives the girl wading in the strand: “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 sea creature” (p. 185). Stephen has just experienced the certitude of his vocation as artist, and this strange and beautiful figure is a symbol of this. She is Stephen’s Muse, as it were. She is mysterious, for all such spiritual revelations rest on a mystery. She is birdlike, for the message has come to him from the sky in the symbol of flight. She is a seabird standing in the flowing waters of life. She is also associated with the dove, bringing to mind the Christian stories of the Annunciation, and the descent of the Holy Ghost—the gift of tongues.

In Chapter V, Stephen reconsiders and examines all those causes that have exercised emotional claims upon him-his family, his friends, church, nation, and so on. All these claims crumble in front of his commitment to art. He has now evolved his doctrine of aesthetics. The final epiphany of the novel comes when Stephen declares his determination to go to ‘encounter the reality of experience and invokes the old artificer Daedalus to help him.

In addition to these epiphanies, the novel has several minor epiphanies. For example, in the first chapter epiphany could be seen in Stephen’s discovery of the meaning of the phrases ‘tower of ivory and ‘house of gold’. Though Stephen had heard these phrases several times yet he could not understand their meaning. Later he discovers that ‘tower of ivory’ means what Eileen’s hand had felt like in his pocket. ‘House of gold’ means what Eileen’s hair appeared like as it streamed out behind her like gold in the sun. In Chapter second, when Stephen sees the word ‘Foetus’ carved on the desk at his father’s college, it jolts him because it suggests to him all the monstrosities of his youth. He receives in the outer world an image of what he has considered till now to be “a brutish and individual malady of his own mind.” In Chapter 3, Stephen’s recognition of his mortal sin is expressed through several epiphanies. For example, Stephen finds an appropriate expression of his cold sinful pride in the equation in his book that comes to look like a peacock’s tail and a galaxy being born and dying. Thus the novel is replete with several minor epiphanies but the major epiphanies of each Chapter are very noteworthy and famous. They help us a lot to understand Joyce as an artist.

Also read: Discuss the symbolism of James Joyce’s short story “Araby”