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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Music, especially singing, appears repeatedly throughout A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen’s appreciation of music is closely tied to his love for the sounds of language. As a very young child, he turns Dante’s threats into a song, “[A]pologise, pull out his eyes, pull out his eyes, apologise.” Singing is more than just language, however—it is language transformed by vibrant humanity. Indeed, music appeals to the part of Stephen that wants to live life to the fullest. We see this aspect of music near the end of the novel, when Stephen suddenly feels at peace upon hearing a woman singing. Her voice prompts him to recall his resolution to leave Ireland and become a writer, reinforcing his determination to celebrate life through writing.
Stephen Dedalus’s very name embodies the idea of flight. Stephen's namesake, Daedalus, is a figure from Greek mythology, a renowned craftsman who designs the famed Labyrinth of Crete for King Minos. Minos keeps Daedalus and his son Icarus imprisoned on Crete, but Daedalus makes plans to escape by using feathers, twine, and wax to fashion a set of wings for himself and his son. Daedalus escapes successfully, but Icarus flies too high. The sun's heat melts the wax holding Icarus’s wings together, and he plummets to his death in the sea.
In the context of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, we can see Stephen as representative of both Daedalus and Icarus, as Stephen's father also has the last name of Dedalus. With this mythological reference, Joyce implies that Stephen must always balance his desire to flee Ireland with the danger of overestimating his own abilities—the intellectual equivalent of Icarus’s flight too close to the sun. To diminish the dangers of attempting too much too soon, Stephen bides his time at the university, developing his aesthetic theory fully before attempting to leave Ireland and write seriously. The birds that appear to Stephen in the third section of Chapter 5 signal that it is finally time for Stephen, now fully formed as an artist, to take flight himself.
We can often tell Stephen's state of mind by looking at the fragments of prayers, songs, and Latin phrases that Joyce inserts into the text. When Stephen is a schoolboy, Joyce includes childish, sincere prayers that mirror the manner in which a child might devoutly believe in the church, even without understanding the meaning of its religious doctrine. When Stephen prays in church despite the fact that he has committed a mortal sin, Joyce transcribes a long passage of the Latin prayer, but it is clear that Stephen merely speaks the words without believing them.
See a Glossary of colloquial and Latin words and phrases that appear in the novel.
Then, when Stephen is at the university, Latin is used as a joke—his friends translate colloquial phrases like “peace over the whole bloody globe” into Latin because they find the academic sound of the translation amusing. This jocular use of Latin mocks both the young men’s education and the stern, serious manner in which Latin is used in the church. These linguistic jokes demonstrate that Stephen is no longer serious about religion. Finally, Joyce includes a few lines from the Irish folk song “Rosie O’Grady”near the end of the novel. These simple lines reflect the peaceful feeling that the song brings to Stephen and Cranly, as well as the traditional Irish culture that Stephen plans to leave behind. Throughout the novel, such prayers, songs, and phrases form the background of Stephen's life.
Ace your assignments with our guide to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man!