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Many readers find Joyce's style one of Portrait of the Artist's greatest strengths. It was Joyce's aim to make his prose "supple [flexible] enough to vary the curve of an emotion," and he shattered tradition to achieve this. He used all the resources of the English language-meaning and sound, as well as structure and spelling-to paint Stephen Dedalus and his world. If you like to read a story told in a traditional way, you may become impatient with Joyce's style. But if you like books, plays, movies, or pictures that suggest what things mean instead of telling you directly, you'll enjoy Joyce's world of words.
Joyce is certainly capable of writing in a concrete, realistic manner. The warm, heavy smell of turkey, ham, and celery at Christmas dinner, the clots of liquid dung at the cowyard at Stradbrook-Joyce makes you smell and see these things as richly as does a great realistic writer like Dickens. But for Joyce, language did more than just portray surface reality. It was also linked to an inner world of emotion. Words have shades of meaning and sound that release feelings below your conscious awareness. For example, the repetition of "white," "cold," and "damp," and the images of "fattish white hands," and a damp cold rat with two "black slimy eyes" tell you more effectively than long explanations could that Stephen feels very lonely and anxious as a new boy at school.
Words can also release a chain of thoughts and memories-the "free association" recommended in psychoanalysis as a means of revealing innermost concerns. The ugly and suggestive word "suck" reminds Stephen of the gurgle of dirty water in a hotel sink. Wine makes him think of both sensual dark purple grapes and pure white temples. But it also recalls the sour smell of wine on the priest's breath on the day of Stephen's first Communion. Joyce developed this idea of free association, in which a character's thoughts are presented as they occur, even if disorganized or seemingly incoherent, into the interior monologue or stream-of-consciousness technique. Stephen's diary at the end of the last chapter is a form of interior monologue. So are the book's opening paragraphs, which take you almost directly inside the mind of a very young child.
Words also have symbolic value. That is, they can bring to the reader's mind both an immediate, physical image, and a larger, more abstract concept. Joyce's use of symbolism is more subtle and complex than that of many other writers. Symbols in Portrait of the Artist usually have more than one meaning, and their meaning can change as Stephen changes. Some of the symbols you'll encounter most often include the following:
From the rhyme, "Pull out his eyes," to Stephen's loss of his glasses at school, eyes and the loss of vision are associated with fear, vulnerability, and punishment.
• BIRDS AND FLIGHT
Birds can be terrifying and punishing-the eagles that threaten Stephen's eyes, and Stephen's hostile friend Heron. But increasingly they become symbols of freedom and creativity-the hawk-like man, Daedalus, the girl by the water who reminds Stephen of a seabird.
In general, Joyce uses roses to symbolize beauty, art, and women. Their meaning can change with their color. Stephen's musings about a green rose seem to represent his desire to be an artist-to create something, like a green rose, that doesn't exist in nature. White roses are linked to purity.
• WATER AND THE SEA
Especially early in the book, water-the water in the "ditch," the dirty water Stephen thinks of when he hears the word "suck"- is an unpleasant image, linked to urine, filth, and a dirty sexuality. Later, however, water and the sea come to stand for creation-for life, death, and rebirth. As Stephen looks out to sea at the end of Chapter Four, he understands that the sea is both an element in which a person can drown-like Icarus-and a symbol of renewed life. The repeated sea images seem to suggest that Stephen has been reborn as an artist and is undergoing baptism. Colors also have symbolic value that can change from situation to situation. Joyce uses "white" to show both purity and sickliness. Green suggests healthy lushness but also decay. Yellow is almost always used to portray squalor and ugliness, and rose-pink usually indicates romance.
Where traditional words or combinations of words won't achieve the desired effect, Joyce brilliantly violates the rules. He breaks down the barriers between the senses in unusual pairings of words-the "smell of evening" or the "soft grey silence." He fuses adjectives and nouns together to create words like "jeweleyed," "cellardamp," and "roselight" that strike the eye with greater impact. Because he felt quotation marks were ugly, he replaced them with dashes. Joyce also liked having fun with language. He played with the "wayward rhythms" of words. "Ivy" and "white" spin off into ivy that whines and twines, then turn into ivory ivy, and end up suggesting an elephant with an ivory tusk.
You'll notice, too, how the style of Portrait of the Artist changes with Stephen's age. The first chapter is written in the simple, choppy sentences of a toddler. ("It made him very tired to think that way. It made him feel his head very big.") The language develops and becomes more elaborate as Stephen matures. It also fluctuates with Stephen's mood. It's spare and logical when Stephen discusses ideas, rich and lyrical when he describes emotions. In fact, it becomes so rich and lyrical that some readers suspect Joyce is poking fun at a young man who loves language but doesn't always use it wisely. It's a mistake that Joyce himself seldom made.