Guide me, my saint, my angel. Lead me forward. Everything that is noble and exalted and deep and true and moving in what I write comes, I believe, from you. O take me into your soul of souls and then I will become indeed the poet of my race.Letter from James Joyce to Nora Barnacle 5 September 1909 (SL 169)
My epigraph highlights an ambition that James Joyce shared with his recurring fictional character Stephen Dedalus: to become the "poet of [his] race." Joyce's reliance on Nora's inspiration as part of that goal, however, also reveals an important difference between his conception of himself and his representation of Stephen—while Joyce appears to subordinate himself to Nora's guidance here, Stephen struggles throughout his journey in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses to maintain his dominance over female characters who seem to him to signify the dangerous power of nationalist Ireland. In her 1990 monograph James Joyce and the Politics of Desire, Suzette Henke astutely describes his interactions with female characters in A Portrait: "Seen through [Stephen's] eyes and colored by his psychological fantasies, [women] often appear as one-dimensional projections of a narcissistic imagination and emerge as forceful antagonists in the novel's dialectical structure."1 Henke's description is helpful in its emphasis on Joyce's creation of a complex and troubled psyche for Stephen and in its recognition of Stephen's perception of women not only as symbolic representations of his own imagination but also, to use Henke's phrase, as "forceful antagonists" within that symbolic structure (50).2 I agree with Henke that Stephen's inability to recognize the complexity and potentially positive creative power of the women he encounters contributes greatly to his downfall, which is intimated at the end of A Portrait and confirmed in Ulysses. This essay argues, however, that Stephen's inability to understand the complicated nature and creativity of the woman in the Ballyhoura Hills, whom he learns about in the fifth [End Page 69] chapter of A Portrait, offers a significant insight into the nature of his downfall as an artist.
The most damning aspect of Stephen's ultimate failure in A Portrait is his inability to view others, and particularly women, as autonomic subjects rather than static symbols within his perception of the systems governing his development. In depicting Stephen's childhood, fall from grace, and conversion experience at the Belvedere retreat, Joyce presents women—for example, E. C. as Mercedes, the prostitute, and the Virgin Mary—as crystallizations of the forces then shaping his identity.3 These representations, however, are consistently filtered through Stephen's view of himself as a singular creative consciousness, a view Joyce increasingly satirizes as the novel progresses. As Stephen's assumptions about female characters—that they will continue to perform the stable roles he assigns them within the narrative structure he has designed for himself—are revealed to be false, he also loses his sense of his own destiny as an Irish artist.
Stephen's artistic epiphany at the end of the fourth chapter of A Portrait, like his earlier romantic and sexual encounters, is marked by the appearance of a woman who serves as a symbol of his transformed mental landscape. The wading girl at the Dublin quay acts as a focal point for his joyful emancipation from religious fervor, but she is a product rather than a precipitating factor of that emancipation.4 His language, when he becomes aware of her presence, is reminiscent of his euphoria after his confession at the end of the third chapter of A Portrait. Reconciled with the Church, Stephen feels that through God's pardon "[h]is soul was made fair and holy once more, holy and happy" (P 145). When he reconciles himself with his artistic ambitions, he designates the wading girl as the medium through which this second spiritual epiphany occurs: "Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had broken the holy...