Fatherhood and Paternity in Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man"

by Theresa Schneiderwind (Author)

Term Paper 2008 17 Pages

English - Literature, Works


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Fatherhood, Fathers and Paternity

3. Father Figures
3.1 Simon Dedalus
3.2 Church Fathers
3.3 Namesakes
3.3.1 Daedalus
3.3.2 St. Stephen

4. Paternity as a legal fiction

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The relationship between father and son is picked out as a central theme throughout literary history. In Modernism this topic is paid special attention due to new philosophical and psychological approaches. Ideas like Freud’s psychoanalysis allowed new perspectives on identity that often resulted in a dispute with the previous generation. The conflict between father and son lends itself to portrait this confrontation on a personal level as well as to refer to a wider social context. The concept of patriarchy, the rule of the father, is embedded in every social structure of society: the nuclear family, the Catholic community, the national state. Therefore, contemplation about these bodies metaphorically represents a confrontation with the father.

Joyce as one of the major Modernism authors consecrates himself to the topic of father-son-relationships in his autobiographical Künstlerroman A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man[1]. The author seizes the topic to portrait crucial points in the development of the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus. Moreover, the construction of the potential father figures points to the underlying theoretical concept of fatherhood and paternity. Joyce uses the concept of paternity to display his concept of authorship.

A discussion of the terms fatherhood and paternity will serve as the foundation of my analysis. A clear distinction between the two terms is helpful in order to descry potential father figures and to differentiate social interaction (fatherhood) from philosophical debate (paternity). Male adults who take the role of a father to Stephen are his biological father Simon Dedalus and the priests of the Roman Catholic Church. Additionally, other father figures appear: Stephen’s namesakes Saint Stephen and Dedalus the Greek artificer. My close examination of the potential father figures will show differences and similarities between them and will give an explanation for either failure (Simon, priests) or success (namesakes) in influencing Stephen’s future.

In the second section of my essay I will examine Stephen’s statement about paternity taken from Joyce’s later work Ulysses. In this novel the adult Stephen discusses the power and the shortcomings of the concept of paternity to re-evaluate the relationship to his own father(s), to legitimize his turning away from his origins and to specify his concept of literature.

My analysis will show that Joyce is not only concerned with the social interaction between father and son. He uses the topic of father-son-relationship to unfold his own theory of paternity and combines it with his ideas about authorship. In this respect Joyce is far beyond the other authors discussed in class. Neither Lawrence nor Butler accomplish Joyce’s complexity and merely display the struggle between father and son.

2. Fatherhood, Fathers and Paternity

Although fatherhood and paternity are often used as synonyms, there is a clear distinction between the two terms. Fatherhood describes the social interaction with the child. Paternity is concerned with biological descend, succession and legal issues.

The term fatherhood is defined as “the state of being a father”.[2] This state is achieved by accepting the obligations, rights and duties that arise from the responsibility for the child. Normally, the biological father takes the role, but another male adult close to the child can replace him. As the concept of fatherhood is based on social interaction, mutual acceptance of both roles is obligatory for a smooth course in a father-son-relationship. As we will see later on, this mutual “contract” between father and son is recalled by Simon Dedalus and adds to Stephen’s identity crisis. Suddenly, Stephen is in the position of not having a father has to look for a replacement.

The concept of fatherhood is not restricted to one person. A child can have several fathers like a father can have several children. Stephen exchanges his biological father for the priests in the church and even feels the vocation to become one of them. Later on the process of exchange is repeated when he dissociates from the priests and takes Dedalus the artificer as his new role model. In Stephen’s case, the fathers are displaced by their successor and do not coexist. This reflects paternity as a temporal descent: fatherhood is bequeathed to the next in line.

Also, fatherhood refers metaphorically to parenthood of an idea or a work of art. Although Stephen has no children of his own, we can analyse him fathering his spiritual creations. His first attempt to become a spiritual father, his plan to become a priest, is soon abandoned. He feels that he is not able to restrict his senses but rather has to include them in his spiritual begetting. He then turns to literature and finally finds in this his own way of being a father.

The word father is not only used to describe a family member, but it is assigned to people who hold a high position in society. In our novel we encounter Christian priests who are the spiritual leaders of the Irish community and are referred to as fathers. This is connected to the foundation of Christian religion. God created the first human beings in his image and all other humans descend from them. In Catholicism, the priests act as agents of God on earth and therefore take the role of spiritual fathers for their community. They take up responsibilities of rearing their children und guiding them through life.

The term paternity is often used when we talk about biological descent, lineage and the legal acknowledgement of children. It is commonly assumed that the husband of a pregnant woman is the biological father of the child. However, using the word “assumed” shows that paternity goes hand in hand with doubt. Before the modern paternity test there was only the word of the mother to determine the father clearly. This deepens even more the doubt, because according to Christian mythology women are inferior to men and are more susceptible to lies and treachery. The concept of paternity is one of the main issues in Christian belief. Based on the bible, the concept of paternity influenced the structure of Western European society and its institutions immensely. Doubting paternity leads to doubting the constitution of society, as we can see for example in John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, where the author claims that “jure divino” would only be rightful for the heir of Adam. “But since it is impossible to discover the true heir of Adam, no government […] can require that its members obey its rulers.”[3] Locke uses his argumentation to support his own concept of society. Stephen’s approach to paternity and his close examination of the problem follows a similar goal. He uses his findings to re-evaluate the relationship to his father, to change the social structure of their relationship and to free himself of obligations and duties to Simon Dedalus.

In A Portrait Stephen experiences the spiritual loss of his father and replaces him by others. He explores his own fatherhood (vocation, writing), but it is not until “Ulysses” that he deals with the topic explicitly and discusses the concept of paternity on a theoretical level.

3. Father Figures

Stephen’s search for a father figure is a metaphor for his search of a goal in life. On the other hand, every father figure expresses certain expectations of what should become of him. Confronted with these expectations, Stephen withdraws from them and turns to the next potential father figure until he finds the suitable father.

The first two father figures (Simon Dedalus and the Catholic priests) are mirror images and represent the common idea of fatherhood: male adults who guide the child through childhood and youth, forming him through social interaction.

The second group of fathers, his namesakes, is different. Their influence on Stephen is already within him from birth. Stephen possesses their abilities and character traits. That’s why he identifies himself with them rather than with the people he lives with.

Joyce thereby introduces his concept of fatherhood and paternity. He attaches importance to the cultural heritage bequeathed by history and undermines the power of biological origins. The historic significance of art and their transfer is more influential than the expectations of the biological and spiritual fathers.

3.1 Simon Dedalus

Simon Dedalus, Stephen’s biological father, considers himself a gentleman. A gentleman, following Richard Allestree’s definition[4], possesses wealth, authority, education, reputation and time, which gives him the opportunity to dedicate his life to leisure activities without the need to work himself. The gentlemen’s time of prosperity was before 1860 and therefore we encounter Simon Dedalus as a relict of old times. Simon Dedalus’ characterization concentrates on his outward appearance and his representation in public. We learn that he has a beautiful singing voice, is sociable and takes care of his outward appearance. Thereby he comes across as a hollow effigy, a mere echo of his former importance. On the trip to Cork his hollowness is intensified by the absence of any of his fellow students: they are all dead. Simon Dedalus feverishly tries to evoke his past by presenting “evidence” of his youth. He fails in his attempt to bring his own youth to life in order to impress his son. Moreover, it has the opposite effect and adds to his financial decline. The real reason for their trip to Cork is an auction, where Simon Dedalus’ possessions are to be sold. Stephen sees through the façade early and refuses to become a gentleman and “to raise up his father’s fallen state by his labours” (p.95). Because of that he also feels uncomfortable in his father’s presence, even embarrassed in the company of others.

From the beginning Stephen’s relationship to his father is marked by distance. The distance is marked repeatedly by the look through the glasses (p.7, p.32, p.81) and grows when Stephen gets older. Nevertheless, Simon Dedalus is a loving father and Stephen’s first childhood memory shows him reading his son a story from a book. Simon Dedalus is the role model for Stephen throughout his boyhood, but like his childhood memories his father slowly fades out of Stephen’s life. When he is at Clongowes, Stephen pities his father for not being a magistrate like all the other fathers (p.29). On the trip to Cork he already listens to him “without sympathy” (p.98) and shortly before he leaves Ireland he ironically describes his father’s attributes to Cranly as follows:

“A medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician, a small landlord, a small investor, a drinker, a good fellow, a storyteller, somebody’s secretary, something in a distillery, a tax-gatherer, a bankrupt and at present a praiser of his own past.” (p.274)

Stephen openly talks about his father with disrespect and destroys his father’s façade. The visual distance from the beginning has grown to open scorn at the end. Simon Dedalus also seems to be disappointed about his son but tries to persuade him of becoming a gentleman until the end. Stephen notes in his diary, that his father wants him to read law and join a rowing club (p.285). A little earlier in one of the short family scenes, Simon Dedalus asks “Is your lazy bitch of a brother gone out yet?” (p.198). His vocabulary shows little of gentleman attitude. Stephen on the other hand dismisses the situation with a short ironic remark. His feelings towards his father are chilled.

The trip to Cork represents the last presence of Simon Dedalus, although already here, Stephen barely listens to his father’s comments. With the trip to Cork, Simon Dedalus tries to evoke his own youth again but fails in bringing it to life to his son. “The images of the dead were all strangers to him.” (p.98) The father tries to prove his being at the university by searching for his initials at a desk in the anatomy theatre. Stephen instead finds the word “foetus” cut in the wood of a table, and this word finally manages to evoke a feeling for the past in him: “A vision of their life, which his father’s words had been powerless to evoke, sprang up before him out of the word cut in the desk.” (p.101f.) This vision is so strong that he has to flee it and his inflamed cheeks prove his agitation, an agitation, which his father’s initials couldn’t provoke, although they are also his own: S.D.[5] Shortly after that, Simon Dedalus withdraws from his role as father: “I’m talking to you as a friend, Stephen. I don’t believe a son should be afraid of his father. No, I treat you as your grandfather treated me when I was a young chap. We were more like brothers than father and son.” (p. 104) Together with his experience in the anatomy theatre, this provokes an identity crisis in Stephen. To ensure himself of his own being he speaks to himself:

“I am Stephen Dedalus. I am walking beside my father whose name is Simon Dedalus. We are in Cork, in Ireland. Cork is a city. Our room is in the Victoria Hotel. Victoria and Stephen and Simon. Simon and Stephen and Victoria. Names.” (p.105)

To ensure himself, Stephen tries to define his position in the world by listing the special parameters of his environment. That helped him before to reassure himself (scene in Clongowes, p.17), but now it does not work: “The memory of his childhood suddenly grew dim. He tried to call forth some of its vivid moments but could not. He recalled only names.” (p.105) Stephen is not able to feel anything about his childhood. It leaves him in paralysis. His father’s (and therefore his own) constant humiliation the next day adds to his identity crisis. “His childhood was dead or lost and with it his soul capable of simple joys and he was drifting amid life like the barren shell of the moon.” (p.108) As a consequence, Simon Dedalus, the role model of Stephen’s childhood, completely fades out of Stephen’s life (or Stephen fades out from his father’s life).

Stephen also dissociates himself from the rest of his family. After the failed attempt to restate the family’s former status with the money earned from the exhibition, Stephen sees himself in “futile isolation” (p.111). It appears to him that he stands to his family “in the mystical kinship of fosterage, fosterchild and fosterbrother” (p.112). Stephen tries to flee his isolation by visiting the brothels but ends up in a maze of sin. He finally changes his life when he hears the sermon from the priests.

Stephen does not expatiate his theoretical thoughts about kinship, but it is clearly the first time he touches this topic which is rendered more precisely in Ulysses.


[1] All quotes from the novel according to the 1996 Penguin Popular Classics edition.

[2] Wiktionary : “Fatherhood”

[3] Wikipedia: “Two Treatises of Government”

[4] Richard Allestree’s definition, taken from his conduct book “Gentlemen’s Calling” (1660), is commonly

used English social histories and was discussed in a cultural studies class.

[5] For a further analysis of Stephen’s vision in the anatomy theatre see Ellmann: “Disremembering Dedalus”

and “Polytropic Man”.


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Free University of Berlin – Englische Philologie
Joyce james joyce ulysses portrait of the artist as a young man son father fatherhood paternity father figures relationship


  • Theresa Schneiderwind (Author)



Title: Fatherhood and Paternity in Joyce's  "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man"