Sexual Conduct and Prostitution in "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man"
James Joyce novel entitled, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" chronicles the life of Stephen Dedalus, as he struggles through the difficulty of the changes that he undergoes as his individuality experiences a transition from being a child to a young, adolescent man. Stephen's emergence as a 'young artist' and a person worthy for his own talents and characters is the focal point of Joyce's novel, and this is the primary theme that the novel evolves about. However, there are other themes present in the novel, particularly the sexual 'awakening' of Stephen as he tries to control his increasing need for sexual satisfaction. Thus, James Joyce's novel is a good study of how sexual conduct and prostitution is reflected in Stephen's society, as well as the character portrayal of Joyce's protagonist, Stephen Dedalus. Moreover, in relation with Stephen's character portrayal, an analysis of how sex and prostitution is viewed in the novel in relation to its social context will also be discussed, in order to explain Stephen's behavior towards this sensitive issue (sex and prostitution).
Stephen's development from childhood to adolescence becomes apparent in the second chapter of the book, wherein the last parts of the chapter illustrates just how Stephen strives to control his inner desire to satisfy his sexual needs; however, Joyce also illustrates how his yearning had been more powerful than Stephen's constraint. An important passage in the last part of Chapter 2 is a descriptive detail of Stephen's feelings as he embarks into the forbidden world of sex and prostitution: "... The wasting fires of lust sprang up again. The verses passed from his lips and the inarticulate cries and the unspoken brutal words rushed forth from his brain... His blood was in revolt." (93). This passage is a descriptive account of Stephen's growing desire to break free from all the constraints he experiences in his life. The passage's use of words that depict his 'literate' mind shows Stephen's pattern of thinking, and Joyce intends to do this to illustrate that Stephen's personality as an artist is the one who's currently 'taking over' the young man's personality. This passage is also a precursor to other radical and liberal ideas that Stephen will think of and commit, as he become immersed with the sexual liberation that he will feel as the novel proceeds.
Joyce's reference to Stephen's desire as "the wasting fires of lust" shows how sexual desire, referred to as 'lust,' is taboo for his society, especially to yearn for it at such a young age as Stephen's. Describing lust as 'fiery,' Joyce also refers to Stephen's religiosity, which implies that lust is as 'fiery' as the fires of hell. Note that in the first chapter of the novel, Stephen has a strong religious background, which explains the internal struggle that he has in choosing between morality and attaining sexual desire. With this connotation, sexual desire is therefore unacceptable, since it is synonymously associated with hell, characterizing its (lust) sinfulness. Stephen's artistic personality acknowledged the struggle that he (Stephen) experiences, and answers somewhat defiantly and rebelliously: "His blood was in revolt." This statement is made in answer to the society and Stephen's religious side, in their disagreement with Stephen's plan and decision to embark into the 'dark' world of sex and prostitution. Thus, through this passage, the novel shows Stephen's transition to and portrait as a young man and a rebellious artist.
Indeed, after the said passage from the book, Stephen had committed his thoughts to action, as evidently shown in this passage: "... The cry that he had strangled for so long in his throat issued from his lips. It broke from him like a wail of despair from a hell of sufferers..." (93-4). These statements in the novel are illustrative of the protagonist's struggle and devilish intentions. Evidently, Stephen succumbed to his desires, as opposed to what other people may expect from him given his religious background and family that he lives with. However, if the readers will consider Stephen's experiences prior to this particular struggle in Chapter 3, then the audience will understand why Stephen's rebellion happened.
Prior to his struggle in the latter parts of Chapter 3, Stephen had, for so long, tried to conform to the environment he lived with, especially the people in school, who are all rich. His winnings in an essay contest, and his relentless spending in order to show off to his friends made him lose all his money easily. His depression over his unwise spending leaves him thinking of the lost opportunities that he could have done with the money. Instead, in trying to fit in and impress his friends, he lost his money, leaving him poorer than before. His depression made him realize that his numerous attempts in trying to fit in is futile; therefore, he finally decided to 'break' free from his attempts to conformity in a society that won't understand and easily accept him. His "wail of despair" is not only sexual, but also a holistic message of his self to the people in his society, his defiance to every convention that depressed him, instead of comforting and giving him satisfaction. His rebellion becomes full circle in Chapter 3, and the theme of sex and prostitution in the novel will become more evident and blatant than ever discussed in Joyce's novel.
Chapter 3 is significant in the discussion of the novel's theme of sexual conduct and prostitution, since this chapter fully recognizes Stephen's full realization and immersion in the world of sexual desire and prostitution. While Stephen's liking of sex and the prostitutes (that he give him satisfaction) may be portrayed negatively in the novel, Stephen's constant return in the dark streets at night shows how his newly-found 'secret' and preoccupation have been helpful to him, since he discovered something that feels good for him. The secrecy of his everyday visits to places where prostitution as prevalent is reiterated in the novel as follows: "It would be a gloomy secret night... A cold lucid indifference reigned his soul... no part of body or soul had been maimed, but a dark peace had been established between them" (96-7).
This comment on Stephen's attitude towards prostitution is one of indifference, which means that what was once Stephen had considered taboo and forbidden for him is now acceptable, although this does not mean that his society agrees with his activities. In fact, the character of secrecy of his activities shows that prostitution and sex as a commodity of leisure is still unacceptable and forbidden in his highly-religious community and society. However, interestingly, Joyce's view of Stephen's transition is portrayed positively, as he (Joyce) tries to establish equality in his treatment of opinion regarding the issues of morality or immorality of prostitution as an activity that society must be able to accept. By saying that Stephen's struggle between his preference to prostitutes and moral values had created in him a "dark peace," where it shows that Stephen is no longer bothered in the morality/immorality of prostitution, while still being sensitive to his religious and moral values he had been taught as a child.
However, the "dark peace" that had settled in Stephen's soul is dual in meaning: he becomes indifferent only to situations pertaining to his sexual activities, but he is also susceptible to sudden bouts of "spiritual" disturbance. Joyce takes into account the kind of society Stephen lives in, as was stated in the following passage: "His sin, which had covered him from the sight of God, had led him nearer to the refuge of sinners" (99). Stephen finally acknowledges the consequences of his activities, once he was once again confronted with the morality and rightness of his actions. In…