Language as a Labyrinth

Stephen Dedalus declares that, “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile and cunning” (269).

And he sees himself as Dedalus/Icarus – the master builder who has the power to create. In fact, at the very end of the book, he refers to Dedalus to stand by him (“Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead”). Thus, we can see Stephen’s aim as the desire to create a new form where he can express freely, and wholly his opinions, unfettered by past English traditions. Yet he forgets that Dedalus was trapped in the Labyrinth that he created himself! Language becomes a type of labyrinth for Stephen, in which he becomes trapped. In expressing his own ambitions, Stephen falls back on the language forms which he wants to escape from. In fact, the name Dedalus refers back to Greek mythology, which is the foundation of English literature. It is as though Stephen’s identity is forever entrenched in the English culture/consciousness.

Joyce’s ambivalent and open ending can be seen in both the negative and positive light. The negative reading is that Joyce himself cannot escape the labyrinth of language and thus gives up the attempt altogether. The positive reading is of course that we are never sure what new forms of discourse/art Stephen manages to create and he might eventually be successful in expressing himself wholly and unfettered.

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