The end of Chapter 2 of The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) finds Stephen Dedalus in a ferocious struggle with himself and his own lust. His “blood was in revolt” and he “moaned to himself like some baffled prowling beast” (Joyce 83). He eventually loses control of his inhibitions and the chapter closes with him in the arms of a prostitute. Stephen’s inability to control himself arises because he must choose not to sin, a choice which, which in and of itself, causes anxiety. This understanding of anxiety, as an outcome of choice, is famous theorized by Soren Kierkegaard, who saw anxiety as a precursor to sin, which sin then intensifies, which prefigures additional sin. For Kierkegaard, this cycle of anxiety and sin constitutes “despair,” an emotional state that stems from an inability to control the free self. This lack of agency, as dramatized by Joyce and theorized by Kierkegaard, correlates directly with a modernist dilemma: How is one to control one’s self when one cannot control their own thoughts and desires? This question, and others related to modernism, were anticipated by Kierkegaard in the 1840s. I seek to use a Kierkegaardian approach to Portrait to gain a greater insight into Stephen’s limited subjective viewpoint but also to drastically change the way we understand the end of the novel. To achieve this aim, I will perform a close reading of specific scenes from Joyce’s text and apply Kierkegaard’s theories as found in his The Concept of Anxiety, while also making use of modern applications of Kierkegaardian thought, such as by literary theorist Marta Figlerowicz and Eric Ziolkowski.
Davis, Jeremiah, "An Anxious Despair: Stephen Dedalus’s Attempts to Cede Control and His Fall into Sin" (2021). IdeaFest. 380.