Symbolism In James Joyce

& Kafka’s Protagonists Essay, Research Paper

So often characters in fiction can be traced back to a symbolic archetype, be it Biblical, mythological or psychological. In Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, this is also true. In this essay I will explore the symbolic aspects of the protagonsits in both fictions, and how this symbolism adds to the themes explored in both works.

In The Metamorphosis, the language used to describe Gregor’s newfound condition is very symbolic and has much resonance beyond its literal use in the story. Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning and discovers that he has become a ‘monstrous vermin,’ translated from the German words ungeheueres Ungeziefer. The word ungeheuer–the adjective form of ungeheures–originally meant about the equivalent of ‘without a part in a family’. The word Ungeziefer means ‘bug’ or ‘vermin’ but also has sinister, supernatural undertones, and is associated with all that is taboo. This is particularly telling, since Gregor will be ‘without a part in the family’ and does break many taboos in the story, such as not showing up to work after five years of perfect attendance and . Although the connotations of ungeheures Ungeziefer are not conveyed satisfactorily in an English translation, in German they are a valuable tool to foreshadow what will follow.

The name Gregor Samsa itself is also a key to understanding the text. Samsa is believed by many to be a cryptogram of Kafka, and phonetically it is similar to the Czech words sam (which means ‘alone’) and jsem (which means ‘I am’), hence ‘I am alone,’ an accurate description of Gregor’s mental and physical state throughout Metamorphosis.

In James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the name of the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, is a reference to the myth of Daedalus, Dedalus being it’s naturalized form. In Greek mythology, Daedalus was a craftsman and inventor who killed his apprentice Talos, because he envied him. He then left Greece and fled to Crete, where he built the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Minos refused to allow Dedalus to leave Crete, so Daedalus made wings of wax and feathers for both him and his son, Icarus. Using these wings, they flew away, but Icarus went too close to the sun, and his wax wings melted, causing him to fall to his death. Stephen Dedalus is most likely meant to represent Icarus, and if that is the case, it would mean he is destined to fall, although in Portrait there is no tragic ending. If Stepehen is Icarus, then the question remains: who is Daedelus? Stephen’s father certainly does not show himself to fit that image in the novel. Simon Dedalus is more like Minos, and since Simon is an anagram of Minos, that might well be who he is supposed to represent. My belief is that James Joyce himself is Daedalus, a clever comment on his role as author of A Portriat.

In keeping with the Daedalus myth and its image of birds in flight, A Portrait has many references that reinforce this theme. Stephen is portrayed symbolically as a bird that is trying to leave the earth and water behind and take flight. In the first chapter there is Dante’s chant:

–”O, if not, the eagles will come and pull out his


Pull out his eyes,



Pull out his eyes.

This passage could be taken as the eagle, king of all birds, perceiving the threat of Stephen– the wren– and counter-threatening him with pulling out his eyes and blinding him.

He also has friends that have bird-like last names: Heron (a heron) and Cranly (a crane). Females are described as bat-like. Most importantly there is the girl Stephen sees standing in the water when he has his major epiphany, commonly know among critics as ‘the bird-girl’


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