To Forge Meaning in Joyce’s Portrait

by Russell Magee


“26 April: Mother is putting my new secondhand clothes in order. She prays now, she says, that I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels. Amen. So be it. Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

27 April: Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.”

(Joyce 275-276)


Literary scholars have long debated the interpretation of the final lines of James Joyce’s famous 1916 novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The end of the fifth and final section of the novel comprises a series of journal entries written by the protagonist Stephen Dedalus detailing in the first-person his various escapades and musings. By the end of the novel, Stephen Dedalus has undergone various epiphanies wherein he has learned his true destiny in life–to pursue meaning and enlightenment through art and the humanities–not religion–not only for himself but for the betterment of his native country and the citizens within, the “conscience of [his] race.” Stephen Dedalus, in his unwavering confidence, thus declares his destiny.

            However, there is one word in the final moments of the novel which causes the strength and sentiment of Stephen’s declaration to falter. The word “forge” ruptures the certitude of Stephen’s statement despite the confidence he so evidently displays. It is a source of instability because the word itself contains contradictory definitions. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb “forge” as both: “To make, fashion, frame, or construct (any material thing)”; and “To make (something) in fraudulent imitation of something else; to make or devise (something spurious) in order to pass it off as genuine” (OED). These two contradictory definitions, “to frame” and “to feign,” create a tension in the conclusion of the novel that lies unresolved. Because Stephen is not beset by doubt and hesitation, the word “forge” introduces an ambivalence between what appears and what is meant, what Stephen claims he will do, and perhaps what he actually will do. While Stephen Dedalus rightly declares his steadfastness and vows to undertake the task of bettering Ireland through the creation of art, what Joyce implies to the reader is that perhaps Stephen Dedalus may not achieve what he so enthusiastically determines to be his destiny. 

            For Stephen, the word “forge” implies the first definition: “to make, fashion, frame, or construct” (OED), and the final line in the penultimate diary entry is a play on the word itself as seen in the comparison to a blacksmith. “To forge in the smithy of my soul” is a metaphor connecting “forge” in its first definition to the word “smithy,” a reference to the work of blacksmiths. Such a metaphor–that Stephen shall cultivate, create, smite and mold his destiny with the hammer of his will for future generations of Ireland, the “uncreated conscience of [his] race”–is a blatant exhibition of his confidence and resoluteness. The nationalistic undertones of his sentiment, which echo like the blows of a hammer upon an anvil, link the iron-bending work of a blacksmith, work which requires strength, precision, and dedication, to the collective identity of Ireland. Stephen Dedalus, by the end of the novel, feels a connection with his country, a bond forged in a recognition that heretofore he had not realized. It is not simply himself that he strives to better, but his country too. The relationship between Stephen and Ireland, the homeland beneath his feet upon which the foundation of his conscience rests, not only strengthens his will but also his motivation and confidence in attaining such a goal. For Stephen, the word “forge” has but only one definition: “to make, fashion, frame, or construct.”

            However, outside of Stephen’s perspective, the word contains contradictory definitions which inspire a commentary on Stephen’s proposed actions. Because the word’s double-meaning, “to frame” and “to feign,” the use of the word undermines Stephen’s grand declaration. In the space between the text and the reader, away from Stephen’s intention and perspective, the word “forge,” taken to mean “to feign,” implies another possible trajectory of Stephen’s fate. “To forge” meaning “to feign” introduces the idea that Stephen, in his unsubtle confidence, will fail in his quest to better himself and his country. The word also alludes to a certain disingenuousness; it introduces not only doubt into the completion of his goal, but also in its inception in the first place. If Stephen is to feign “in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race,” what would that entail? Stephen embarking on such a journey for the betterment of himself and his country would be in vain; such would be the result of a self-diluted, self-interested narcissist. And perhaps that is the intention Joyce conveys with his wordplay.

            But Joyce’s wordplay invokes another possible scenario: that Stephen unwittingly uses a word that implies the opposite of his intent. Is it possible that Stephen, clouded by his confidence, fails to recognize the paradoxical nature of the word “forge”? Did Stephen use the word unintentionally? The entry itself alludes to such a presupposition. The etymology of word “forge,” as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, finds its roots in the Old French forgier which came from the Latin word fabricare (OED). The Latin origin also yields the word “fabricate” whose definition –“to make anything that requires skills; to construct, manufacture”– closely resembles that of “forge.” Stephen, in the first lines of the last entries, writes: “Mother is putting my new secondhand clothes in order” (Joyce 275). The inclusion of the description “new secondhand clothes,” the contradiction in the clothes being new yet secondhand, not only reflects the duality found in the word “forge,” but that the clothes themselves are made of fabric also alludes to the term “fabricate,” as the word “fabric” finds its roots in both that of “fabricate” and “forge” (OED). Stephen, by the first line of his penultimate entry, has already introduced the plausible double- meaning of his statement; he has already undermined himself in his declaration by creating the space between appearance and intention. And it is this space that inspires the ambivalence within which the novel concludes.

            The final lines in the novel contain an array of sources for plausible interpretations not simply from the linguistic and historical approach, but also the psychoanalytical as well. That Stephen writes his penultimate entry beginning with “Mother” and the one to follow with “Old Father” lends itself to a Freudian analysis, in which also, a reader may interpret Stephen’s usage of the word “forge” to be a Freudian slip or parapraxis of some kind. The idea that Stephen’s unconscious mind interferes with his words, wittingly or unwittingly, further works to reveal the true inner workings of his values and identity; if Stephen’s unconscious belies the sentiment of his declaration, then the link between Stephen and his country is founded on a plausibility of doubt. His final lines also allude to a “re-clothing” of his identity, a self-transformation built upon recycled ideologies to create a kind of hybrid apparel or appearance of syncretic beliefs. The etymology of the words “apparel” and “appearance” finds the roots in the Latin word that also yields the word “apparition” (OED) which, like the word “forge,” also gives rise to notions of duplicity and illusion.

            That the novel ends in such duplicity, such ambivalence resulting from the unresolved tension of the contradictory meanings, grants the reader the freedom to play with the words, unearth various interpretations, and contemplate the plausible intention of both character and author. The final moment of the novel offers a litany of different experiences depending on the definition of one word. The word “forge” is indeed a fulcrum upon which the power, strength, and fortitude of the novel’s conclusion rests. It is in this one word that an array of possibilities is revealed, opportunities that not only coax analysis and interpretation from the reader but also introduce questions, ideas, and themes expounded in Joyce’s subsequent novel Ulysses. The word “forge” is simultaneously a concluding cadence, like the final chord in a symphony that sounds and echoes into the hall, slowly diminishing into silence; as well as the cliff-hanger, the chord that never resolves, a note left in sustain. The interchangeability of one word’s definition is enough to alter the trajectory of a novel. Therein lies the power of words.





Works Cited

"apparition, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2020, Accessed 3 December 2020.

"appear, v." OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2020, Accessed 1 December 2020.

"forge, v.1." OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2020, Accessed 1 December 2020.

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Penguin, Ed. By Seamus Deane, 1992.

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