Although Joyce is frequently praised for his mastery of the "stream-of-consciousness" narrative technique, his distinctive use of imagery has contributed much to the artistic development of the twentieth-century novel. Specificlly in A Portrait, he uses imagery to establish motifs, identify symbols, and provide thematic unity throughout the work.
Perhaps the most obvious use of imagery in the novel occurs during the novel's first few pages, with the introduction of the sensory details which shape Stephen's early life: wet versus dry; hot versus cold; and light versus dark — all images of dichotomy which reveal the forces which will affect Stephen's life as he matures. If we can understand this imagery, then we can better understand Stephen's reasons for deciding to leave Ireland.
The wet/dry imagery, for example, is symbolic of Stephen's natural response to the world versus a learned response. As a small child, Stephen learns that any expression of a natural inclination (such as wetting the bed) is labeled "wrong"; the wet sheets will be replaced by a dry, reinforcing "oilsheet" — and a swift, unpleasant correction for inappropriate behavior. Thus, wet things relate to natural responses and dry things relate to learned behavior.
Other examples of this wet/dry imagery include the wetness of the cesspool (the square ditch) that Stephen is shoved into and the illness which follows; likewise, the "flood" of adolescent sexual feelings which engulf Stephen in "wavelet[s]," causing him guilt and shame. Seemingly, "wet" is bad; "dry" is good.
A turning point in this pattern occurs when Stephen crosses the "trembling bridge" over the river Tolka. He leaves behind his dry, "withered" heart, as well as most of the remnants of his Catholicism. As he wades through "a long rivulet in the strand," he encounters a young girl, described as a "strange and beautiful seabird." She gazes at Stephen from the sea, and her invitation to the "wet" (natural) life enables Stephen to make a climactic choice concerning his destiny as an artist. Later, after Stephen has explained his aesthetic philosophy to Lynch, rain begins to fall; seemingly, the heavens approve of Stephen's theories about art, as well as his choice of art as a career.
The hot/cold imagery similarly affects Stephen. At the beginning of the novel, Stephen clearly prefers his mother's warm smell to that of his father. For Stephen, "hot" is symbolic of the intensity of physical affection (and, in some cases, sin); "cold," on the other hand, is symbolic of propriety, order, and chastity. Specific examples of this symbolism can be found in Stephen's memories: resting in his mother's warm lap, being cared for by the kindly Brother Michael (when Stephen is recovering from a fever), and receiving a heated embrace from the Dublin prostitute during his first sexual encounter.
In contrast, the cold, slimy water of the square ditch is evidence of the cruel reality of his changing life at school; in addition, Stephen initially experiences a "cold . . . indifference" when he thinks about the Belvedere retreat, and his vision-like worship of Eileen (the young Protestant girl) has coldly symbolic, touch-me-not overtones; her hands, pure and white, enable him to understand the references to the Tower of Ivory in an oft-repeated Church litany.
The last of this set of opposites is concerned with the light/dark dichotomy: light symbolizes knowledge (confidence), and dark symbolizes ignorance (terror). Numerous examples of this conflict pervade the novel. In an early scene, when Stephen says that he will marry a Protestant, he is threatened with blindness: "Put out his eyes / Apologise." Stephen is terrorized without knowing why; seemingly, a good Catholic boy should remain ignorant about other faiths — and perhaps even of women. Stephen's natural fondness for Eileen is condemned. Stephen is only a boy, but his sensitive artist's nature realizes that he is going to grow up in a world where he will be forced to suppress his true feelings and conform to society's rules and threats.
Stephen's broken glasses are also part of this light/dark imagery. Without his glasses, Stephen sees the world as if it were a dark blur; figuratively blinded, he cannot learn. And yet he is unjustly punished for telling the truth about the reason for his "blindness." He quickly realizes the potential, dark (irrational) cruelty of the clergy. Further on in the novel, there are recurrent images of darkness in the streets of Dublin — for example, when Stephen makes his way to the brothel district. Here, we also see the darkness within Stephen's heart as he wanders willfully toward sin. Later on, the philosophical discussion about the lamp with the Dean of Studies (Chapter V) reveals the "blindness" of this cleric, compared with the illumination of Stephen's aesthetic thoughts.
A close reading of the novel will produce many more images within these patterns. Joyce's use of them is essential as he constructs his intricate thematic structure.
Another kind of imagery in the novel is made up of references to colors and names. Colors, as Joyce uses them, often indicate the political and religious forces which affect Stephen's life. Similarly, Joyce uses names to evoke various images — specifically those which imply animal qualities, providing clues to Stephen's relationships with people.
For an example of color imagery, note that Dante owns two velvet-backed brushes — one maroon, one green. The maroon brush symbolizes Michael Davitt, the pro-Catholic activist of the Irish Land League; the green-backed brush symbolizes Charles Stewart Parnell. Once, Parnell was Dante's political hero par excellence, but after the Church denounced him, she ripped the green cloth from the back of her brush. Other references to color include Stephen's desire to have a "green rose" (an expression of his creative nature) instead of a white one or a red one, symbols of his class' scholastic teams.
Another reference to color imagery can be seen in Lynch's use of the term "yellow insolence" (Chapter V); instead of using the word "bloody," Lynch uses the word "yellow," indicating a sickly, cowardly attitude toward life. The idea of a "bloody" natural lust for living would be appalling to Lynch. Lynch's name, literally, means "to hang"; he has a "long slender flattened skull . . . like a hooded reptile . . . with a reptilelike . . . gaze and a self-embittered . . . soul."
Like Lynch, Temple is also representative of his name. Temple considers himself "a believer in the power of the mind." He admires Stephen greatly for his "independent thinking," and he himself tries to "think" about the problems of the world.
Cranly, like his name (cranium, meaning "skull"), is Stephen's "priestlike" companion, to whom he confesses his deepest feelings. Note that several of Joyce's references also focus on Stephen's image of Cranly's "severed head"; Cranly's symbolic significance to Stephen is similar to that of John the Baptist (the "martyred Christ"). The name "Cranly" also reminds us of the skull on the rector's desk and Joyce's emphasis on the shadowy skull of the Jesuit director who queries Stephen about a religious vocation.
Concerning the other imagery in the novel, perhaps the most pervasive is the imagery that pertains to Stephen's exile, or, specifically, his "flight" from Ireland. The flight imagery begins as early as his first days at Clongowes, when Stephen's oppressed feelings are symbolized by "a heavy bird flying low through the grey light." Later, a greasy football soars "like a heavy bird" through the sky. At that time, flight from unhappiness seemed impossible for Stephen, but as the novel progresses and Stephen begins to formulate his artistic ideals, the notion of flight seems possible.
For example, in Chapter IV, after Stephen renounces the possibility of a religious vocation, he feels a "proud sovereignty" as he crosses over the Tolka and his name is called out by his classmates; this incident is followed by another allusion to flight. Later, the girl wading in the sea is described as "delicate as a crane," with the fringes of her "drawers . . . like the featherings of soft white down"; her bosom is described as "the breast of some darkplumaged dove." Her presence in this moment of epiphany enables Stephen to choose art as his vocation.
Finally, note that when Stephen's friends call him, his name seems to carry a "prophecy"; he sees a "winged form flying above the waves and . . . climbing in the air." The image of this "hawklike man flying sunward" is at the heart of the flight motif. As Stephen realizes his life's purpose, he sees his "soul . . . soaring in the air." He yearns to cry out like an "eagle on high." He experiences "an instant of wild flight" and is "delivered" free from the bondage of his past. At the end of the novel, Stephen cries out to Daedalus, his "old father, old artificer," and prepares for his own flight to artistic freedom.