Themes of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

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Themes of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

  1. 1. ThemesMany themes are woven into the fabric of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.Readers often differ in their views of the text. Some readers believe that the book ischiefly about Stephen’s struggle to free himself form his surroundings. These readersfocus on Stephen’s rejection of authority. Other readers believe the novel is primarilyabout Stephen’s discovery of his artistic vocation. Still other readers perceive mainly themocking study of a pompous, self-important young egotist. Following is a list ofsuggested themes of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:1. Rejection of Authority Stephen’s ultimate rebellion is a classic example of a young person’s struggle against the conformity demanded of him by society. The young Stephen possesses a childish faith in (a) his family, (b) his religion, and (c) his country. As he matures, he comes to feel these institutions are attempting to destroy his independent spirit. He must escape them to find himself2. The Development of the Artist Many readers feel that Stephen’s discovery of his artist’s calling provides the major framework for the novel. Certainly, from the opening pages of the novel to its end, Joyce emphasizes the boy’s sensitive responses to language and to the sights and sounds of the world around him. Words define life: as a schoolboy, he tries to arrange them to see where he fits in the scheme of the universe. He turns to writing poetry to express the emotions he cannot express in speech. In time he writes prize essays and even shapes his own theories of beauty. Stephen relates three separate—but closely related—aspects of his, and perhaps Joyce’s, attitudes toward art: (a) art as a vocation or calling; (b) art as flight; and (c) art as religion.Theme of TransformationOne might argue that the only things that actually happen in Portrait of the Artist are aseries of transformations. One might then argue that this demonstrates that growing up issimply a series of transformations. Either way, transformation in this text is associatedwith two things. First, it’s related to the slow shift from childhood to adulthood. Stephenhas to pass through distinct phases before he is an independent adult. Secondly,transformation is likened to the process of artistic development; his intellectualtransformations help forge his identity as an artist and shape his future writing. The proofof this is Joyce himself – after all, this story partially stems from his own experiences.3. Portrait of a Proud Egotist Some readers feel that the central theme is the character study of an arrogant, unhappy egotist, an intensely self-absorbed young man. An egotist is interested only in the self and is intensely critical of other people and the world. In this instance, Stephen often feels superior to others and finds caring for others to be difficult, even for his own family. Accepting affection or love from others is
  2. 2. equally as difficult. Moreover, many readers point to Stephen’s pride as a cause of his isolation. Feeling superior to his family, peers, and country, Stephen attempts to improve these respective groups. In the end, pride drives him to exile.4. Sin as a Liberating Force According to some readers, Stephen’s acceptance of his sinfulness sets him free. Guilt and fear of punishment keep him in a sterile, pale world of virtue where he is hounded by the pressure to confess, admit, or apologize. By committing a mortal sin of impurity (of the flesh) and falling from grace like Adam from Paradise, or Prometheus from Olympus, or Icarus from the sky, he is thrust back into the earthly world of the senses, a world that releases his creative powers. Instead of confession, Stephen writes.Theme of SinSin and temptation play central roles in this novel. Our protagonist goes through a periodof indulging fully in his bodily lusts, which then leads to a swing in the oppositedirection, an attempt at total piety. Joyce highlights the harshly binary nature (peopleeither give in to all sins or no sins at all) of the Catholic-dominated Irish culture. In theend, the hero comes to the necessary conclusion that sin is a fundamental andunavoidable part of human nature, rather than something that can simply be eliminatedthrough religious practice. One suspects that Joyce hoped that the reading public of thetime would come to the same conclusion.5. Life as a Maze Like his namesake Daedalus and like most young people, Stephen is caught in a maze. The schools are a maze of corridors; Dublin is a maze of streets; the mind, itself, is a convoluted maze filled with circular reasoning. Posed with riddles at every turn, Stephen roams the labyrinth searching his mind for answers. Stephen’s only escape is to soar above the narrow confines of his prison.Theme of IdentityPortrait of the Artist is ultimately the story of a search for true identity. We know fromthe title that the protagonist’s fate is to become an artist, but we still follow the emotionalsuspense of his periods of uncertainty and confusion. Our hero struggles with the sensethat there is some great destiny waiting for him, but he has difficulty perceiving what itis. His consistent feeling of difference and increasing alienation show that he sees himselfas someone marked by fate to stand outside society. Speaking of society, Joyce alsoquestions the value of Irish national identity in a country on the brink of revolution.Theme of YouthOne might guess from the title that Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has somethingto do with Youth. This book is a classic coming-of-age story that allows us to follow the
  3. 3. development of the main character’s consciousness from childhood to adulthood.Included in this is a heightened awareness of what old people wistfully like to call "thefolly of youth." We at Shmoop aren’t even that old, and we are already fond of sighingover said folly. Since this is a very loosely veiled autobiography, Joyce was obviouslyalso very aware of the folly of his own youth, which he demonstrates through this novel.The book as a whole is a meditation on the process of growing up; one of its truly greataccomplishments is the almost scientific precision with which it depicts the protagonist’schanging mind and body.Theme of DissatisfactionMany of the events of this novel are seen through a haze of murky discontent. Joyceposes dissatisfaction as a necessity of the developing artist. Our protagonist’sunhappiness with his setting, his family, and most of all, himself, are fundamental to hiseventual transformation from observant child to blooming writer. Until he realizes thathis vocation is to become a writer, he feels aimless, alone, and uncertain. However, weget the feeling that he could never arrive at this conclusion without undergoing his periodof profound dissatisfaction. It is this lingering sense of malcontent that forces Joyce’scharacter to confront his personal anxieties and uncertainties in order to get past them.Theme of Language and CommunicationStephen’s fixation on language is what alerts us to his artistic inclinations from the verybeginning of the novel. Both Joyce and his protagonist demonstrate a deep fascinationwith the purely aesthetic elements of language. Sometimes elements like repetition,rhythm, and rhyme take over the narrative completely. This demonstrates the novel’sstance on Communication: it highlights the arbitrary and sometimes meaningless ways inwhich language works – and doesn’t work. While the goal of language is to clarify andenlighten, it doesn’t always succeed and is often misused. Joyce and many of hisModernist colleagues (especially T.S. Eliot) were very concerned with the failure oflanguage to successfully communicate ideas.Theme of ReligionMarx famously wrote that religion is a kind of drug constructed to keep the massesbovine (cow-like) and contented, chewing their cud comfortably and not confronting thetrue nature of life. Joyce delivers a similarly cynical and unflinchingly critical picture ofreligion in Portrait of the Artist; our hero, albeit in a markedly un-cow-like and intenselycerebral fashion, also latches on to religion as a system of definite explanation. However,religion is rejected as a solution to life’s unanswerable questions, both by Joyce and byStephen, who realizes that life is not that simple, and that the strict rules and regulationsof the Church can’t explain everything. The book implies that no religious doctrine,Catholic or otherwise, can provide universal solutions, and furthermore, that dogma oftenlimits the possibilities of human accomplishment.Theme of Spirituality
  4. 4. This choice might raise some eyebrows. You wouldn’t be alone if you wanted tonervously avoid our gaze and say, "Hey, um, Shmoop, I know you’re trying to bethorough and everything, but isn’t Spirituality kind of uncomfortably similar to the lasttheme you discussed, Religion?" And that’s our cue to stare you down and say "Yeahright! Stop being so darn reductive. GEEZ." One of the transformations our protagonistundergoes is a shift from zealous, super-disciplined belief in Catholic doctrine to a moreunrestricted, self-created sense of spirituality that’s closely intertwined with his drive tocreate art. Spirituality is not limited to the worship of any one religion, or even of anyspecific god – rather, there is something profoundly fulfilling and potentially redemptivein the worship of Art and Beauty.Theme of The HomeThis concept of home is massively important on two levels. First of all, the familial homeis a constant source of instability and unhappiness throughout the book. The Dedalusfamily loses wealth and status throughout the novel, and they have to move around a lotto save money. Secondly, the uncomfortable idea of Ireland as home influenced both ourprotagonist and his real-life contemporary, Joyce. The novel asks us to examine howconnected one should be to a homeland, especially when that homeland is trying toclarify its own political and cultural identity. That said, Stephen continues to reassert hisIrishness in subtle ways, and he feels connected to his people even as he leaves – perhapshe’s even more connected to his people because he leaves. Chew on that for a while.Theme of Literature and WritingLiterature and Writing provide the underlying backbone of meaning that draws this wholetext together. This theme plays a fundamental role in the lives of both the fictionalStephen and the real Joyce, even beyond the obvious fact that both of them are writers.The idea of Art as a calling becomes central to the eventual understanding of spiritualityin the text, since observing and creating objects of beauty is a fundamental part ofexperiencing the life that Joyce describes. The role of the writer, as it appears here, is toshape language the way a craftsman might shape wood or clay. This alignment ofliterature to fine art is extremely important; through his work, Joyce attempts todemonstrate that the novel, a relatively young literary form, is as important and valid asany other form of art.

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