Many 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 is
chiefly about Stephen’s struggle to free himself form his surroundings. These readers
focus on Stephen’s rejection of authority. Other readers believe the novel is primarily
about Stephen’s discovery of his artistic vocation. Still other readers perceive mainly the
mocking study of a pompous, self-important young egotist. Following is a list of
suggested 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 himself
2. 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 Transformation
One might argue that the only things that actually happen in Portrait of the Artist are a
series of transformations. One might then argue that this demonstrates that growing up is
simply a series of transformations. Either way, transformation in this text is associated
with two things. First, it’s related to the slow shift from childhood to adulthood. Stephen
has to pass through distinct phases before he is an independent adult. Secondly,
transformation is likened to the process of artistic development; his intellectual
transformations help forge his identity as an artist and shape his future writing. The proof
of 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
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 Sin
Sin and temptation play central roles in this novel. Our protagonist goes through a period
of indulging fully in his bodily lusts, which then leads to a swing in the opposite
direction, an attempt at total piety. Joyce highlights the harshly binary nature (people
either give in to all sins or no sins at all) of the Catholic-dominated Irish culture. In the
end, the hero comes to the necessary conclusion that sin is a fundamental and
unavoidable part of human nature, rather than something that can simply be eliminated
through religious practice. One suspects that Joyce hoped that the reading public of the
time 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 Identity
Portrait of the Artist is ultimately the story of a search for true identity. We know from
the title that the protagonist’s fate is to become an artist, but we still follow the emotional
suspense of his periods of uncertainty and confusion. Our hero struggles with the sense
that there is some great destiny waiting for him, but he has difficulty perceiving what it
is. His consistent feeling of difference and increasing alienation show that he sees himself
as someone marked by fate to stand outside society. Speaking of society, Joyce also
questions the value of Irish national identity in a country on the brink of revolution.
Theme of Youth
One might guess from the title that Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has something
to do with Youth. This book is a classic coming-of-age story that allows us to follow the
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 "the
folly of youth." We at Shmoop aren’t even that old, and we are already fond of sighing
over said folly. Since this is a very loosely veiled autobiography, Joyce was obviously
also 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 great
accomplishments is the almost scientific precision with which it depicts the protagonist’s
changing mind and body.
Theme of Dissatisfaction
Many of the events of this novel are seen through a haze of murky discontent. Joyce
poses dissatisfaction as a necessity of the developing artist. Our protagonist’s
unhappiness with his setting, his family, and most of all, himself, are fundamental to his
eventual transformation from observant child to blooming writer. Until he realizes that
his vocation is to become a writer, he feels aimless, alone, and uncertain. However, we
get the feeling that he could never arrive at this conclusion without undergoing his period
of profound dissatisfaction. It is this lingering sense of malcontent that forces Joyce’s
character to confront his personal anxieties and uncertainties in order to get past them.
Theme of Language and Communication
Stephen’s fixation on language is what alerts us to his artistic inclinations from the very
beginning of the novel. Both Joyce and his protagonist demonstrate a deep fascination
with the purely aesthetic elements of language. Sometimes elements like repetition,
rhythm, and rhyme take over the narrative completely. This demonstrates the novel’s
stance on Communication: it highlights the arbitrary and sometimes meaningless ways in
which language works – and doesn’t work. While the goal of language is to clarify and
enlighten, it doesn’t always succeed and is often misused. Joyce and many of his
Modernist colleagues (especially T.S. Eliot) were very concerned with the failure of
language to successfully communicate ideas.
Theme of Religion
Marx famously wrote that religion is a kind of drug constructed to keep the masses
bovine (cow-like) and contented, chewing their cud comfortably and not confronting the
true nature of life. Joyce delivers a similarly cynical and unflinchingly critical picture of
religion in Portrait of the Artist; our hero, albeit in a markedly un-cow-like and intensely
cerebral 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 by
Stephen, who realizes that life is not that simple, and that the strict rules and regulations
of the Church can’t explain everything. The book implies that no religious doctrine,
Catholic or otherwise, can provide universal solutions, and furthermore, that dogma often
limits the possibilities of human accomplishment.
Theme of Spirituality
This choice might raise some eyebrows. You wouldn’t be alone if you wanted to
nervously avoid our gaze and say, "Hey, um, Shmoop, I know you’re trying to be
thorough and everything, but isn’t Spirituality kind of uncomfortably similar to the last
theme you discussed, Religion?" And that’s our cue to stare you down and say "Yeah
right! Stop being so darn reductive. GEEZ." One of the transformations our protagonist
undergoes is a shift from zealous, super-disciplined belief in Catholic doctrine to a more
unrestricted, self-created sense of spirituality that’s closely intertwined with his drive to
create art. Spirituality is not limited to the worship of any one religion, or even of any
specific god – rather, there is something profoundly fulfilling and potentially redemptive
in the worship of Art and Beauty.
Theme of The Home
This concept of home is massively important on two levels. First of all, the familial home
is a constant source of instability and unhappiness throughout the book. The Dedalus
family loses wealth and status throughout the novel, and they have to move around a lot
to save money. Secondly, the uncomfortable idea of Ireland as home influenced both our
protagonist and his real-life contemporary, Joyce. The novel asks us to examine how
connected one should be to a homeland, especially when that homeland is trying to
clarify its own political and cultural identity. That said, Stephen continues to reassert his
Irishness in subtle ways, and he feels connected to his people even as he leaves – perhaps
he’s even more connected to his people because he leaves. Chew on that for a while.
Theme of Literature and Writing
Literature and Writing provide the underlying backbone of meaning that draws this whole
text together. This theme plays a fundamental role in the lives of both the fictional
Stephen 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 spirituality
in the text, since observing and creating objects of beauty is a fundamental part of
experiencing the life that Joyce describes. The role of the writer, as it appears here, is to
shape language the way a craftsman might shape wood or clay. This alignment of
literature to fine art is extremely important; through his work, Joyce attempts to
demonstrate that the novel, a relatively young literary form, is as important and valid as
any other form of art.