Many themes are woven into the fabric of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Readers often differ in their vie...
equally as difficult. Moreover, many readers point to Stephen’s pride as a cause
of his isolation. Feeling superior to his...
development of the main character’s consciousness from childhood to adulthood.
Included in this is a heightened awareness ...
This choice might raise some eyebrows. You wouldn’t be alone if you wanted to
nervously avoid our gaze and say, "Hey, um, ...
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Themes 130112023315-phpapp02

  1. 1. Themes 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
  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 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
  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 "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
  4. 4. 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.