A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man || Themes

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The Development of Individual Consciousness

The development of Stephen’s consciousness in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is particularly interesting because, in so far as Stephen is a portrait of Joyce himself, Stephen’s development gives us insight into the development of a literary genius. Stephen’s experiences hint at the influences transformed Joyce himself into the great writer he is considered today: Stephen’s obsession with language; his strained relations with religion, family, and culture; and his dedication to forging an aesthetic of his own mirror the ways in which Joyce related to the various tensions in his life during his formative years. In the last chapter of the novel, we also learn that genius, though in many ways a calling, also requires great work and considerable sacrifice. Watching Stephen’s daily struggle to puzzle out his aesthetic philosophy, we get a sense of the great task that awaits him. Joyce’s innovation in showing the development of his hero’s consciousness is known as stream of consciousness, a style in which the author directly transcribes the thoughts and sensations that go through a character’s mind, rather than simply describing those sensations from the external standpoint of an observer. Joyce’s use of stream of consciousness makes A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man a story of the development of Stephen’s mind. In the first chapter, the very young Stephen is only capable of describing his world in simple words and phrases. The sensations that he experiences are all jumbled together with a child’s lack of attention to cause and effect. Later, when Stephen is a teenager obsessed with religion, he is able to think in a clearer, more adult manner, Paragraphs are more logically ordered than in the opening sections of the novel, and thoughts progress logically, Stephen’s mind is more mature and he is now more coherently aware of his surroundings. Nonetheless, he still trusts blindly in the Church, and his passionate emotions of guilt and religious ecstasy are so strong that they get in the way of rational thought. It is only in the final chapter, when Stephen is in the university, that he seems truly rational by the end of the novel, Joyce renders a portrait of a mind that has achieved emotional, intellectual, and artistic adulthood.

The Pitfalls of Religious Extremism

Brought up in a devout Catholic family, Stephen initially ascribes to an absolute belief in the morals of the church. As a teenager, this belief leads him to two opposite extremes, both of which are harmful. At, first, he falls into the extreme of sin, repeatedly sleeping with prostitutes and deliberately turning his back on religion. Though Stephen sins willfully, he is always aware that he acts in violation of, the church’s rules. Then, when Father Argall’s Speech prompts him to return to Catholicism, he bounces to the other extreme, becoming a perfect, near fanatical model of religious devotion and obedience. Eventually, however, Stephen realizes that both of these life styles—the completely sinful and the completely devout—are extremes that have been false and harmful. He does not want to’ lead a completely debauched life, but also rejects austere Catholicism because he feels that it does not permit him the full experience of being human. Stephen ultimately reaches a decision to embrace life and celebrate humanity after seeing a young girl wading at a beach. To him, the girl is a symbol of pure goodness and of life lived to the fullest.

The Role of the Artist

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man explores what it means to become an artist. Stephen’s decision at the end of the novel—to leave his family and friends behind and go into. Exile in order to become an artist—suggests that Joyce sees the artist as a necessarily isolated figure.

In his decision, Stephen turns his back on his community, refusing to accept the constraints of political involvement, religious devotion, and family commitment that the community places on its members. However, though the artist is an isolated figure, Stephen’s ultimate goal is to give a voice to the very community that he is leaving. In the last few lines of the novel, Stephen expresses his desire to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” He recognizes that his community will always be a part of him, as it has created and shaped his identity, when he creatively expresses his own ideas, he will also convey the voice of his entire community. Even as Stephen turns his back on the traditional forms of participation and membership in a community, he envisions his writing as a service to the community.

The Need for Irish Autonomy

Despite his desire to steer clear of politics, Stephen constantly ponders Ireland’s place in the world. He concludes that the Irish have always been a subservient People, allowing outsiders to control them. In his Conversation with the dean of studies at the university, he realizes that even the language of the Irish people really belongs to the English. Stephen’s perception of Ireland’s subservience has two effects on his development as an artist. First, it makes him determined to escape the bonds that his Irish ancestors have accepted. As we see in his conversation with Davin, Stephen feels an anxious need to emerge from his Irish heritage as his own person, free from the shackles that have traditionally confined his country: “Do you fancy I am going to pay in my own life and person debts they made?” Second, Stephen’s perception makes him determined to use his art to reclaim autonomy for Ireland. Using the borrowed language of English, he plans to write in a style that will be both autonomous from England and true to the Irish people.

Entrapment and Constraint

Stephen eventually comes to see Ireland as a kind of trap, a restraint that will make it impossible for him to live and create. Three major bonds threaten: family, nation, and the Church. Stephen’s family, increasingly destitute, is a source of frustration and guilt. He can do nothing to help them, and the continued ineptitude of his father exasperates Stephen. Though his father is an ardent nationalist, Stephen has great anxieties about Irish politics. He finds that the Irish people are fickle- minded and ultimately disloyal; at one point, he says to a friend that the Irish have never had a great leader whom they did not betray or abandon. He also rebels against the nature of activities like petition-signing and protest; in his mind, these activities amount to an abdication of independence. At the same time, he leaves Ireland hoping to forge the new conscience of his race.


The Church is perhaps the greatest constraint on Stephen, and merits its own entry. The teachings of the Church run contrary to Stephen’s independent spirit and intellect. His sensitivity to beauty and the human body are not at all suitable to the rigid Catholicism in which he was raised. But the Church continues to exert some small hold on him. Although he eventually becomes an unbeliever, he continues to have some fear that the Catholic Church might be correct. Despite his fears, he eventually chooses to live independently and without constraint, even if that decision sends him to hell.


Escape is the natural complement to the theme of Entrapment and Constraint. Joyce depicts escape metaphorically by the book’s most important symbol and allusion: the mythical artificer Daedalus. Dedalus is not at all an Irish name; Joyce took the name from the mythical inventor who escaped from his island prison by constructing wings and flying to his freedom. Stephen, too, will eventually escape from the island prison of Ireland for the alienation need for an artist.


Closely related to the above theme, Stephen’s move towards independence is one of the central movements of the novel. When we first encounter- Stephen as a Young boy, his athletic ineptitude and sensitive nature make him an easy target for bullies. He is a rather shy and awkward boy. The contrast with the university student Stephen could not be greater. The older Stephen is fiercely independent, willing to risk eternal damnation to pursue his destiny. He is not cowed by anyone, and he will pursue life as an artist no matter what the cost.

Beauty, Sensitivity, and Imagination

What begins as sensitivity and imagination in the child Stephen eventually evolves into a near-obsessive contemplation of beauty and the mechanics of art. Even as a child, young Stephen is an extraordinarily imaginative and sensitive boy. Eventually, these strong but unarticulated feelings take shape as a passion for the arts. In Chapter 5, Stephen has developed a theory of aesthetics that is quite sophisticated for a university student; he thinks carefully and thoroughly about beauty and the power of art, and knows that he can do nothing else but pursue the life of a poet and writer.

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 his family, his religion, and 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. Stephen’s rebellion is directed against numerous opponents. One is his father, Simon Dedalus. As Stephen discovers that his father is a drunken, in- effectual failure, he rejects his authority. Stephen also rejects the bonds of a religion that restricts his natural impulses. Catholicism imposes a burden of guilt that weighs him down. He must “‘admit” and “confess” and’ “apologies” even when he feels innocent. By rejecting Catholicism, Stephen is ‘also rejecting his devoutly religious mother. Stephen’s rebellion is also directed against his native land. Dirty,’ backward Ireland destroys any of its children who show creativity; it is, he says,’ a sow that eats her farrow. His classmates attempt to reform Ireland through political action and promotion of native literature. Stephen rejects these attempts as futile and backward-looking. Instead he abandons Ireland and looks towards the continent.

Portrait of a Young 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. This can be said of Stephen, who feels superior and finds it hard to care for others, even for his own family. It is equally hard for him to accept affection or love from others. From his early school days on, he is at the edge of group life, observing himself. As he grows older, he becomes even more totally absorbed in his own ideas until he finally withdraws from his familiar surroundings. Stephen’s Opinions on art and his own attempts at writing, as evidenced by the villanelle he writes in Chapter Five, suggest to some that he is not talented enough to justify his self-appointed role as a priest of art.

Sin as a Liberating Force

In some views, it is Stephen’s acceptance of his own sinfulness that sets him free. Guilt and fear of punishment keep him in a sterile, pale world of virtue where he is always hounded by the pressure to confess, admit, or apologize. By committing a mortal (serious) sin of impurity (of the flesh) and falling from grace like Adam from Paradise, or like Lucifer expelled from Heaven, he is thrust back into the earthly world of the senses, a world that releases his creative powers. Stephen will sin again and again, but instead of confessing he will write.

Life as a Maze

From the beginning, Stephen, like most young people, is caught in a maze, just as his namesake

Daedalus was. The schools are a maze of corridors; Dublin is a maze of streets. The mind itself is a convoluted maze filled with dead ends and circular reasoning. Life poses riddles at every turn. Stephen roams the labyrinth searching his mind for answers. The only way out seems to be to soar above the narrow confines of the prison, as did Daedalus and his son.


Many readers point to Stephen’s pride as a cause of his isolation. From the beginning, pride—a mortal sin— keeps him away from others. He yearns for “order and elegance” in his life. He feels superior to his family and to his peers. He feels superior to his country, and to attempts to improve it. In the end, pride drives him to lonely exile. What readers must decide is whether Stephen’s pride is justified by his talent, or whether it is merely selfish; whether pride has driven him to a fall, as it did Icarus and Lucifer, or whether it will save him.

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