A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
James Joyce
Contributed by Cinderella Domino
Themes
Themes are described as ideas that dominate a particular piece of literature. In almost all cases, pieces of literature will be centered a theme or a number of them.
Soul and Body

The gap between soul and body means a great deal to Stephen during childhood and adolescence. As a child, Stephen notes countless particular sights, sounds, and smells, and interprets them with great tenderness and seriousness: they seem to lead him deep into his memories and his understanding of the world. In this way, body and soul are naturally connected for Stephen as a child. But Stephen also shies away from many social activities, preferring to keep to himself and attend to his thoughts and daydreams: he distinguishes between extroverted activity, in which his body interacts with others, and introverted activity, in which his soul communes with itself.

Stephen’s religious education reinforces the soul-body split. He has been taught since early childhood that premarital sex is a grave and shameful sin, so he perceives his adolescent sexual longing as a sort of insubordination of body against soul – an appalling perversion he must keep hidden at any cost. His secret lust, vague ambition, and keen poetic vision create a strange and weighty inner world that does not often correspond to the shrill, dirty, practical world of city, school, and family. Though he often feels burdened by this ghostly inner life, he seeks to protect it from dogmatic external influences: when he tries to control his body and elevate his soul through meticulous religious practice, the formulaic religious teaching ultimately fails to leave any permanent mark on his inner life.

The culmination of his religious crisis seems to mark the reunion of soul and body: the senses, “the call of life to his soul,” turn Stephen away from the priesthood, fuel his artistic ambitions, and restore his inner world – the senses of the body, the same senses that fuel his lust. But when Stephen arrives to university, he carries the split into his rather antiquated aesthetic theories. He brags that he will “try to fly by [the] nets” of nationality, language, religion; but before he can become truly free, before he can repair the antagonism between soul and body, Stephen must create an aesthetics of his own. This new aesthetics, embodied by Portrait itself, will be one that does not privilege unity over dispersion, thought over feeling, or purity over reality.

Innocence and Experience

Ideas of innocence and experience, of change and maturation, are central to every Künstlerroman (a novel that narrates an artist’s growth and development), of which Portrait is one. In Joyce’s novel, the theme of innocence and experience structures the remaining four themes, because in each case the novel traces the child-to-adult arc of Stephen’s shifting perspective. That is to say, when we talk about Portrait we are always talking about the evolution from innocence to experience.

Stephen’s own idea of innocence is deeply influenced by Christian notions of purity and sin. Throughout the book, he identifies innocence as a sexless, lustless existence – the life of a child or a celibate; experience, on the other hand, is a fallen condition, filled with doubt and shame. For example, he imagines that Emma was innocent as a young girl, but after her sexual awakening she is “humbled and saddened by the dark shame of womanhood.” Innocence, for Stephen, also denotes a kind of simple, hearty, direct relationship to the surrounding world. Stephen’s adolescence is marked by growing isolation, a spiritual alienation from friends and family. When he recalls the sensory vividness and immediacy of his childhood, and when he listens to stories of easy companionship from his father’s youth, he feels that his innocence has disappeared – that the child Stephen has died.

The two notions of innocence are closely connected, because to a large extent it is Stephen’s sexual shame that drives him away from others: to hide his shame, he retreats into a secretive inner world. Shame of the body also complicates and disturbs Stephen’s relationship to sensory experience. By the end of the novel, though, Stephen’s religious anxieties start to diminish, and his sensory life seems to grow brighter once again. Innocence usually gives way to experience; in Stephen’s case, experience also gives way to innocence: “his soul had arisen from the grave of boyhood.”

Literature and Life

Since earliest childhood, novels and poems help Stephen make sense of the world around him. From the very first scene of the novel, in which infant Stephen creates a little rhyme from Dante’s threat that “eagles will come and pull out his eyes,” words shape and brighten Stephen’s experience. The sounds of words puzzle and enlighten him, and novels like The Count of Monte Christo help him shape his adolescent identity. At times, beautiful phrases from poems thrill him as much as real romantic experiences.

Yet, though Stephen’s inner experience melds art and life, Stephen the young poet and aesthete believes there must exist a great distance between them: he imagines art as the vapory spirit soaring high over the city of the real. Drawing on the philosophy of Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas, Stephen decides that art must inspire only philosophical abstractions about emotions, “ideal pity or terror,” but not real emotions themselves – he thinks passions like love and anger are too lowly for art. In his own poetry, he omits random or unsavory detail in favor of high romantic abstraction. “Excrement or a child or a louse” finds no place in his art. Joyce’s novel itself, of course, includes everything Stephen omits: passion, crudeness, dirt, randomness, contradiction. The novel itself gently mocks and refutes Stephen’s youthful theories – theories that once belonged, perhaps, to the young Joyce himself.

Order and the Senses

During his childhood, Stephen lives by his senses: he understands the people and things around him only by the way they look, sound, smell, or feel. The novel suggests that to child Stephen, his mother is her good smell, and nighttime is the chill of the sheets. His attention always veers toward detail: when he learns that Simon Moonan did something forbidden and homosexual with some other boys, he can only understand the news by thinking of Simon’s nice clothes and fancy candy. He has trouble with abstractions and categories; he does not clearly understand the meaning of the York-Lancaster competition in his math class, but he thinks intently of the colors of the handkerchiefs and award cards. When he tries to think of the idea of god or the organization of the planet during study hall, “it made him feel tired,” and he focuses instead on the colors of the map.

In his adolescence, Stephen remains preoccupied with sensory detail, but his relationship to it becomes much more troubled. As he develops abstract thinking, he begins to ask himself large questions like: Are priests always good? What is sin? What is greatness? What is Ireland? The questions force him to try to order and interpret his experience, which reveals puzzling contradiction and unintelligible variety. At this point in his maturation, his talent for observation surpasses his interpretative abilities. In other words, he sees and hears and smells a great deal but he can’t quite make sense of it. For relief, he first turns to old novels and poetry, which present a somewhat simplified and romantic picture of love and honor; then he turns to religion, with its rigid and reliable rules; and finally to academia and aesthetics, which also provide frameworks for understanding. None of these is quite faithful to Stephen’s actual experience, which always exceeds the frameworks with intense, mysterious sensory and emotional detail. By the end of the novel, Stephen is ready to leave behind the mistakes of his adolescence and to create a new framework, “to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience.”

Religion, Nationality and Freedom

Stephen grows up in an atmosphere of political and religious controversy. The late 19th century was a turbulent time in Ireland. The beloved separatist leader Parnell, exposed as an adulterer and condemned by the Catholic Church in 1891, divided the nation just as he divided the Dedalus Christmas dinner in the novel. Throughout his childhood and adolescence Stephen feels the pull of worldly causes, hears a chorus of voices instructing him to join this group or that. But as he becomes more and more absorbed into his elaborate inner life, he determines to ignore the voices and pursue his own thoughts. Though religious piety briefly gives him respite from shame and confusion, he finds it impossible to confine himself to the narrow religious perspective. When he turns away from religion, he feels a soaring sense of freedom. Similarly, he turns away from conventional Irish nationalism and other popular political causes, intuiting that they will constrict his intellectual and emotional life. Yet, though the ‘fenianism’ of his compatriots does not appeal to him, he aspires to express with his writing another, subtler sort of Irishness, “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

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