Analyze the impact of setting in A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man by James Joyce and how he uses setting to communicate his theme or themes. Support your interpretation with finding every instance of setting used in the novel and show how it connects to the reader's response to the book, that is, the understanding of Joyce's theme or themes
The overall setting of this novel is Dublin and its environs at the turn of the twentieth century. There are the various Daedalus family homes, which dwindle in size and grandeur as the family's fortunes decline, and the series of colleges that Stephen attends: first Clongowes Wood College, then Belvedere College, and finally University College in Dublin. Interspersed with this is a portrait of Blackrock, a Dublin suburb where Stephen spends his summer holidays, and also of Cork, which he visits once with his father.
All of these settings are crucial in illustrating Stephen’s developing consciousness as he passes from childhood to young manhood in the course of the novel. The novel follows his growth not just as a man, but also his growth as an artist: his decision to reject early religious and family influences in order to develop his own course in life, finding meaning and solace in aestheticism, the artist’s creed. This is the central theme of the novel, to show the growth of the protagonist to early maturity, and setting is intimately linked to this. The settings show various stages of Stephen's life and his state of mind at these times. This is emphasized by the narrative technique used, a kind of stream of consciousness (much more radically developed in Joyce’s later novels), where everything is rendered from Stephen’s perspective, although, until the very end, he does not tell his own story directly. Therefore Clongowes is rendered to us as a series of childish impressions. The college is set in a old castle, which appears very impressive to the little boy as a romantic, gloomy old place, filled with ghosts and apparitions. This college is also the scene of teasing from other boys, and chastisements from teachers, which are hard for a young boy to take, particularly a boy of sensitive temperament like Stephen.
The novel then moves on to the setting of Belvedere college. This is rendered through Stephen’s older voice, and it is a more cynical and dejected voice as well. He is still young enough, though, to be impressed, and terrified, by the priests’ preaching hellfire and damnation here. Finally he moves on to University College, a place of greater freedom and clarity. Now he starts discussing things with peers, formulating ideas about life and finally taking the momentous decision to leave Ireland altogether for Europe. This is highly symbolic; it means leaving behind all the cramping and stifling associations with Dublin, as Joyce himself did as a young man. But, like Joyce, although Stephen leaves Dublin he does not - cannot - really repudiate it.
To look at some more specific examples of setting and Stephen’s response (or lack of response, in some cases) to his surroundings, we see that, while in Cork he can hardly respond to his surroundings at all:
Nothing moved him or spoke to him from the real world unless he heard in it an echo of the infuriated cries within him. (chapter 2)
This is a particularly hard time for Stephen, his move into adolescence, coupled with the dwindling away of family fortunes. In consequence, as we see here, Stephen is completely immersed in his own moody thoughts and sense of alienation from the world. At other times in his boyhood, though, he shows himself more receptive to outside scenes, for example when he first ventures into the heart of Dublin:
Dublin was a new and complex sensation .… He passed unchallenged among the docks and along the quays … The vastness and the strangeness of the life suggested to him by the bales of merchandise stocked along the walls or swung aloft out of the holds of steamers wakened … in him … unrest …(chapter 2)
The city, the modern urban space, appears as a rather overwhelming, even frightening place - but also a place of absolute wonder, strangeness, a sense of life in its myriad forms, which engenders a sense of excitement. Also, we see Stephen's incessant lonely walks through the city, sometimes near the slums where later he seeks out prostitutes to satisfy his newly-awakened sexual desires.The red-light district, rendered through his heightened perspective, even comes across as awe-inspiring, the place of some grand, solemn ritual with the gas lamps burning like incense before 'an altar' (chapter 2).
Setting is also intimately linked to another type of experience for Stephen, a more joyous, indeed transcendent experience. On a bridge by the coast, he has an epiphany, a moment of intense joy, perception, and liberation, when taking his delight in the beauty of a girl wading in the water. This is the moment that he realizes that he wants to spend his life in pursuit of that kind of idealized and aesthetic beauty.
On and on and on and on he strode, far out over the strands, singing wildly to the sea, crying to greet the advent of life that had cried to him. (chapter 4)
The settings in this novel, then, are vitally important to the story, used to mirror Stephen’s developing consciousness, his emotions and ideas as he grows up.