How is sexuality typically portrayed in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? 

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Payal Khullar eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Contrary to the general themes taken by writers of his time, James Joyce has experimented much with the theme of “Sexuality” in his works. In A Portrait of the artist as a young man, the protagonist- Stephen Dedalus - is a teenager who constantly struggles between his sexual desires and Catholic conscience.  We see that his sexual appetite is accompanied by deep guilt and remorse.

All throughout the novel, women play an important role in the life of Stephen. He fantasizes to marry his playmate Eileen Vance when he is very young. He thinks about her while having dinner with his family at one Christmas night. This is the first time he feels attracted towards a member of the opposite sex. But this seems to be nothing more than a sweet, childhood romance.

When he reads The Count of Monte Christo, he grows sexual yearnings for Mercedes, who is the lead female character. Though she rests only in his imagination, she has a major role in exalting his sexual desires.

In fact, he once feels an impulse to kiss a girl nearly of his age in a train. But not being able to do so cause him restlessness and frustration.

His fierce sexual longings make him abandon his religious learning and he seeks a prostitute at Dublin for sex, for the first time. After this sexual act, he gets himself engaged with more debaucheries like masturbation, gluttony, frequent sex with the prostitutes, etc.

Though he feels abashed for negating the Catholic codes of morality and fears damnation, he soon realizes that he has done nothing wrong. Refraining himself from the Church doctrine, he chooses the free life of an artist over that of a pious priestly life. Soon after this, he sees a girl at the beach and admires her sensual beauty without any regret.

Thus, we see James Joyce portraying Stephen’s sexuality commencing as curiosity and bafflement in the beginning, accompanied by contemptuous sexual acts, sudden revelations, guilt and even admiration in A Portrait of the artist as a young man.


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