A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Themes
by James Joyce

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Study Guide

Subscribe Now

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Themes

(Novels for Students)

In literary terms, one of the revolutionary aspects of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is the fact that there is no actual plot to the book. Instead, the progress of the novel is organized around the growing consciousness of the central character, Stephen Dedalus. His consciousness of the world around him is an ongoing theme and is developed differently in each of the book’s five chapters. He experiences many types and levels of consciousness. Moreover, Joyce uses a highly original “stream-of-consciousness” technique to render Stephen’s thoughts and experiences.

Stephen’s initial consciousness comes through his five senses, a theme that is introduced on the first page. Here Joyce reports Stephen’s awareness of how his father’s face looks, how the wet bed feels, the “queer smell” of the oilsheet and the nice smell of his mother. He sings a song and listens to his mother’s piano playing.

From the beginning, Stephen is conscious of words as things in themselves. When he goes to Clongowes Wood College, he becomes conscious of what words mean—and of the fact that a word can have more than one meaning. Stephen’s consciousness of trouble is at first vague—he is not sure what Dante and Mr. Casey are arguing about at the Christmas dinner, but he knows that the situation is unpleasant. He is conscious of impending trouble when Father Dolan enters the classroom and threatens to “pandy” any “idle, lazy” boys. A little later he is also conscious that his father is in trouble of some sort, but he does not know the cause of this trouble.

Stephen develops a consciousness of the opposite sex early in his life, though that consciousness does not translate into conscious action until the end of Chapter Two, when he encounters a prostitute. Subsequently he is troubled by his consciousness of sin. Foremost, however, is his creative consciousness. As the novel progresses, Joyce’s language becomes more sophisticated, matching Stephen’s growing maturity and understanding. Simultaneously Stephen becomes increasingly conscious of his artistic vocation, until in the last chapter he decides to devote himself entirely to his art, regardless of the consequences to his life.

Artists and Society
As the title indicates, a central theme of the book is the development of the young artist and his relationship to the society in which he lives. The opening sentences of the book show baby Stephen’s awareness of language and of the power of the senses. Because the novel is to a large degree autobiographical, it is not only about Stephen’s development as a literary artist but also about Joyce’s own development. Joyce believed in “art for art’s sake,” and A Portrait reflects this belief. That is, Joyce did not feel that art was supposed to have a practical purpose. It was not the function of the artist to express a political or religious opinion in his or her work, or even to teach the reader about the society in which he or she lived. To the contrary, the artist was to remain aloof from society and devote himself to his art.

For Stephen, as for Joyce, the ability to use the language to create a work of art is its own reward. Stephen is especially sensitive to words and to sensuous phrases, such as “a day of dappled seaborne clouds” and “Madam, I never eat muscatel grapes.” He is not so much concerned with what sentences mean as with how they sound and what they suggest. This musical, suggestive quality of his art comes through in the villanelle (“Are you not weary of ardent ways …”) that Stephen writes near the end of the book. Because of his artistic temperament, Stephen feels increasingly estranged from society. He considers the vocation of the artist a sort of independent priesthood “of eternal imagination” that ultimately prevents him from serving the Catholic Church, from taking part in politics, and even from participating in ordinary Irish life.

Throughout the book, Stephen records...

(The entire section is 1,502 words.)