Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1502

Consciousness
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.

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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 his feelings of being different and distant from his classmates, his siblings, and even his friends. At the end of the novel, Stephen records his artistic manifesto in his diary: “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

Coming of Age
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is not generally considered a “coming of age” novel as such. Joyce intended the book to have a wider scope, and the novel encompasses more than the brief time-scale—often just a single school year or a summer—that usually marks the “coming of age” genre. In Joyce’s novel, the chronology spans approximately twenty years, as we follow the central character, Stephen Dedalus, from his very early childhood to his college years. Nonetheless, there are a number of typical “coming of age” elements here. Among them are young Stephen’s growing consciousness of self-identity and of family problems, his increasing understanding of the rules that govern the adult world, and, later, his keen awareness of and preoccupation with the mysteries of sex.

God and Religion
Religion—in the form of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church—forms a major theme of the novel. Indeed, religion was a pervasive force in late nineteenth-century Irish life, the time in which this novel is set. Stephen’s first consideration of God occurs early in Chapter One. While looking at his name and address on his geography book, Stephen ponders his place in the world. This stream of consciousness leads him to wonder about the infinity of the universe and about God: “It was very big to think about everything and everywhere. Only God could do that….” He goes on to consider God’s name in other languages and the fact that God can understand all languages: “But though there were different names for God in all the dif- ferent languages in the world and God understood what all the people who prayed said in their different languages, still God remained always the same God and God’s real name was God.”

The place of religion in Ireland, and the conflict between clerical and secular authority, is the subject of the argument between Dante Riordan and John Casey at Christmas dinner in Chapter One. The argument centers on the Church’s treatment of the Irish nationalist politician Charles Stuart Parnell. Parnell, a member of the British Parliament, had led the fight for Home Rule, a form of limited independence for Ireland. However, just as he seemed on the verge of success, he had been named in a divorce case. (Parnell had been having an affair with a married woman, Kitty O’Shea.) Because of this, the Catholic Church in Ireland denounced Parnell, who was disgraced and who died shortly thereafter. Dante argues that it was right for the Church to denounce the sinful Parnell, saying that the Irish people should submit to the authority of the bishops and priests even if this means losing a chance for independence. Mr. Casey, who is also a Catholic, bitterly resents the Church’s actions in the Parnell case. He argues that the clergy should stay out of politics, and says that “We have had too much God in Ireland.” Simon Dedalus echoes this argument, calling the Irish “an unfortunate priestridden race…. A priestridden Godforsaken race!”

Stephen is a silent witness to this argument, but he soon becomes embroiled in questions of religion himself. Much of the novel concerns Stephen’s relation to his religion, and his ultimate rejection of that religion. Although he finally rejects church authority, Stephen is nonetheless shaped by his Jesuit education and by a powerfully Roman Catholic outlook on life.

In Chapter Four, the unnamed dean asks Stephen to consider becoming a priest. Stephen is tempted by the invitation and imagines himself leading a religious life. He decides not to join the priesthood. He wishes to maintain his independence and does not feel that he can be a part of any organization. His power, he realizes, will come not from his initiation into the priesthood but from devoting himself to his solitary art, even at the cost of losing his family, friends, nation, and God.

Sin
Sin—particularly Stephen’s sense of sin, as defined by the Catholic Church—is a major aspect of his awareness of God and religion. Deeply disturbed by the consciousness of his own sin (including masturbation and encounters with prostitutes), Stephen goes to confession. Afterward, absolved of his sins, he is “conscious of an invisible grace pervading and making light his limbs…. He had confessed and God had pardoned him. His soul was made fair and holy once more, holy and happy.” He feels that life is simple and beautiful, and that life is spread out before him. For all his efforts, however, Stephen is unable to maintain this kind of life, and he lapses once again.

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Characters