Study Guide

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Themes

By James Joyce

  • Identity

    Portrait of the Artist is ultimately the story of a search for true identity. We know from the title that the protagonist’s fate is to become an artist, but we still follow the emotional suspense of his periods of uncertainty and confusion. Our hero struggles with the sense that there is some great destiny waiting for him, but he has difficulty perceiving what it is. His consistent feeling of difference and increasing alienation show that he sees himself as someone marked by fate to stand outside society. Speaking of society, Joyce also questions the value of Irish national identity in a country on the brink of revolution.

    Questions About Identity

    1. We know that Stephen identifies himself as an artist – what other roles or concepts could we use to define his character?
    2. How much does Stephen’s awareness of his Irish heritage shape his identity?
    3. What models does Stephen use in crafting his identity? How much of his persona is consciously constructed, as opposed to being shaped by his culture?
    4. Do you find Joyce’s narrative strategies successful – does the novel leave you with the sense that you understand Stephen as a real person, not simply a character?

    Chew on This

    The purpose of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is to give readers a universal model for the development of an artist’s identity.

    Despite Stephen’s distrust of Catholic guilt and dogma, the Church is the institution that shapes him more than any other.

  • Transformation

    One might argue that the only things that actually happen in Portrait of the Artist are a series of transformations. One might then argue that this demonstrates that growing up is simply a series of transformations. Either way, transformation in this text is associated with two things. First, it’s related to the slow shift from childhood to adulthood. Stephen has to pass through distinct phases before he is an independent adult. Secondly, transformation is likened to the process of artistic development; his intellectual transformations help forge his identity as an artist and shape his future writing. The proof of this is Joyce himself – after all, this story partially stems from his own experiences.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. We know that Stephen undergoes transformation after transformation in this text – does anyone else change, or are the other characters largely static?
    2. Is this a classic caterpillar-to-butterfly story? Has Stephen found his true form by the end?
    3. We see how clearly marked Stephen’s different phases are from an internal perspective; do the other characters seem to notice the changes in his character?

    Chew on This

    Each of Stephen’s transformations (from child to sinner, sinner to Catholic, Catholic to artist) is motivated by a sudden and personal epiphany in the text.

    If, like his nationalist friend Davin, Stephen felt it were truly possible to transform his homeland he would not have to leave Ireland.

  • Youth

    One might guess from the title that Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has something to do with Youth. This book is a classic coming-of-age story that allows us to follow the development of the main character’s consciousness from childhood to adulthood. Included in this is a heightened awareness of what old people wistfully like to call "the folly of youth." We at Shmoop aren’t even that old, and we are already fond of sighing over said folly. Since this is a very loosely veiled autobiography, Joyce was obviously also very aware of the folly of his own youth, which he demonstrates through this novel. The book as a whole is a meditation on the process of growing up; one of its truly great accomplishments is the almost scientific precision with which it depicts the protagonist’s changing mind and body.

    Questions About Youth

    1. As a child, Stephen longs to understand adult concepts. Once he does, do you think he ever wishes for a return to the innocence of childhood?
    2. How do Stephen’s relationships with his peers change as he grows older?
    3. The words "boyhood" and "youth" have very different meanings in the moment of Stephen’s epiphany in Chapter Four – how are they different? Why?
    4. Much is made in our culture of a boy’s entry into manhood. Would you say that Stephen is a man by the end of the book?

    Chew on This

    A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is not actually a coming-of-age story, or Bildungsroman, because the protagonist remains a child at the end.

    Stephen exemplifies the insecurities and anxieties of any young person struggling to find his or her true identity.

  • Dissatisfaction

    Many of the events of this novel are seen through a haze of murky discontent. Joyce poses dissatisfaction as a necessity of the developing artist. Our protagonist’s unhappiness with his setting, his family, and most of all, himself, are fundamental to his eventual transformation from observant child to blooming writer. Until he realizes that his vocation is to become a writer, he feels aimless, alone, and uncertain. However, we get the feeling that he could never arrive at this conclusion without undergoing his period of profound dissatisfaction. It is this lingering sense of malcontent that forces Joyce’s character to confront his personal anxieties and uncertainties in order to get past them.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. Stephen’s dissatisfaction is what motivates all of the changes he undergoes. Would this book be possible if he were just a happier kid?
    2. Do you think any of the other characters in the book are satisfied with their lots in life?
    3. Are the problems experienced by characters in the book universal, or do they seem uniquely Irish?
    4. Is dissatisfaction an essential condition for artistic creation in the book? Consider the moments in which we see Stephen engaged in writing.

    Chew on This

    Stephen’s natural inclination to question and analyze makes it fundamentally impossible for him to ever achieve contentment of any kind.

    Stephen’s dissatisfactions have nothing to do with Ireland.

  • Language and Communication

    Stephen’s fixation on language is what alerts us to his artistic inclinations from the very beginning of the novel. Both Joyce and his protagonist demonstrate a deep fascination with the purely aesthetic elements of language. Sometimes elements like repetition, rhythm, and rhyme take over the narrative completely. This demonstrates the novel’s stance on Communication: it highlights the arbitrary and sometimes meaningless ways in which language works – and doesn’t work. While the goal of language is to clarify and enlighten, it doesn’t always succeed and is often misused. Joyce and many of his Modernist colleagues (especially T.S. Eliot) were very concerned with the failure of language to successfully communicate ideas.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. How does Stephen’s experience of language change during the course of the novel?
    2. Joyce often pinpoints the inability of language to truly express meaning. How does Stephen approach this problem?
    3. Stephen is troubled by the foreign and imposed identity of the English language, but he doesn’t feel connected to Irish language, either. Is there any possible way to resolve this tension?
    4. Since language proves to be ineffective at times, what other modes of communication do we witness in this novel?

    Chew on This

    Stephen’s visceral experience of words and language mark his artistic destiny from the beginning of the novel.

    Throughout the novel, Stephen is more affected by words (either spoken or written) than by actions.

  • Religion

    Marx famously wrote that religion is a kind of drug constructed to keep the masses bovine (cow-like) and contented, chewing their cud comfortably and not confronting the true nature of life. Joyce delivers a similarly cynical and unflinchingly critical picture of religion in Portrait of the Artist; our hero, albeit in a markedly un-cow-like and intensely cerebral fashion, also latches on to religion as a system of definite explanation. However, religion is rejected as a solution to life’s unanswerable questions, both by Joyce and by Stephen, who realizes that life is not that simple, and that the strict rules and regulations of the Church can’t explain everything. The book implies that no religious doctrine, Catholic or otherwise, can provide universal solutions, and furthermore, that dogma often limits the possibilities of human accomplishment.

    Questions About Religion

    1. In this novel, how much of religion is simply ritual and practice, and how much is actual belief?
    2. How much does Stephen’s enjoyment of words and images relate to his religious faith, starting in the beginning of the novel?
    3. In his heavily religious phase, does Stephen think of religion in any social way (i.e. does he consider its role in a broader community), or is his faith purely personal and self-centered?
    4. What role does the Catholic Church play in Stephen’s diagnosis of the condition of the Irish people?

    Chew on This

    The defining feature or religion throughout the novel is a lack of passionate involvement in the world.

    Stephen pursues Catholicism in an attempt to impose an external system of order on his life, and thus hopes to resolve the confusion of his home life, identity, and lack of purpose.

  • Spirituality

    This choice might raise some eyebrows. You wouldn’t be alone if you wanted to nervously avoid our gaze and say, "Hey, um, Shmoop, I know you’re trying to be thorough and everything, but isn’t Spirituality kind of uncomfortably similar to the last theme you discussed, Religion?" And that’s our cue to stare you down and say "Yeah right! Stop being so darn reductive. GEEZ." One of the transformations our protagonist undergoes is a shift from zealous, super-disciplined belief in Catholic doctrine to a more unrestricted, self-created sense of spirituality that’s closely intertwined with his drive to create art. Spirituality is not limited to the worship of any one religion, or even of any specific god – rather, there is something profoundly fulfilling and potentially redemptive in the worship of Art and Beauty.

    Questions About Spirituality

    1. How does Stephen’s dedication to art relate to his spiritual beliefs?
    2. Does the figure of Daedalus, the "old father, old artificer," ultimately replace God for Stephen?
    3. What, if anything, replaces Stephen’s faith in the Catholic Church after his epiphany in Chapter Four?

    Chew on This

    Once the overlying artificial structure of religion is removed, we see that Stephen’s spiritual beliefs are ultimately linked to his pure and simple love of beauty.

    Stephen’s sense of spirituality at the close of the novel does not focus on the explanation of mysteries; rather, it emphasizes the importance of questioning.

  • Sin

    Sin and temptation play central roles in this novel. Our protagonist goes through a period of indulging fully in his bodily lusts, which then leads to a swing in the opposite direction, an attempt at total piety. Joyce highlights the harshly binary nature (people either give in to all sins or no sins at all) of the Catholic-dominated Irish culture. In the end, the hero comes to the necessary conclusion that sin is a fundamental and unavoidable part of human nature, rather than something that can simply be eliminated through religious practice. One suspects that Joyce hoped that the reading public of the time would come to the same conclusion.

    Questions About Sin

    1. How does Stephen’s understanding and perception of sin change throughout the novel?
    2. For Stephen, is the concept of sin purely religious?
    3. Does Stephen ever feel guilty about things other characters do?
    4. Does the idea of sin figure in to Stephen’s post-Catholic spirituality?

    Chew on This

    By the end of the novel, Stephen reaches the conclusion that sin is an inevitable and even beautiful part of human life.

    Even at the end of the novel, after his "conversion" from Catholicism, Stephen remains obsessed by the categories of sin and guilt.

  • The Home

    This concept of home is massively important on two levels. First of all, the familial home is a constant source of instability and unhappiness throughout the book. The Dedalus family loses wealth and status throughout the novel, and they have to move around a lot to save money. Secondly, the uncomfortable idea of Ireland as home influenced both our protagonist and his real-life contemporary, Joyce. The novel asks us to examine how connected one should be to a homeland, especially when that homeland is trying to clarify its own political and cultural identity. That said, Stephen continues to reassert his Irishness in subtle ways, and he feels connected to his people even as he leaves – perhaps he’s even more connected to his people because he leaves. Chew on that for a while.

    Questions About The Home

    1. Do you think Stephen will actually find the new life he hopes to attain once he leaves Ireland, or will he simply continue to chafe against new limitations?
    2. What role does the Dedalus family’s series of moves play in Stephen’s development? In the absence of a consistent home life, where does he turn for guidance?
    3. In your opinion, what does Stephen mean when he declares that he will "forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race?"
    4. Despite the fact that we see Stephen in just about every other situation, we very rarely witness everyday life in the Dedalus home – in fact, we don’t even know exactly how many siblings Stephen has. Why do you think Joyce made this choice?

    Chew on This

    Stephen’s unstable home life makes it necessary for him to create his own identity, which is totally independent of his family.

    For Stephen, art is essentially a tool to bring about social and political change.

  • Literature and Writing

    Literature and Writing provide the underlying backbone of meaning that draws this whole text together. This theme plays a fundamental role in the lives of both the fictional Stephen and the real Joyce, even beyond the obvious fact that both of them are writers. The idea of Art as a calling becomes central to the eventual understanding of spirituality in the text, since observing and creating objects of beauty is a fundamental part of experiencing the life that Joyce describes. The role of the writer, as it appears here, is to shape language the way a craftsman might shape wood or clay. This alignment of literature to fine art is extremely important; through his work, Joyce attempts to demonstrate that the novel, a relatively young literary form, is as important and valid as any other form of art.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. What do you think of Stephen’s declaration that he will "forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race" – does he think that writing has more power than institutions like government and the Church?
    2. We know that this book is heavily based upon events in Joyce’s life. Stephen, however, tells us that the artist is ideally removed from the work, like a distant observer of the characters. Bearing these two things in mind, should we identify Joyce with Stephen as we read? Is the fact that Joyce produced this book a signal to us that Stephen will succeed as an artist?
    3. Can A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man be categorized in Stephen’s system of lyrical, epical, and dramatic art?

    Chew on This

    The Aristotle and Aquinas texts cited by Stephen in Chapter Five replace religious doctrine in his self-created spiritual system.

    Stephen’s attempts to create a new identity through writing culminate in the journal entries at the end of the novel.