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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man contains many major themes but on the whole, the novel is about the journey of an artist. The title of the novel is very much clear as in the novel the writer creates a painting sketch of an artist not only of his young age but also of his childhood while making an analysis of Stephen Dedalus character in the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. A novel may have more than one theme and most themes are related to the symbols and motifs of the writer. It is also the case with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Although critics think that James Joyce portrays his autobiography in the novel yet it is full of universal themes. Further, stream of consciousness is not the only thing due to which this novel gained fame. Its unique themes also make this novel one of the best in the history of English literature.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Themes
A careful and precise analysis of the novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man reveals the following major themes:
- Religion Vs. Politics
- A Balance between Art and Family
- Power is power
- Imagination Vs. Reality
The story is all about exploring the inner sole. James Joyce used the technique of Epiphany in his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for this purpose. In childhood, the boy cannot realise his talent. Indeed, his thinking and habits are different from others but he cannot realise why he is different. In fact, he time and again questions himself regarding this issue and the answer he finds in the last days of his life. At the start of the novel, the child is criticised by everyone. His early life was not good but subsequently, he realises that he has been made for a greater purpose though the writer does not say it directly but by using the technique of symbolism.
There are very rare children, who think like the boy used to think in the early days of his life. For instance, he thinks that words are useless until a listener or reader has an image in his mind regarding the symbols. The initial part of the novel is all about materialistic thinking even though the child stays away from the mob. At the very beginning of this long narrative story, the readers realise that Stephen’s imagination is entirely different from others. He creates extraordinary images regarding words in his mind.
Critics also believe that A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is about realising the difference between the inner world (imagination) and outer reality, hence, giving this novel some unique themes. It is only Stephen, whose unique thinking forces him to believe that the world is nothing but a small part of the universe. It is evident from the incident when he writes his name, his father’s name, his city until the universe.
The pandybat incident is also one of the most important in this regard. The young boy becomes mature too early. He realises that he should stand up against injustice. He prepares an oral complaint and submits it to the rector, upon which he assures him to take action against the Father but soon he realises that he has been fooled; no action has been taken against the Father. It also creates hatred in his heart against the system.
Stream of consciousness is a technique through which a person thinks about the incidents of his past. James Joyce uses this technique to show that when the boy thinks about these incidents at a young age, he perceives his mistakes of childhood. He realises that he was already an artist though he was not well aware of it. The story is about Stephen’s realisation that seems sudden but in reality it is not; it is slower and consumes time. Thus, self-realisation and self-recognition are two major themes of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Religion Vs. Politics
The themes of religion and politics are the most important ones in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Every time we realise that politics prevail over religion. There is always a war in Stephen’s mind when he commits a sin. For example, he commits adultery and suddenly realises his mistake after listening to the sermons. He imagines himself in hell and decides to repent of his sin, hence, he goes to a nearby church and confesses his guilt. It gives him great relief and peace of mind for the time being and to make it permanent, he starts going to churches.
There is also an incident in the novel when Stephen decides to become a priest. The director calls Stephen into the office and offers him the priesthood. He describes the priest’s job in a way that really fascinates Stephen. The director says that God has chosen Stephen to preach his sermons. He also tells him that it is the most desired duty and everyone wishes to be a priest; however, not everybody gets this chance.
The life of a priest attracts Stephen. Firstly, he accepts that he would become a priest. He thinks about the powers and knowledge that he would get after acquiring the job of a priest. Subsequently, he realises that it is a difficult job because he would lose his freedom in case he becomes a priest. Religion is somehow related to politics because when he thinks of becoming a priest he imagines more about the power and less about the spiritual wisdom. Thus, religion and politics are two major themes of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that run side by side throughout the story.
James Joyce portrays Stephen as a person with a rebellious attitude. He does not only show revolt against the injustice but also reacts to the mistakes that he makes. His classmates often make fun of him even though he does not enjoy the company of ordinary minds. It is not the case that every time he does the opposite but he does what he feels is right no matter how much he has to pay for it. For example, the aforementioned incident of pandybat is worth mentioning again in this regard. He takes a stand against the malpractice of the Father.
In addition, being a child Stephen accepts everything as it is. He perceives things through smelling and hearing. He loves his mother and family but with the passage of time and development in his character, he becomes mature enough to create a difference between right and wrong. Realising that his father has cheated on him, he does not like him and the double standards of his father create hatred in his mind.
Apart from that things become complicated for Stephen as time passes by. In his childhood, he did not differentiate the real meanings of words and being innocent did not take any action against anything; however, when he became mature he visualises through his mind’s eye. He commits adultery first like any other common man but subsequently, at the beach, he imagines a girl, who is just like him, and he makes an opinion about her without any negative thoughts. Most artists become rebels too early. It is the story of an artist, hence, rebelliousness is apparent in it. In this way, rebelliousness is one of the major themes of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Themes of Balance between Art and Family in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Family is most important to Stephen when he is a child. Even when he grows up he realises the importance of family in one’s life despite the fact that he often alienates himself from them. Like every other artist, Stephen also wants the freedom that he can never get while living with his family.
At the start of the novel, Stephen enjoys visiting his home. He realises that his family is in mental trouble due to the demise of Charles Stewart Parnell, an Irish political leader. He also realises that there are family disputes among the people due to this topic when one evening the discussion on the topic becomes sensitive and ultimately causes a furious, politically charged argument.
At the end of the novel, the protagonist wants to move far away from his family. He wants to live an independent life as it is the only way through which he can become a successful artist. Family may have an importance of its own yet the writer shows that an artist cannot grow up until and unless he sacrifices the company of his family; a person has to alienate himself from his near and dear ones if he wants to be an artist in a true sense. Suffice is to say that balance between family and art and the importance of family are also two other themes of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Power is power
Stephen at one time thinks that power is the most important thing in life. In fact, the rector calls him and offers him to become a priest. With power comes great responsibility, hence, he has to sacrifice his freedom, as a result of which he rejects the idea of becoming a priest.
There are many occasions in the novel, Stephens thinks of getting power; however, he also realises that he is not made for it. He is an artist and his power lies in his mind. Although he does not want it yet he never ignores the vitality of power in one’s life. Thus, power and knowledge in the novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man become its two significant themes.
Themes of Imagination Vs. Reality in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Every artist has a strong imagination, through which he imitates life. In this novel, there is a strong bond between imagination and reality. Stephen has a vision which separates him from other children. Sometimes he thinks a lot and imagines himself in a position that in reality is not impossible. In childhood, everything is based on Stephen’s dreams. He thinks and thinks and perceives things like an innocent child but by the end of the novel, Joyce sketches an intellect that achieves emotional and sensational sentiments.