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THEMES / THEME ANALYSIS
Many themes are woven into the fabric of Portrait of the Artist. Is there one main theme that overrides the others? Readers differ in their views. You may feel, as some do, that the book is chiefly about Stephen's struggle to free himself from his surroundings. It's about his rejection of authority. Or you may see the novel primarily as Stephen's discovery of his artistic vocation. Perhaps you'll agree with those who see in Portrait of the Artist mainly the mocking study of a pompous, self-important young egotist.
The following are themes of Portrait of the Artist.
1. REJECTION OF AUTHORITY
Stephen's ultimate rebellion is a classic example of a young person's struggle against the conformity demanded of him by society. The young Stephen possesses a childish faith in his family, his religion, and his country. As he matures, he comes to feel these institutions are attempting to destroy his independent spirit. He must escape them to find himself.
Stephen's rebellion is directed against numerous opponents. One is his father, Simon Dedalus. As Stephen discovers that his father is a drunken, ineffectual failure, he rejects his authority.
Stephen also rejects the bonds of a religion that restricts his natural impulses. Catholicism imposes a burden of guilt that weighs him down. He must "admit" and "confess" and "apologise" even when he feels innocent. By rejecting Catholicism, Stephen is also rejecting his devoutly religious mother.
Stephen's rebellion is also directed against his native land. Dirty, backward Ireland destroys any of its children who show creativity; it is, he says, a sow that eats her farrow. His classmates attempt to reform Ireland through political action and promotion of native literature. Stephen rejects these attempts as futile and backward-looking. Instead he abandons Ireland and looks toward the continent.
2. THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE ARTIST
Many readers feel that Stephen's discovery of his artist's calling provides the major framework for the novel. Certainly, from the opening pages of the novel to its end, Joyce emphasizes the boy's sensitive responses to language and to the sights and sounds of the world around him. Words define life: as a schoolboy, he tries to arrange them to see where he fits in the scheme of the universe. He turns to writing poetry to express the emotions he can't express in speech. In time he writes prize essays and even shapes his own theories of beauty.
The desire to be an artist becomes the most powerful force in Stephen's life. You can see three separate-but closely related-aspects of his, and Joyce's, attitudes toward art.
• ART AS A VOCATION OR CALLING
Not everyone who has an artist's sensitivity chooses art as a vocation. Stephen ultimately finds that his calling to art is so strong that he has no choice but to follow it. Though family, friends, and teachers try to discourage him, he must express himself as freely and fully as he can, even though the result may be loneliness, poverty, and exile.
• ART AS FLIGHT
The life of the imagination is a refuge from drab reality for Stephen. But his attempts to create art are not merely attempts to escape. He wants not just to reject but to transform. Art will let him use the negative parts of his world in a positive way. Art can transform ugliness into beauty. In the hands of an artist, even the most foul-smelling Dublin street can become a work worthy of celebration.
• ART AS RELIGION
Stephen comes to consider the pursuit of beauty as a religion. Rejecting the Catholic priesthood, he sees himself as a "priest of the eternal imagination."
3. PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG EGOTIST
Some readers feel that the central theme is the character study of an arrogant, unhappy egotist, an intensely self-absorbed young man. An egotist is interested only in the self, and is intensely critical of other people and the world. This can be said of Stephen, who feels superior and finds it hard to care for others, even for his own family. It is equally hard for him to accept affection or love from others. From his early school days on, he is at the edge of group life, observing himself. As he grows older, he becomes even more totally absorbed in his own ideas until he finally withdraws from his familiar surroundings. Stephen's opinions on art and his own attempts at writing, as evidenced by the villanelle he writes in Chapter Five, suggest to some that he is not talented enough to justify his self-appointed role as a priest of art.
4. SIN AS A LIBERATING FORCE
In some views, it is Stephen's acceptance of his own sinfulness that sets him free. Guilt and fear of punishment keep him in a sterile, pale world of virtue where he is always hounded by the pressure to confess, admit, or apologize. By committing a mortal (serious) sin of impurity (of the flesh) and falling from grace like Adam from Paradise, or like Lucifer expelled from Heaven, he is thrust back into the earthly world of the senses, a world that releases his creative powers. Stephen will sin again and again, but instead of confessing he will write.
5. LIFE IS A MAZE
From the beginning, Stephen, like most young people, is caught in a maze, just as his namesake Daedalus was. The schools are a maze of corridors; Dublin is a maze of streets. The mind itself is a convoluted maze filled with dead ends and circular reasoning. Life poses riddles at every turn. Stephen roams the labyrinth searching his mind for answers. The only way out seems to be to soar above the narrow confines of the prison, as did Daedalus and his son.
Many readers point to Stephen's pride as a cause of his isolation. From the beginning, pride-a mortal sin-keeps him away from others. He yearns for "order and elegance" in his life. He feels superior to his family and to his peers. He feels superior to his country, and to attempts to improve it. In the end, pride drives him to lonely exile. What you must decide is whether Stephen's pride is justified by his talent, or whether it is merely selfish; whether pride has driven him to a fall, as it did Icarus and Lucifer, or whether it will save him.