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Free Study Guide-A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
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PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS

The plot of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is based on development. It is the growth and development of the young artistís consciousness from infancy to young adulthood. He passes through a number of stages that are marked by language. As an infant, the language is of nursery rhymes and childrenís stories. As a young boy, the language is the adventure stories of Sir Walter Scott. As he reaches adolescence, he moves to Byron as his hero of the poem. As a young man, he has the Elizabethan writers running through his head. All the time, the language of the church influences the very structure of his thinking. The language of Irish nationalism is a pull he is both fascinated by and resistant to. The overarching metaphor of the novelís plot might be named as a metaphor of emergence. Stephen emerges, or would like to think he can emerge, from the nets of social obligation, conventionality, and dogma, to free himself to become an artist of the imagination.

THEMES / THEME ANALYSIS

The primary theme of the novel is the artistic development of the artist and this relates specifically to the artistís development in the life of a national language. Stephen experiences the many voices of Ireland as well as those of the canonical writers of his education. Out of all these voices emerges Stephenís aesthetic theory and his desire to find his own manner of expression. At related theme is the artistís struggle against the constraints of social conventions. Stephen develops his own voice as a way of escaping these constraints.

One of the main constraints on the artist as Joyce depicts his life is the Roman Catholic church. However, it is both a constraint and an enabling condition for the artistís development. First, the Jesuit education Stephen receives gives him a thorough grounding in the classical and medieval thinkers. It also structures Stephenís life in such a way that it provides him with a basis for his own development as a moral and intellectual person. In relation to his eventual development of a theory of art or an aesthetic theory, Stephen fully draws on the this tradition. He uses two central doctrines of the church in this theory. First, he revises the doctrine of transubstantiation into a way of imagining the relationship between art and the world it describes. The doctrine of transubstantiation relates to the Eucharist, the Holy Communion. This sacrament of the church has its origin in the Last Supper. Christ gathered his twelve disciples together for a last supper before his crucifixion. He told them to remember him after he was gone by eating bread and drinking wine. He say the bread would be or represent his flesh and the wine would be or represent his blood. The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation holds that during the communion, the bread and wine change literally into the body and blood of Christ. The substance is transformed. When Stephen develops his theory, he thinks of himself as taking on the role of a "priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life." The second use of Catholic doctrine or tradition relates to its creation of a priesthood, a class of men separate from the world who act as intermediaries between the deity and the people. In Stephenís idea of the artist, he is priestlike, performing the miracle of turning life into art.


One of the main ways Joyce loosens the hold of Roman Catholic doctrine on Stephenís imagination is through carnivalization. This is a technique of literature drawn from the event of the carnival in the religious calendar. The carnival was a time of release from the seriousness and hierarchy of religious and secular authority. It precedes Lent, a time of fasting and devotion. During carnival, seriousness is mocked with laughter and with bawdy humor. The lower bodily strata dominates over the intellect and serious morality. The carnival has been incorporated into literature at least since the medieval period. Chaucerís Canterbury Tales, for instance, is full of carnivalization of seriousness. Joyce is therefore in good company when he uses this as a technique to drive a wedge in the totalizing authority of the church and in other forms of seriousness, even the artistís own. When Stephen is discoursing learnedly on his aesthetic theory, his friend Lynch carnivalizes him. He brings lust into the picture of how and why art is created. He laughs at Stephenís deadly serious use of the scholastics to develop a theory of art. Earlier in the novel, when Mrs. Dante Riordan is condemning Parnell and supporting his excommunication from the Catholic church, Mr. Dedalus and Mr. Casey carnivalize her, describing fat priests, the way the priests eat, and generally joking about the priestís grasping for power. They win that argument. Mrs. Riordan leaves. It serves a good lesson for the young Stephen, one he never employs himself, but which Joyce certainly makes good use of. Even in describing Stephenís process of writing a poem to his beloved. He begins in poetic inspiration and ends in lust. Both are used to produce the poem.

It is this both-and philosophy that characterizes the final version of Stephenís ideas of the function of art and the free life. Instead of the churchís idea of mortifying the flesh in favor of the spirit, Stephen finally decides that the flesh should also be given voice. The novel itself insists on the local as a site for theories of the universal, of the body as the place in which the spirit resides. The final description of Stephenís theory of art is not in the novelís narrative it is the novelís narrative, as it incorporates all the voices of Stephenís development, orchestrates them, makes them speak to each other, and disables any one of them from an authoritative hold over the free artist.

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