A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce: A Critical Analysis

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man deals with the universal theme of the conflict of generations. It also deals with the growth of an artist who has to renounce social, moral and religious conventions. Briefly speaking, this novel examines not only the collapse of the family as a social basic unit, but also the Irish nation as a backward country.

A Portrait belongs to the province of the autobiography because the novelist has changed incidents and distorted characters in order to serve his fictive needs.

Initiation into adulthood: 
Stephen Dedalus as he appears in Portrait is far from being a hero. Groping painfully toward some understanding of himself and his place in the world, he is sometimes laughable, sometimes pathetic. Yet, despite his human failings he has the courage to face the world alone. Joyce's concern is with the associative patterns arising in Stephen's mind from infancy into adolescence. He is concerned with these only as they show the dialectical process by which a world-shape evolves in the mind. The process is conducted in the absolute solitude inside the skull, for Stephen has no trust worthy help from the environment. The technique of stream of consciousness is the formal representation of that mental solitude. We follow in the circumstances of the boy's life the stages of breakdown and increasing confusion in his external environment, as his home goes to pieces. Very early the child's mind beans to respond to that confusion by seeking in itself some unifying from that will show him the logic of things. His mental images are associations suggested by the words he hears, he struggles to make the associations fit into a coherent pattern. To the very young child adults seem to know what everything means and how one thing is related to another.

Hugh Kenner has pointed out "In the first, the deeper conflict is that between his implicit trust in the authority of his elders, his Jesuit teachers, the older boys in the school, his father and his actual sense of insecurity. His elders, since they apparently know the meaning of things, must therefore incarnate perfect justice and moral consistency. But the child's real experience is of mad quarrels at home over Parnell and the priests, and at school the frivolous cruelty of the boys."

There is a shadowy guilty thing the boy has done for which he must apologize, else eagles will pull out his eyes? In this extremely short sequence at the beginning of the book, the child's sense of insecurity is established, and with insecurity, guilt and fear. Immediately there is a transition to the children's playground at Clongowes Wood, the child earliest experience of a community other than that of the home.

In the episode in which Stephen is beaten for heresy, the immediate community of his school fellows shows itself as false stupid and sadistic. On the visit to the Cork, Stephen early dim apprehension of sin and guilt is raised into horrible prominence by the word "Foetus" which he sees inscribed on the desk at Queens College and which symbols for him all his adolescent monstrosity. Meanwhile, his idealistic longings for beauty and purity have concentrated in a vaguely erotic fantasy of the dream girl Mercedes in her rose cottage.

As Stephen matures there is, mounted on the early association between the virgin and Eileen; an identification between his dream Mercedes and a whore. By extension, this association holds in it much of Stephen's struggle between other-worldliness and this worldliness, for it has identified in his imagination flesh and spirit, while his intellect, developing under education, rebels against the identification.

Chapter 4 shows him absorbed in a dream of a saintly career, but his previous emotional affirmation has been wasted away in the performance of formal acts of piety, and he is afflicted with insecurities, and rebellions. Release from conflict comes with a clear refusal of a vocation in the church, objectified by his decision to enter the university. And again it is on a walk that he realizes the measure of the new reality and the new destiny.

After his first successful self assertion, his protest against the injustice of father Dolan, he is described "alone", "happy and free". This series of associations shows that the religious life is ultimately as hostile to Stephens's needs as is the life of worldly self-indulgence exemplified by his brief career in the brothels and also by the equally self-indulgent career of his father. The kinds of life associated with the images of stagnation has one characteristic in common: they seem to Stephen to threaten his freedom of spirit.

Hugh Kenner says, "ultimately, as the insistent climax of the overture shows, its central theme is sin: the development of Stephen Dedalus from a bundle of sensations to a matured, self conscious, dedicated being. In Stephen's aesthetic formulation, the names he borrows from Aquinas are names for those aspects of reality-wholeness, harmoniousness that he has been seeking all his life, from earliest childhood.

The technical devices:
In a time of cultural crisis, when traditional values no longer seem to match with the actualities of experience, and when all reality is thrown into questions, the mind turns inward on itself to seek the shape of reality there. Joyce's Portrait is an investigation of the creative effects of language upon life, for the artist at the end to find his vocation in language. The auditory impression is predominant in the novel, sounds heard, words spoken - and the life directed attempt of the young mind is to understand their meaning in relation to each other and in relation to a governing design. Through words the world comes to Stephen, through the words he hears he gropes his way into other people's images of reality. Doubts and anxieties arise because the words and phrases are disassociated, their context frequently arbitrary.

The technique of the stream of consciousness is a formal aspect of the book which reflects the boy's extreme spiritual isolation. There is a logical suitability in the fact that this type of technique should arise at a time when society failed to give objective validation to inherited belief, and when all meanings, values, and sanctions have to be built up from scratch in the loneliness of the individual mind. Joyce's concern is with the associative patterns arising in Stephen's mind from infancy into adolescence. He is concerned with these only as they show the dialectical process by which a world-shape evolve in the mind. The process is conducted in the absolute solitude of the inside of the skull, for Stephen has no trust worthy help from the environment. This technique is the formal representation of that mental solitude.

Those moments in the dialectical process when certain phrases or sensations suddenly cohere and a meaning shines forth from the whole, Joyce called epiphanies. They are showing forth of the nature of reality as the boy is prepared to grasp it. Minor epiphanies mark all the stages of Stephen's understanding, as when the feel of Eileen's hands show him. What tower of ivory means, or as when the word "foetus", suddenly focuses for him his monstrous way of life. Major epiphanies mark the chief revelations of the nature of his environment and of his destiny in it. The story Davin tells Steve about stopping at night at the cottage of a peasant woman, and Stephen's image of the woman is for him an epiphany of the soul of Ireland, "a bat like soul waking to the consciousness of itself in darkness and in secrecy and loneliness".

The artist is a midwife of epiphanies. Joyce's doctrine of the epiphany assumes that reality does have wholeness and harmony, and that it will radiantly show forth its meaning to the prepared consciousness, for it is only in the body of reality that meaning can occur and only there that the artist can find it.