Ideas of innocence and experience, of change and maturation, are central to every Künstlerroman (a novel that narrates an artist’s growth and development), of which Portrait is one. In Joyce’s novel, the theme of innocence and experience structures the remaining four themes, because in each case the novel traces the child-to-adult arc of Stephen’s shifting perspective. That is to say, when we talk about Portrait we are always talking about the evolution from innocence to experience.
Stephen’s own idea of innocence is deeply influenced by Christian notions of purity and sin. Throughout the book, he identifies innocence as a sexless, lustless existence – the life of a child or a celibate; experience, on the other hand, is a fallen condition, filled with doubt and shame. For example, he imagines that Emma was innocent as a young girl, but after her sexual awakening she is “humbled and saddened by the dark shame of womanhood.” Innocence, for Stephen, also denotes a kind of simple, hearty, direct relationship to the surrounding world. Stephen’s adolescence is marked by growing isolation, a spiritual alienation from friends and family. When he recalls the sensory vividness and immediacy of his childhood, and when he listens to stories of easy companionship from his father’s youth, he feels that his innocence has disappeared – that the child Stephen has died.
The two notions of innocence are closely connected, because to a large extent it is Stephen’s sexual shame that drives him away from others: to hide his shame, he retreats into a secretive inner world. Shame of the body also complicates and disturbs Stephen’s relationship to sensory experience. By the end of the novel, though, Stephen’s religious anxieties start to diminish, and his sensory life seems to grow brighter once again. Innocence usually gives way to experience; in Stephen’s case, experience also gives way to innocence: “his soul had arisen from the grave of boyhood.”
Innocence and Experience ThemeTracker
Innocence and Experience Quotes in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
The fire rose and fell on the wall. It was like waves. Someone had put coal on and he heard voices. They were talking. It was the noise of the waves. Or the waves were talking among themselves as they rose and fell.
Words which he did not understand he said over and over to himself til he had learned them by heart: and through them he had glimpses of the real world about him.
He did not want to play. He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld. He did not know where to seek it or how: but a premonition which led him on told him that this image would, without any overt act of his, encounter him.
The vastness and strangeness of the life suggested to him by the bales of merchandise stocked along the walls or swung aloft out of the holds of steamers wakened in him the unrest which had sent him wandering in the evening from garden to garden in search of Mercedes.
As the train steamed out of the station he recalled his childish wonder of years before and every event of his first day at Clongowes. But he felt no wonder now.
It shocked him to find in the outer world a trace of what he had deemed till then a brutish and individual malady of his own mind. His recent monstrous reveries came thronging into his memory. They too had spring up before him, suddenly and furiously, out of mere words. … The letters cut in the stained wood of the desk stared upon him, mocking his bodily weakness and futile enthusiasms and making him loathe himself for his own mad and filthy orgies.
By his monstrous way of life he seemed to have put himself beyond the limits of reality. Nothing moved him or spoke to him from the real world unless he heard in it an echo of the infuriated cries within him. He could respond to no earthly or human appeal, dumb and insensible to the call of summer and gladness and companionship, wearied and dejected by his father’s voice.
He had not died but he had faded out like a film in the sun. He had been lost or had wandered out of existence for he no longer existed.
He had known neither the pleasure of companionship with others nor the vigour of rude male health nor filial piety. Nothing stirred within his soul but a cold and cruel and loveless lust. His childhood was dead or lost and with it his soul capable of simple joys, and he was drifting amid life like the barren shell of the moon.
It was his own soul going forth to experience, unfolding itself sin by sin, spreading abroad the balefire of its burning stars and folding back on itself, fading slowly, quenching its own lights and fires. They were quenched: and the cold darkness filled chaos.
A cold lucid indifference reigned in his soul. At his first violent sin he had felt a wave of vitality pass out of him … no part of body or soul had been maimed but a dark peace had been established between them.
But does that part of the body understand or what? The serpent, the most subtle beast of the field. … Who made it to be like that, a bestial part of the body able to understand bestially and desire bestially? Was that then he or an inhuman thing moved by a lower soul than his soul? His soul sickened at the thought of a torpid shaky life feeding itself out of the tender marrow of his life and fattening upon the slime of lust.
It was a grave and ordered and passionless life that awaited him, a life without material cares. … At once from every part of his being unrest began to irradiate. A feverish quickening of his pulses followed and a din of meaningless words drove his reasoned thoughts hither and thither confusedly. … Some instinct, waking at these memories, stronger than education or piety, quickened within him at every near approach to that life, an instinct subtle and hostile, and armed him against acquiescence. The chill and order of the life repelled him.
This was the call of life to his soul, not the dull gross voice of the world of duties and despair, not the inhuman voice that had called him to the pale service of the altar. An instant of wild flight had delivered him and the cry of triumph which his lips withheld cleft his brain.
Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.