A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

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Innocence and Experience Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Soul and Body Theme Icon
Innocence and Experience Theme Icon
Literature and Life Theme Icon
Order and the Senses Theme Icon
Religion, Nationality, and Freedom Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Innocence and Experience Theme Icon

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.”

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Innocence and Experience Quotes in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Below you will find the important quotes in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man related to the theme of Innocence and Experience.
Chapter 1, Part 2 Quotes

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.

Related Symbols: Music
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

Stephen has fallen ill at Clongowes, and Brother Michael has just put him to bed. Stephen plans to return home the following day.

Here we see Joyce's talent for exposing the dreamlike and free-associative thought processes of a child's mind. The rising and falling of fire on a wall spurs Stephen to associate its rhythmic ebbing to the motion of ocean waves. Human voices that might be occurring out of sight suddenly become blended with the waves in Stephen's sight--waves which are, "in reality," the flowing shadows of the fire. But, it seems as if in this child's mind--in Stephen's mind--what counts as "real" is constantly morphing.

Though Stephen initially begins by seeing fire on the wall, this first impression does not stand out as a baseline of reality for his future thoughts to be measured against. Rather, the appearance of the fire shifts into the appearance of waves; voices (supposedly human) are heard; the voices become the natural noise of the waves; then, finally, it seems possible to Stephen that the waves--half fire, half ocean--have voices and are communicating.

This scene provides an early taste for the often dreamlike textures and free-associative chains of thought which will really come to the fore in certain sections of the novel--even when Stephen is a young adult. 

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Chapter 2, Part 1 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Stephen Dedalus
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

As his summer back at home comes to a close and September arrives, Stephen's new gang of friends disbands and he's left to wander alone. As he's passing a group of other children playing, he becomes irritated by the noises they make and their "silly voices," remarking that they reinforce his sense of being different from others.

At a young age, Stephen already has a uniquely vibrant life of the mind. Instead of wanting to engage in the triviality and simpleness of children's play, he's bent on pursuing an intensely spiritual ambition--to find in the external world something that mirrors the most private and internal, "unsubstantial image" which his soul always beholds. He wants to attach the intangible and inexplicable passion of his soul to a real object in life, for this would not only support and satisfy that passion, but it would also give that passion a real, objective existence which he could observe in the outer world.

From the way this passage is narrated, we may reason that Stephen wouldn't actually be thinking in these abstract spiritual or philosophical terms, but rather that the narration is working to explain Steven's unconscious thought processes and motivations. For we read that Steven does "not know where [or how] to seek" the image of his soul's deep longing, but rather that an elusive, instinctual "premonition" leads him--almost unconsciously and beyond his control--towards something in life that will become a mirror to his soul.  

Chapter 2, Part 4 Quotes

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 sprung 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.

Related Characters: Stephen Dedalus
Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:

Stephen and his father, while visiting Queen's College, go to the anatomy theatre, where his father looks for his old initials on one of the desks. Upon seeing the word "Foetus" scratched onto one of the desks, Stephen has something like a panic attack.

This is a very interesting, but odd and complicated scene. The inscription "Foetus" makes something in the back of Stephen's mind spring to the foreground of his consciousness; he becomes incredibly close to himself in a way that is highly uncomfortable. Stephen discovers something in the external world that he had until that point "deemed [an] individual malady of his own mind." But now that "individual malady" (his own repressed sexuality and "sinful" thoughts) has manifested in the external world, right before his eyes. It's as if part of himself--a part that repulses him--has been ripped out from inside him and thrown into his face, such that he cannot avoid or run from it anymore.

"Foetus," envisioned as haphazardly scratched on a school desk, is a particularly morbid image--and it seems perverse that someone would feel inclined to scrawl it out like graffiti. Perhaps Stephen sees his own perversity in the inscription: he sees his own perversity as outside and in the world, and, therefore, as real--and not simply an isolated event in his mind. (The idea of the foetus also calls forward to Stephen's later ideas about "giving birth" to a work of art.)

In a way, this scene echoes back to the previous quote (the second) in which Stephen desires to find the "unsubstantial image" of his soul. It seems that Stephen has found something that might resemble the intensity of that image, here, in the word "Foetus" scrawled before him--but it's an infernal, anxiety-provoking image that brings terror, not transcendent euphoria. 

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.

Related Characters: Stephen Dedalus
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage occurs shortly after Stephen panics upon seeing the word "Foetus" in the anatomy theatre at Queen's College. Stephen and his father have left the theatre and are roaming the area around the campus.

Stephen's vision in the anatomy theatre revealed to him the severity of his way of thinking; it unmasked the intense extent to which repressed desire, dreaming and imagination--spurred by his spiritual longing and growing sexuality--have overtaken his thought processes. By "his monstrous way of life"--his extreme, desire-centered way of thinking about and viewing the world--he has lost touch with everyday reality. Nothing intrigues him or grabs his attention from the real world unless it directly reflects the "infuriated cries" within him, like the inscription "Foetus" did. He has lost his ability to tarry with and feel connected to the everyday world, which rarely, if ever, expresses the intensity and imagination of Stephen's mind. 

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.

Related Characters: Stephen Dedalus
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs shortly after the previous one. Stephen is roaming the area around Queen's College with his father; he's just had a severe bout of panic after seeing the word "Foetus" scratched on a desk in the anatomy theatre.

Stephen enters an extremely dissociated state after his panic. Walking with his father, his mind stops functioning normally: he can barely read any of the shop signs around them, and he can "scarcely recognise as his his own thoughts." He begins obsessively repeating to himself his name, where he is, and what he is doing. It's as if Stephen's concept of himself has been destroyed; the way he understands himself and his relationship to the external world has been disrupted, and therefore his control over his own thoughts seems to be slipping. By repeating his thoughts and reassuring himself about who and where he is, he hopes to regain stability. (This also echoes a scene from his childhood, where Stephen listed his position in the universe in ever expanding terms.)

Stephen's self-concept has, therefore, died, in a sense. "He had not died," in a physical sense, "but he faded out." Here, Stephen experiences a traumatic moment of detachment, of getting outside of himself. He feels as if he's been erased to a sheeny film upon the surface of the sun. It's as if he no longer exists, for his old way of comprehending his relation to the world has been swept out from under him; he's "lost" and cannot regain his footing. His existence in the social world around him has been erased. Alone with the vastness of the world and no longer tethered to the realm of human reality, it's as if Stephen doesn't exist at all.

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.

Related Characters: Stephen Dedalus
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

The passage occurs after--upon observing his father drink with his friends--Stephen realizes that he has never experienced such camaraderie or a sense of social bond as the men around him display.

Nothing of the conventional mannerisms and behaviors of the male social world--nothing of the "vigour of rude male health"--inspires and intrigues Stephen. Only a deep, internal and private "lust" that is "cold" and "cruel" in its intensity and isolation from the everyday, outer world--only this mysterious longing animates his psyche.

The nostalgia of Stephen's childhood has withered entirely--and with that, his capacity for "simple joys" that do not invoke the most intimate passions of his soul. His thought is not soothed or relaxed by the trivialities and rehearsed performances of everyday social life; the social world of stereotypical, masculine indelicacy offers nothing to Stephen. His soul, therefore, is something that drifts from one social scene to the next, never at home in a particular place--like the moon which never stays in one place, and revolves around a center it can never touch (also an echo of Shelley's phrase describing the moon as "wandering companionless"--a verse Stephen will frequently think of).

Chapter 3, Part 1 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Stephen Dedalus
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage occurs when we read that Stephen is planning to visit an area where prostitutes typically work. He has recently had sex for the first time (with a prostitute), and now he again wants to visit the prostitutes' quarter of town. After the brief passage where these plans are narrated, we suddenly move to a page of Stephen's "scribbler," where an equation he's writing is growing larger and larger.

The fact that "it"--the equation--"was his own soul going forth to experience" suggests the immediacy Stephen feels the equation has with his psyche. Stephen sees the trajectory, rhythm, and psychological patterning of his own desire as symbolically unfolding in the structure of the equation. The equation goes forth towards experience: its variables are given input values, then it unfolds itself, being solved and simplified. 

The movement of the equation has a notably sexual, phallic structure, which says something about the movement of Stephen's soul or--the same thing--how his desire unfolds. Steven's desire goes forth into experience, expands with the particular values of the world, then reaches an apex where his soul and the external world meet--like when an equation (the soul) is solved given particular input values (external stimuli from the outer world)--and then folds back upon itself and "fades" into a simplified form. 

Further, the passage that precedes this quote is so abstract and dreamlike, and intermingled with references other than mathematics--such as a peacock's tail expanding, the "cycle of starry life," music, the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley--that we might understand this scene to be not depicting a concrete event (i.e., Stephen writing an equation), but rather symbolizing some deep structure common to the different, "real" moments of Stephen's life.

A cold lucid indifference reigned in is soul. At his first violent sin he had felt a wave of vitality pass out of him and had feared to find his body or his soul maimed by the excess. Instead the vital wave had carried him on its bosom out of himself and back again when it receded: and no part of body or soul had been maimed but a dark peace had been established between them.

Related Characters: Stephen Dedalus
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

This occurs shortly after the last quote, just after we read about the equation in Stephen's "scribbler."

Stephen had expected his "first violent sin"--his first time having sex--to lure part of his innermost being and soul out of him and into the physical world, to the extent that his soul would be injured by over-stretching itself ("maimed by the excess"). In the sense of sex, this would be the physical exertion of an internal energy and desire, or "wave of vitality." Stephen had anticipated that this would overextend the contours of his soul, but finds instead that he's left with a "cold lucid indifference." For, instead of expanding within the boundaries of Stephen's soul, the sinful expenditure of the wave of vitality carried him "out of himself and back again when it receded."

This journey out of, and back into, himself, could therefore only leave behind an "indifference," not a pain--for it did not over-flex the borders of his soul, therefore avoiding injury, but also bringing with it no true joy or enlightenment.

Chapter 3, Part 3 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Stephen Dedalus
Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage narrates Stephen's thoughts as he walks to the chapel to confess that he's committed sin (fornication).

Here, Stephen is fundamentally questioning the nature of his relationship to his own sexuality. The serpent, serving as a phallic metaphor for the male sex organ, gives an image to the base, earthly, "bestial" quality which Stephen associates with his sexuality. "But what does that part of the body understand," the narrator asks--underscoring the divide between Stephen's physical body and soul--for the physical mechanism of the male sex organ seems to operate separately from the psyche/soul, separately from conscious control.

Stephen wonders, therefore, how he is related to that sexual mechanism which is separate from what he identifies as "himself." "Was that then he" or something "inhuman" moved by a separate, "lower" soul? Stephen is disgusted by this thought--that another source of life, fundamentally different than him, is attached to his body in an almost parasitic fashion, siphoning Stephen's energy for its own foreign, sexual means, and "fattening upon the slime of lust."

Instead of considering the autonomy of his sexual organs to be controlled by unconscious, physiological functions that are instinctual and morally neutral, Stephen assigns the genitalia an infernal quality.

Chapter 4, Part 2 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Stephen Dedalus
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

Having devoted himself to a highly restrained and pious lifestyle, Stephen has been so exemplary in his religious studies that he has caught the attention of the director at Belvedere. This passage occurs after Stephen has been encouraged to join the priesthood.

When faced with the reality of becoming a priest, however, Stephen recoils. He has obsessively submitted himself to his faith and found a kind of peace, distancing himself from his sinful and guilt-ridden past, but the prospect of taking his new way of living to the next level--to the "grave and ordered and passionless life" of being a priest--suddenly unsettles him.

The narrator describes a profound "instinct" in Stephen that is "stronger than education or piety"--that's not a direct product of his religious education--and which propels him to decline any future as a priest. This instinct seems to be something that stems purely from Stephen's psyche or soul--an instinct that isn't mediated by the wishes or concerns of others. It seems that the appearance and heeding of this instinct is the first instance of Stephen's mature independence as a thinker and creative artist.

Chapter 4, Part 3 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Stephen Dedalus
Page Number: 150
Explanation and Analysis:

Following shortly after the previous quote, this passage occurs after Stephen's epiphany about Daedalus and the sight of the winged flying form.

For the first time in his life, Stephen has seemingly pierced through the veil of external social influences ("the dull gross voice of the world of duties") and forged his own unique relationship with life. The "call of life" beckons his soul in this epiphany--and not the mere hollow, "inhuman" and lifelessly authoritative voice that had encouraged him to become a priest.

Stephen is reborn as something independent of religion, nationality, and family. Acceding in a moment of ecstasy--in "an instant of wild flight" out of himself--to the individual connection he has with the world around him, he realizes the capacity for his creativity, for his soul's inborn relationship with external reality and his ensuing ability to, with an artistic authenticity, speak about it.

Chapter 5, Part 4 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Stephen Dedalus (speaker)
Page Number: 218
Explanation and Analysis:

This is the second-to-last entry of the diary which makes up the last section of the novel, and the famous finale to Joyce's first masterpiece.

Here, Stephen courageously welcomes forth the force of life and reality to which (he believes) he must wholly submit his soul in order to create, within himself, the "uncreated conscience" of his race (that is, the Irish). This is an incredible declaration. Stephen approaches reality and external experience as if it is to impregnate him with the seeds of his creation; further, this creation is to serve the needs of his people, of his "race." He must create the "uncreated conscience"--whether this means moral or aesthetic--that Ireland lacks, even as he physically exiles himself from Ireland itself.

Stephen invokes the "old artificer"--referencing Daedalus, the ingenious craftsmen of Greek mythology who is also, seemingly, Stephen's namesake--as a power that can give him strength to fulfill his task. There's almost a sense that Stephen is going to war with his creation--as if he's bracing himself for the brunt of the reality to which he must submit himself in order to bring his art into existence. The symbol of the "old artificer" provides a certain armor for Stephen's thinking--by envisioning himself as a masterful craftsman, and also as being prophetically linked to the mythological character, Stephen bolsters his sense of destiny and purpose, and therefore his approach to the reality which he must ingest and transmute into art.