A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

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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.
Literature and Life Theme Icon

Since earliest childhood, novels and poems help Stephen make sense of the world around him. From the very first scene of the novel, in which infant Stephen creates a little rhyme from Dante’s threat that “eagles will come and pull out his eyes,” words shape and brighten Stephen’s experience. The sounds of words puzzle and enlighten him, and novels like The Count of Monte Christo help him shape his adolescent identity. At times, beautiful phrases from poems thrill him as much as real romantic experiences.

Yet, though Stephen’s inner experience melds art and life, Stephen the young poet and aesthete believes there must exist a great distance between them: he imagines art as the vapory spirit soaring high over the city of the real. Drawing on the philosophy of Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas, Stephen decides that art must inspire only philosophical abstractions about emotions, “ideal pity or terror,” but not real emotions themselves – he thinks passions like love and anger are too lowly for art. In his own poetry, he omits random or unsavory detail in favor of high romantic abstraction. “Excrement or a child or a louse” finds no place in his art. Joyce’s novel itself, of course, includes everything Stephen omits: passion, crudeness, dirt, randomness, contradiction. The novel itself gently mocks and refutes Stephen’s youthful theories – theories that once belonged, perhaps, to the young Joyce himself.

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Literature and Life 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 Literature and Life.
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. 

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Chapter 4, Part 3 Quotes

Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language manycoloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?

Related Characters: Stephen Dedalus
Page Number: 148
Explanation and Analysis:

Brimming with independence and possibility after declining his offer to become a priest--and growing impatient after waiting an hour for his father to return from a meeting with a tutor at Trinity College--Stephen sets off for a walk, at which point this quote occurs.

Thinking of the phrase "A day of dappled seaborne clouds," Stephen delights in how it harmonizes with the day and the scene he is observing. He then wonders what, exactly, it is about words that delights him so much. Having moved on from his strict religious lifestyle, this is one of the first purely artistic and poetic considerations with which we see Stephen engage.

Does he enjoy the pure rhythm of words, or the metaphorical meanings generated by their "associations of legend and colour?" Or does he not care at all about language in either sense--both of which value words as things that represent external phenomena of the world? (In these senses words would do this by reflecting the "glowing sensible world through the prism of language," by either creating an effect which resembles the cyclic time and pacing of the external world--rhythm--or by associating different elements of the external world in order to metaphorically create meaning.) Does he derive less pleasure from these activities of words--which reflect the external world in language--than from using words to explore "an inner world of individual emotions?"

Whatever the answer is, we see Stephen grappling here, jovially but seriously, for the first time, with a purely aesthetic inquiry, and moving towards his artistic epiphany.

Was [the flying form] a symbol of the artist forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable being? … His soul was soaring in an air beyond the world and the body he knew was purified in a breath and delivered of incertitude and made radiant and commingled with the element of the spirit.

Related Characters: Stephen Dedalus
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

Occurring shortly after the last quote, and on the same walk born out of Stephen's impatience for his father, this passage describes a breathtaking moment in the relationship between Stephen's body and soul.

Upon seeing a "winged form flying above the waves,"  Stephen asks what symbolic meaning it might have for his life. Here, we see Steven beginning to read his environment as if it were a work of literature--as if it were a book about his involvement, his destiny, in the greater scheme of life.

His initial question about the symbolic significance of the flying form turns into a series of questions which leads him to an epiphanic moment of ecstasy: having aligned his own sense of purpose and destiny with an external event in life (the flying form), Stephen achieves a sense of oneness that propels his soul forth into a flight beyond the sensible world. The body, left behind, becomes "purified" and infiltrated with the "element of spirit." It's as if Stephen's body, devoid of the soul which usually weighs it down and inhabits it, is emptied only to be filled with whatever remains after the soul is displaced: a spirit that expunges all of Stephen's incertitude about the rapidly unfurling manifestation of his destiny, about the unity of his internal vision with the external symbol of the flying form.

Going back to one of the first quotes in this selection (#2), we can see here that Stephen's desire for the "unsubstantial image" of his soul to be reflected in a real object in life has been achieved (and indeed, the "flying form" reflects the mythical figure of Daedalus, Stephen's namesake). The result is a poetic ecstasy that verifies what was formerly merely an instinct of Stephen's--his decision to leave the church and pursue an artistic path.

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 1 Quotes

The feelings excited by improper art are kinetic, desire or loathing. Desire urges us to possess, to go to something; loathing urges us to abandon, to go from something. These are kinetic emotions. The arts which excite them, pornographical or didactic, are therefore improper arts. The esthetic emotion (I use the general term) is therefore static. The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing.

Related Characters: Stephen Dedalus (speaker)
Page Number: 179
Explanation and Analysis:

Walking and conversing with Lynch, Stephen here offers his opinions on aesthetic philosophy.

Proper art, for Stephen, does not get caught up in the binaries of desire vs. loathing, or attraction-to vs. repulsion-from. These, being "kinetic emotions," are improper because they fail to fundamentally change and "arrest" the viewing mind, to send the mind beyond the simplicity of binary thinking into a more transcendent state of reflection. Higher, proper art, does just that (according to Stephen's theory). Because this latter kind of art doesn't inspire a movement-towards or a springing-back in the viewing mind, but rather leads the mind to be "raised above desire and loathing," above forwardness and backwardness, it's called "static." The static arts keep the mind in one place, but simultaneously change its point of view--inspiring a feeling that can only be brought about by pure artistic beauty.

Here, Stephen's new fascination with aesthetic philosophy shines through in his relationship to his peers. The topic of the relation between the mind and the work of art is incredibly important to him. It's not just an empty, intellectual topic for him, but something incredibly real. In a way, all his life he has been concerned with the the mind and art, or the mind and something beautiful outside of it. This fascination dates back to the visceral desire of his childhood to find the "unsubstantial image" of his soul reflected in the external world. Most recently, we see this fascination grip him when he challenges himself to be open to the "flying winged form" as an external symbol of his destiny--an openness which results in a transcendent ecstasy proper to the power of "static" art.

As is usual in Portrait, however, stepping outside of Stephen's consciousness is necessary to fully appreciate the work. While Joyce presents this as one valid aesthetic theory, it is also one he pokes fun at (through the very nature of Stephen's pretentious lecturing) and that he clearly doesn't always adhere to himself. While Stephen seeks to create art that is entirely removed from both that which is appealing and that which is repulsive, in his Modernist approach to revealing life in all its aspects, Joyce embraces the "pornographic," the "didactic," and the purely "proper" art of Stephen's "aesthetic arrest."

… though the same object may not seem beautiful to all people, all people who admire a beautiful object find in it certain relations which satisfy and coincide with the stages themselves of all esthetic apprehension. These relations of the sensible, visible to you through one form and to me through another, must be therefore the necessary qualities of beauty.

Related Characters: Stephen Dedalus (speaker)
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

Following shortly after the previous quote, Stephen says this in continued conversation with Lynch.

Here, Stephen's studious involvement with aesthetic philosophy is further revealed. Stephen is defending a philosophical view which claims that beauty can be defined universally, or, in other words, that such a thing as "absolute" or "pure" beauty is real, and that its reality or existence is not contradicted by the fact that two or more individuals can disagree about whether the same piece of artwork is beautiful or not. Just because two individuals may view the same work of art differently--one finding it beautiful and the other not--does not contradict the possibility that absolute beauty exists. For, as Stephen's reasoning implies, whenever anyone views something as beautiful, though one person views beauty in form X and the other in form Y, "beauty" has nonetheless appeared equally to the two people, despite the different material forms in which it appeared.

That Stephen has come to understand beauty in this abstract sense--its definition removed from the particular forms of art, but dependent instead upon the quality of an individual's relationship to an artwork--suggests the potential complexity and richness of his new mental life as an artist. Further, it displays his (still adolescent and rather selfish) desire to remain detached from established social orders; by defining beauty as something which is not definable in terms of individual taste, he refuses to align himself with a rigid school of thought or artistic order that defines beauty in terms of concrete particulars, but instead insists on his own individual, independent theory.

Chapter 5, Part 3 Quotes

I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning.

Related Characters: Stephen Dedalus (speaker)
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

Stephen, out on a walk with Cranly, offers this response when Cranly asks if he would ever deflower a virgin.

Dodging the question, and thereby avoiding having to admit his prior sins of sexual impurity, Stephen nonetheless replies with a kind of roundabout truth and dignity. Growing tired of Cranly's meticulous, particular questions about what he believes and what sins he would or would not commit--as if these were sufficient to unmask the whole of his character--Stephen gives this reply. He doesn't say what he would or wouldn't do in terms of concrete particulars, but rather in terms of principle. Stephen will no longer abide by belief systems and authorities with which he disagrees--regardless if they claim to be integral to his heritage. Further, he will dedicate himself to artistically expressing himself as freely as possible, using only his wits to defend his vision.

Having assumed the role of an artist--with its principled yet open and broad manner of thinking--Stephen shapes his response in a way that preserves the mystique of his character. Although Stephen, almost immediately after, admits to Cranly: "you made me confess to you," he never confirms in straightforward language what, exactly, he's confessed. Stephen may be interpreted as 1. either silently nodding to Cranly in the affirmative (that yes, he would deflower a virgin--but would never explicitly say it), 2. as mocking the efficacy of Cranly's interrogation process, since all that Steven explicitly confessed were his general principles of living, or 3. as admitting that his various principles of living (which include such often "negative" ideas as "exile" and "cunning") constitute a kind of confession.

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.