A portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce goes down in history as one of the most excellent books of literature. Although there are other characters in the book, the story is centered on Stephen Dedalus. He is raised in a staunch catholic home by his father, mother, Uncle Charles and Aunt Dante.
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Other minor characters in the book are Stephen’s friends, the priests and Emma. Religion plays an important role in the book. It is a symbol of the state of Ireland during that period. Growing up, Stephen is dedicated to following the beliefs of the church. Later on, the protagonist rebels from his religion and adopts an extremely dangerous lifestyle of drinking and uniting his body with prostitutes.
After hearing the speech of a priest he cleans up his act and becomes extremely devoted to his religion again. The extreme lifestyle that Stephen adopts forces him to make a stand about his life. As the book comes to the end, we see Stephen moving on to a life of liberty outside Ireland (Joyce 247).
The most unique aspect of the book is the author’s innovative use of sense to describe the thoughts and feelings of the character. The author takes us on a journey of the transformation of the character’s mind. All the developments are internal. It is difficult to comprehend where conversation starts or ends due to lack of quotation inscription in the entire book (Joyce 6).
The senses capture how his mind develops from the thinking of a susceptible child who is pushed around by a bully to a defiant young man who wants nothing to do with his religion. The conflict in his mind between the search for fulfillment in his gifting and pleasing his family is drawn out using sense. What Stephen hears, sees, touches, smells and tastes affects how his mind responds to life.
Sense is illustrated by what Stephen hears from his parents, relatives, governess, priests and friends. The story begins with Mr. Dedalus singing to his son (Joyce 7). Music is presented ubiquitously in the backdrop of the story. His mother also played the piano so he could dance.
At the same time, the conversations that Stephen heard at family dinners influenced his upbringing. During Christmas break, he was allowed to eat with the adults. At dinner, an argument erupted between his father and Aunt Dante; this argument exposed the young boy to politics (Joyce 31).
In the same sitting, his father forgot his presence at the table and spoke bad language. Furthermore, the words that Stephen heard from Aunt Dante had great influence on him. When Stephen expressed a desire to marry Eileen their protestant neighbor, his mother and aunt were very furious. Aunt Dante threatened that if Stephen did not apologize then the eagles would pluck off his eyes. This statement frightened the young boy.
Stephen reflected on the lyrics and tunes of different song throughout the story. His attitude and his thoughts are influenced by the words of the several songs. For example, as he was thinking about whether he should be part of Jesuits, he is dazed at how the local priest acts in response to a song playing from the road.
What he heard and saw made him realize that he could not become a priest (Joyce 80). In the last chapter, Stephen’s determination to find purpose through writing is reinforced. He feels a sense of peace when he hears a song done by a certain woman (Joyce 260). The words of the song prompt him to follow his decision to leave his country and pursue his talent.
Vision plays a significant role in the mind of the protagonist. The images that Stephen sees affect his interaction with his father. When his father gazes at him through a glass, he looks like his face is covered with hair. This picture makes Stephen realize that he is losing his connection with his father.
Likewise, in the first chapter, there are two colors mentioned that are symbolic of influential people in the Irish nationalist movement. These colors are green and maroon. It is fascinating how the character commits to memory seeing Aunt Dante tearing the green part off while telling him that the leader is a terrible man. This incidence was followed by constant argument between his father and his aunty about politics (Joyce 20). When he later sees the color green together with maroon in a map he is confused as he tries to take sides.
As a child, Stephen’s visual understanding of color is also tested in a math contest. In this competition there are two opposing teams red and white. What he sees represents conflict. During his struggle to find a balance in his religious life, he sees a young woman walking along the beach.
The picture of this woman represents righteousness. He therefore makes a resolution to celebrate his existence and appreciate mankind. Another example is the picture of a skull he sees in church. The skull is a representation of the death of Christ. The skull relates the sacrifice of Christ to the priesthood calling.
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Similarly, the sense of vision is strongly demonstrated when the Dedalus family shifts to Dublin. Stephen contrasts the clean countryside they had left with the dirty city full of scum. In chapter five, Stephen watches birds flying from the university library and relates it to freedom (Joyce 250).
He observes the outline created by birds in the sky and imagines what the future holds for him. Vision is once again demonstrated in chapter two; Stephen is frustrated as he observes his family’s financial position going downhill. Likewise, he is depressed that his uncle can no longer walk with him because his body is growing frail.
Touch has been used in the book to demonstrate emotional and physical feelings. When he woke up sick after being pushed in a pool of dirty water, the prefect felt his forehead to verify that he was sick. His forehead felt hot and damp (Joyce 13). Both physical and emotional pain is expressed by the character in school.
He thought the school prefect would be understanding and shake his hands after he was excused from class. However, the prefect gave him a beating instead. Stephen was disappointed, humiliated and frustrated by this turn of events. Another good example of emotional feeling is shown following Stephen’s rebellion; he listens to a sermon that causes him to think about his eternity as a sinner. He experiences fear when he thinks about the consequences of the sins he had committed.
To show how repentant he was, Stephen exercised disciplines such as carrying rosary beads in his pocket so he could feel them as he went about his duties. Touch is shown in chapter two when the young Dedalus spends time with his father moving from one bar to another. He is ashamed at how his father’s drinking has made him disconnect with realism. Similarly, this feeling of failure drives him to spend the night with a prostitute after he realizes that his prize money was not enough to bring his family together.
In the initial sections of the book, smell is used to depict the affection of a young boy. Stephen reveals how his mother’s scent was nicer than his father. As a child he also remembers wetting his bed and the smell of the oil sheet his mother put on his bed whenever he wet his bed.
Additionally, the sense of smell has been used to bring out the feeling Stephen had when he was about to be sick after being thrown in a pool by the school bully. The water was cold, filthy and smelly. Amazingly, the smell of his first Christian dinner was engraved in his mind.
The smell of turkey and celery made him feel so happy (Joyce 15). In addition, Stephen was able to distinguish the smell in the chapel and the smell of the old deprived people who knelt at the church during mass. The sense of smell is illustrated in chapter three when the preacher described hell as a stinking prison full of demons.
Food was used as a distraction during dinner. Mr. Dedalus forgot that his son was sitting by the table and was about to use improper language. On realizing his mistake he responded by heaping food on Stephen’s plate and serving the rest large portions of turkey.
The sense of taste is moreover illustrated in chapter three, Stephen is in class daydreaming about the delicious food he desired to have after school. His thoughts were focused on the tasty mutton stew served with potatoes and carrots. The final example of taste is exemplified in the last chapter. Stephen is frustrated with the financial state of his family after eating a poor meal.
The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is centered on the development of the mind of Stephen Dedalus from a young susceptible boy to a strong willed man. Sense has been used to describe the thoughts going through the mind of the character. These senses include; hearing, seeing, touch, smell and taste.
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Hertfordshire: The Egoist ltd, 1992.