A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
The idea behind Portrait is fairly simple: to focalize on the development of a writer from childhood to maturity, paying particular attention to scenes that show the way in which his mind works in relation to words. That is the simple structure of Portrait and Joyce stuck to it perfectly, never leaving Steven’s side as he developed and teasing out those moments where Steven grapples with the fools of his art: from him tuning songs into his songs, to dealing with fear through creating a poem, to the pondering the many meanings of the word belt, to thinking about the onomatopoeic nature of language because of the word suck and its queer sound, which are on pages 1, 2, 3, and four of the book, the first four scene of the book. By sticking to these moments so well, Joyce creates the esthetic quality Steven expresses at the end of the book, “The esthetic image is first luminously apprehended as self-bound and self-contained, upon the immeasurable background of space and time which it is not. You apprehend it as one thing. You see it as one whole. You apprehend its wholeness.” That is the art of a painted portrait, a very self-aware, selective art, and Joyce applies those principles to his Portrait, a portrait of Steven, an artist of words. He makes this clear from the first line of the novel, “Once upon a time,” which indicates that the self-conscious story is being told, then with, “That was his story…He was baby tuckoo,” it is indicated that it is Steven’s story, that we will follow the classic storyline of watching him grapple with something and winning, and we see what he will grapple with immediately thereafter with, “That had a queer smell./His mother had a nicer smell.” He will grapple with the meaning and power of language throughout the novel, as he does throughout this first scene, trying to figure out the association between things, and the meanings he gives them with his words.
But this portrait is not of an abstract idea of an artist, as I have said, it is a portrait of Steve, a very specific artist, embodied in the young man Steven Deadalus. And thus it is also the portrait of a young man, and as such, it also deals with the elements that carry him from childhood to maturity as a man, as well as an artist. Those elements, as the book self-consciously asserts from the beginning with its twinning imigary of red and green, are expressed by Steven, again at the end of the book, as family, nationality, and religion. The meat of the novel lied in the relationship of these two ideas – the portrait of the artist, and the portrait of a young man – in how those conflict and are reconciled by the hero, Steven, how they are portrayed by him through the novel, like the inner and outer elements of a man somehow reconciled and captured in a painted portrait. How is that done, and how does it reflect on the painted are the questions Steven and the book are constantly grappling with.
This theme is most clearly first explored in Steven’s humiliation at not being able to answer the question, “Do you kiss your mother before you go to bed?” First he truthfully answers yes, but is laughed at, so he lies and says not, and is still laughed at. This is humiliating for him because he has exhausted his linguistic ability and still hasn’t found the right answer. But he cannot win this battle with linguistic ability alone, he needs education and an understanding of religion and ethics so that he can deal with the larger question at hand: “Is it right to kiss you mother before you go to bed.” Instead of addressing that, he thinks on the queer nature of the word kiss. This intrigue with language cannot solve his problems of the first chapter, that he does not see that words are often representing more complex issues, namely that of truth. That is the theme of book one, and we see it dealt with on all through all three that form Steven as a young man. We see that he is grappling with this as he constantly ponders his place in the universe starting with his name, which represents his family, his homeland, and then the universe with only God can comprehend. But as young Steven says, “If you think about something you can come to understand it.” And so Steven comes to understand that words can mean larger ideas, and sometimes those larger ideas can be false, even if represented through pious words. He comes to realize this in the climax episode of book one, when he is paddled by the priest unjustly, and succeeds in realizing that is was unjust. Like a child, at first he blames himself, saying, “He began to wonder whether it might not really be that there was something in his face which made him look like a schemer and he wished he had a little mirror to see it.” But he moves beyond this, realizing what his father had wept about at the table, which was paralyzing his country, that the church was not always right, saying, “The priest of studies was a priest but that was cruel and unfair.”
In book two we learn that Steven tried to write a poem about that Parnell fight, and we see him beginning to struggle with those ideas that bother him with his words. “Words which he did not understand he said over and over to himself till he had learned them by heart: and through them he had glimpses of the real world about him.” But the world he sees frightens him. It frightens him because he sees the things he detests about himself, the things he knows are immoral, in the outer world. This is most obvious in the scene where his father finds the word fetus written where he hoped to find his initials, Steven’s initials. This disturbs him immensely, and from that single word he creates a vision that disturbs him even more – that of a swarthy boy carving that word into the desk while the other students laughed about him – and he is chilled by the negative power of his imagination. “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.” But Steven’s instinct is not to condemn someone because of their immorality, as we see with his preference in poetry, liking Byron more than Tennyson despite Byron’s being called a heretic. This is a parallel to the Parnell debate of book one. In book two Steven grapples with applying his moral judgment which differs from the churches to himself as well as others. Like in every book, he starts off incapable of achieving the goal necessary for his development, but matures throughout until he can. He does so in this book through recalling his childhood hallucination of dying, “But he had not died then. Parnell had died.” By ruminating on this he realizes that he was like Parnell, and like he sees Parnell not damned for his action, he realizes that he will not be damned for acting on his action and has sex with a prostitute. “Give me a kiss,” she says, and then Steven understands the meaning of the word that first puzzled him a little bit better.”
But, like in the third acts of Shakespeare plays, this all changes in Book 3 when Steven goes on a retreat like that in “Grace” from the dead. And despite saying at the beginning of the book, “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 upon itself, fading slowly quenching its own lights and fires. They were quenched: and the cold darkness filled chaos,” showing that he realizes that a cold darkness can explain the inconsistencies of his childish mind, he turns from that back to the dogma of the church, which has a hindering division of good and evil. We even see a bit of the usuary theme of “Grace” in the speech that converts Steven, as the priest says, “You will never be worth one farthing to God.”
In book 4 we see Steven accepting the opposite answer to moral question of kissing ones mother goodnight than he took in book 2, as he says, “His eyes shunned every encounter with the eyes of women.” At the beginning of this book he is totally ensnared by the nets of family, nationality, and religion, but at the end of it, he manages to fly by those nets with his art. As he says, “The snares of the world were its ways of sin. He would fall. He had not yet fallen but he would fall silently, in an instant. Not to fall was too hard, too hard: and he felt the silent lapse of his soul, as it would be at some instant to come, falling, falling but not yet fallen, still unfallen but about to fall,” like Icharus soaring into the sun. But that fall he’s pondering gave knowledge and was survived, unlike Icharus’s fall, and so his fall gives him the knowledge to create. As the beautiful girl inspires his soul to swoon again, he realizes that artist must be voyers to that part of the world other hide.
In Book 5 we see Steven doing this. We see him criticizing the religion for giving into the marketplace too much. We see him criticizing his country for being too inseparable from its religion. And we see him criticizing his family for being too close to both. He takes the ultimate fall, damning them, and this time with pride, unlike at the end of book one. And, as he’s about to leave Ireland, he speaks the illusive line, “I will fly by those nets.” Of course, with the portrait Joyce has drawn for us, we can see that by means “by means of” because those nets are inseparable from Steven’s art. And that is the final creshendo of which Steven says completes his ethic quality – the last reverberations preceeded by similar but lesser earlier creshendo’s, and the book self-conciously ends.