A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Theme Analysis

Finding Ones True Path in Life
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is an example of a Bildungsroman, a German term describing a story of the education and intellectual growth of a young man. More specifically, the novel is a Kunstleroman (literally, “artist-novel”), that traces the growth to maturity of a writer or artist.
Growing up in Roman Catholic Ireland, Stephen Dedalus must discover his own path in life. It is not satisfactory for him merely to follow the pattern of life laid out for him by family, religion, and culture. As a boy he attends two Jesuit schools, Clongowes Wood College and Belvedere College, where the doctrines of the Catholic faith are drummed into him. The weight of the indoctrination is so great that for a while he seems destined for a career in the church. He studies hard and shows excessive piety, much of which is a reaction to the sense of guilt and shame he feels (encouraged by Father Arnalls terrifying lectures on hell) after going on several visits to the Dublin brothels.
But Stephen is born to be not a priest but a writer. The clues are there very early in his life. Even as a young boy, he feels the power of language. When he imagines a church bell tolling, he recites over and over again to himself the words of a song he has been taught. At the line “Bury me in the old churchyard,” “A tremor passed over his body. How sad and how beautiful! He wanted to cry quietly but not for himself: for the words, so beautiful and sad, like music” (p. 22). Here is a boy with an unusual sensitivity to words, as yet of course undeveloped and sentimental but clearly present.
Another telling moment comes early in Stephens career at Clongowes. He is aware of all the different pressures on him about how to shape his own life: he must be a good gentleman and a loyal Catholic, he must dedicate himself to the revival of Ireland, for example. But none of this means much to Stephen: “He gave them ear only for a time but he was happy only when he was far from them, beyond their call, alone or in the company of phantasmal comrades” (p. 89). Stephen has no firm idea of what he wants to do with his life, but he already exhibits an independence from the pressure of the expectations of others. The most important things in his life are the inner realities he feels but can not yet fully articulate. While he is still as Belvedere, for example, he realizes that “Besides the savage desire within him to realise the enormities which he brooded on nothing was sacred” (p. 105).
It is only when he attends University College in Dublin that he realizes his destiny. He rejects the church and loses his religious faith. This disappoints his mother, who exhibits a conventional piety and expects Stephen to follow it. But Stephen now realizes that he must reject his familys expectations for him if he is to be true to himself. His fathers advice, always to mix with gentlemen, is of no value to him, and eventually he and his father become almost strangers.
Stephen also resists pressures from his student friends to become involved in political issues. He shows no interest in Irish nationalism, and indeed has a low opinion of the Irish because they have allowed themselves to be dominated by foreigners-the English dominate them politically, and spiritually they are dominated by the Roman Catholic church, with its authority based in Rome.
Stephen knows that he must strike out as an independent spirit, true to the inner promptings of his artistic instincts. Rather than accepting what is presented to him from family, culture and religion, he must create something new out of the materials of his own experience of life, and these must conform to his definition of beauty. He knows that any other influence will just pull him away from his true calling, and it is his duty to resist it. He is quite prepared to go into exile and live a lonely life as long as he can manifest his artistic vision. His goal is “To discover the mode of life or of art whereby [his] spirit could express itself in unfettered freedom” (p. 267).