Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Themes

Entrapment and Constraint

Stephen eventually comes to see Ireland as a kind of trap, a restraint that will make it impossible for him to live and create. Three major bonds threaten: family, nation, and the Church. Stephen's family, increasingly destitute, is a source of frustration and guilt. He can do nothing to help them, and the continued ineptitude of his father exasperates Stephen. Though his father is an ardent nationalist, Stephen has great anxieties about Irish politics. He finds the Irish people fickle and ultimately disloyal; at one point, he says to a friend that the Irish have never had a great leader whom they did not betray or abandon. He also rebels against the nature of activities like petition-signing and protest; in his mind, these activities amount to an abdication of independence. At the same time, he leaves Ireland hoping to forge the new conscience of his race.


The Church is perhaps the greatest constraint on Stephen, and merits its own entry. The teachings of the Church run contrary to Stephen's independent spirit and intellect. His sensitivity to beauty and the human body are not at all suitable to the rigid Catholicism in which he was raised. But the Church continues to exert some small hold on him. Although he eventually becomes an unbeliever, he continues to have some fear that the Catholic Church might be correct. Despite his fears, he eventually chooses to live independently and without constraint, even if that decision sends him to hell.


Escape is the natural complement to the theme of Entrapment and Constraint. Joyce depicts escape metaphorically by the book's most important symbol and allusion: the mythical artificer Dedalus. Dedalus is not at all an Irish name; Joyce took the name from the mythical inventor who escaped from his island prison by constructing wings and flying to his freedom. Stephen, too, will eventually escape from the island prison of Ireland.


Closely related to the above theme, Stephen's move towards independence is one of the central movements of the novel. When we first encounter Stephen as a young boy, his athletic ineptitude and sensitive nature make him an easy target for bullies. He is a rather shy and awkward boy. The contrast with the university student Stephen could not be greater. The older Stephen is fiercely independent, willing to risk eternal damnation to pursue his destiny. He is not cowed by anyone, and he will pursue life as an artist no matter what the cost.

Beauty, Sensitivity, and Imagination

What begins as sensitivity and imagination in the child Stephen eventually evolves into a near-obsessive contemplation of beauty and the mechanics of art. Even as a child, young Stephen is a extraordinarily imaginative and sensitive boy. Eventually, these strong but unarticulated feelings take shape as a passion for the arts. In Chapter 5, Stephen has developed a theory of aesthetics that is quite sophisticated for a university student; he thinks carefully and thoroughly about beauty and the power of art, and knows that he can do nothing else but pursue the life of a poet and writer.