James Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is often regarded as a search for true identity. The protagonist of this story is Stephen Dedalus who comes from an Irish Catholic family and whose parents often experience financial problems. Stephen grows into an alienated unsociable person who questions the flawed world and unfriendly society; he leaves his family and becomes an artist in order to express his sufferings in his works. It can be seen from this novel that the author attributes alienation and isolation from the world to the artists only; he describes Stephen as possessing namely these features. In this novel, Joyce discloses the nature of the human identity taking Stephen as an example. He points at the factors which shape human identity and shows the influence of these factors on the individual’s life; nevertheless, Stephen’s contradictory identity and his isolation from the rest of the society are not unique to the artists only because his unfortunate experiences are typical for any individual.
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To begin with, Stephen’s example testifies to the fact that certain factors influence the formation of the human identity. One of the most important factors was Stephen’s strict Catholic upbringing. His parents, especially his mother, were devout Catholics, and religion, as it is known, teaches to have hope for the better, regardless of all the tribulations. Faith has changed the lives of a number of people and its effect on identity formation is unquestionable. It was namely faith that turned Stephen into an obedient person unable to protect himself for when he had to fight for his own hand, he always heard the “voices of his father and of his masters, urging him to be a gentleman above all things and urging him to be a good catholic above all things” (Joyce and Hammer 92). As a child, Stephen was often a target for bullies at school and his inability to use force made him even more socially awkward. Namely, these factors contributed to Stephen’s becoming a contradictory individual and his doubts concerning the choice between the religious and artistic way of life.
Under the influence of these factors, Stephen became isolated from society and devoted himself to art. The novel depicts what being the artist is all about. It emphasizes Stephen’s intention to “forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race” (Joyce and Hammer, p. 253) because he believed that his community turned him into what he was. Giving the voice to his community in his artistic works, Stephen realized that it has always been a part of him for it has shaped his identity. Namely, the community with its religious devotion, family commitment, and political involvement made Stephen refuse it and separate from society. Moreover, it was the community and the religion of the community that turned him into an alienated individual and that made him so sensitive to the imperfections of the world. This led to his decision to go into exile and made him eager to express his dissatisfaction with the world through art.
However, though Stephen is an isolated figure, this does not mean that the struggles which he experiences are unique to the artists only. Joyce portrays him as a typical angst-driven, self-important, and misunderstood soul. These features alone do not qualify Stephen as an artist. They simply show that unhappy experiences in childhood may ruin the person’s identity and turn him/her into an isolated individual. Any person whose identity has been shaped improperly may possess these features, but this person will not necessarily become an artist. Stephen did not seem to be concerned with his alienation from the society: “He turned to appease the fierce longings of his heart before which everything else was idle and alien. He cared little that … his life had grown to be a tissue of subterfuge and falsehood” (Joyce and Hammer 107). This means that the abovementioned qualities characterize him as a weak person, rather than as an artist. All the people face tribulations in their lives and it is only a matter of how a person reacts to them. Some people tend to give in when facing problems, while others, on the contrary, get only stronger and learn from their mistakes. Stephen’s isolation was not the result of his insufficiently praised genius; it was merely his inability to handle the fight for survival.
In conclusion, Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man will never stop initiating discussions about the issue of identity. It gives a perfect idea of how such factors as unfortunate childhood experiences, religion, and community shape the individual’s identity. Joyce concentrates on Stephen’s fight with his identity as an artist trying to show that alienation from society is typical for the artists. This fact can be questioned, because not only do artists struggle with their identities, go through problems and tribulations, and suffer from being misunderstood. All the people go through struggles and sufferings and only the person’s attitude towards life can make him/her give in to the tribulations or try and fight with them.
Joyce, James and Hammer, Langdon. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Penguin Group, 2006.