The story of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”

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The tale of James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" follows Stephen Dedalus from childhood through young artisthood. Stephen had a strict Religious upbringing that formed his early beliefs as conservative, but his subsequent reading of books by Aristotle and Aquanis changes his perspective, resulting in him forming his own aesthetic theory and preaching to his friend Lynch.

Stephen defines beauty as "apprehension of which it pleases" (186), which he expands on by saying that ""beautiful is seen by the imagination, which is appeased by the most pleasant relations of the sensible." (208) He continues, "The first step in the direction of beauty is to understand the frame and scope of the imagination, to comprehend the act itself of esthetic apprehension," and finally, "Three things are needed for beauty, wholeness, harmony and radiance." (211)

By wholeness or integritas he means that the thing must be apprehended as a unified, single thing, seen as a distinct and separate entity. By harmony he means that the thing apprehended must be seen as a thing "complex, multiple, divisible, separable, made up of its parts." And by radiance he means that the thing must be apprehended as the thing it is, that it must be apprehended in terms of its whatness. (212)

Stephen divides art into three forms- the lyrical form where artist presents his image in immediate relation to himself; the epical form, the form wherein he presents his image in mediate relation to himself and to others; the dramatic form, the form wherein he presents his image in immediate relation to others. (213) The lyrical form according to him is the simplest form which rhetorical vesture of instant emotion. The epical form is described with the example of English ballad ‘Turnip’. The esthetic image in the dramatic form is life purified in and reprojected from the human imagination. The mystery of esthetic, like that of material creation, is accomplished. Stephen's concept of divinity lies in the aesthetic—his God has withdrawn from the world of men, "paring his fingernails" in solitude. (213) Stephen's point is that truly inspirational art must be above the common scrimmage of mankind.

The theory propounded by Stephen has logical and fluid consistency in which he based beauty on three things- wholeness, harmony and radiance and divided art into three forms- lyrical, epical and dramatic. His definition of beauty primarily relates to process of perception as to how we perceive something and hence it is backed by science of psychology. The division of art is based upon acute observation of a voracious reader and artist who has keenly scrutinized the works of various artists.

However, Stephen’s theory has many loopholes which makes the theory incomplete and meaningless. It can be noticed that Stephen's morning stroll to the university bears him no experience of beauty in the terms that he, himself, uses to characterize beauty. There is for Stephen no apprehension of any relations of the sensible which can be said to be satisfying. For him there is no clear apprehension at lone a disjunctive chain of affiliations which isolates the world of sensible phenomena from the world of imagination. To the extent that Stephen neglects to encounter beauty. We are not told how to accomplish this minor miracle, but we may safely expect that Stephen means that the quest for beauty starts with a comprehension of the route in which the mind works, and that "apprehension" will be a key to his definition of beauty.

Another thing which strikes me odd is the Stephen perceived and defined beauty only in terms of a thing which can be seen. The notion of a feeling or a sound being beautiful can be negated if we follow Stephen’s theory of aesthetics in its strictest form. A blind man can never experience as he cannot perceive the thing which then has to pass the three steps- wholeness, harmony and radiance, after which that thing will be called as a beauty.

Moreover, Stephen’s way of explaining Lynch his definition of beauty with the example of women tickles my feminist bones to the core. Women according to Stephen fall in the category of “thing” which can judged as a beauty by men but feelings do not make up to the criteria of “thing” which can be beautiful.

He theory of aesthetics by Stephen even though shows the potential of being a reasoned philosophical theory, fails to make sense in the fullest extent due to the immaturity of Stephen’s age which is evident from the loopholes present in his saying and his own disregard of following those saying. Moreover, the theory fails to capture the true essence of art as it only talked about beauty and art in a superficial way and how we perceive these two things but fails to enlighten us on what a true artist’s thoughts are on these two matters and how one can achieve transgressing art which will be above the tussle of mankind. At best, this theory has potential but is undercooked and incomplete which fails to mark an impression on a reader.


Joyce, James. "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." Penguin Classics, 1916. 186.

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May 10, 2023

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