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Gavin Hayes
Mrs. Muzi
AP English Literature and Composition
15 December 2014
A Portrait of the Artist Obsessed
Stephen Dedalus is a creature obsessed. He hunts and prowls to find one true meaning to
the world through artistic beauty, to find truth through an aesthetic. He finds a way to balance
intellectuality and art with his set of philosophical principals called an aesthetic. Stephen
Dedalus, the central character, acts as an alternate reflection of the author in this
semiautobiographical fiction, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. Joyce
primarily uses the early development of Stephen and the impact it has on his life to demonstrate
his themes and ideals. He uses this especially to demonstrate how Stephen arrives at his
principals. Stephen has many interactions with the Catholic Church he grew up with and the
religion. He struggles with morality in relation to beauty in the world. He commits various sins
such as excess lust in his quest for beauty. James Joyce uses Stephens tribulations to emphasize
his obsession with understanding the world through an aesthetic.
Joyce creates Stephen as a character who has a mind inundated with thoughts of beauty
that manifest in his actions to establish his fixation. At a very young age, when Stephen is still in
grade school, all that he experiences is art to him. He could not get out the answer for the sum
but it did not matter. White roses and red roses: those were beautiful colors to think of (Joyce
5). It is seen here that Stephen does not solve the math problem assigned to him but instead ends
up thinking about how alluring the pins on the shirts are, demonstrating an early aptitude with
art. He is still undeveloped at the time that he thinks about the beautiful roses and his passion for
beauty in the world can be seen in his disregard for everything but the beautiful colors. This

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act of observation has set him apart from his peers because they are all busy working on
calculating the sum that is on the board while Stephen takes time out to form independent
thought. Wachtel notes how young Stephen takes a warning that his aunt gives him and turns it
into a poem; he says that Stephen unknowingly applies an aesthetic relationship between the
subject of the warning and himself (Wachtel 13). This is to say that Stephens young mind is
already deeply concerned with the fundamental nature of beauty, even if he is not fully conscious
of it. He takes real world stimuli and interprets it to mean something deeper than what it is and
uses this experience later on as the basis of his understanding of the aesthetic theory, to interpret
the world by ones own devising. As Stephen is sitting in the Jesuit grade school, he ponders
about his location and about the boundaries of where he is and writes his thoughts down. In
terms of location, the broadest category that he can put himself in is The Universe. The
creative mind of Stephen Dedalus is demonstrated through this act but his friend takes his idea
and creates a rhyme out of it. Stephen thinks that the rhyme is not poetry even though it has the
form of a poem (Joyce 8). The meaning of the difference between Stephen and his friend is that
one thing does not become art only because it takes the form of art. What Stephen wrote might
be considered more artful because it had a statement: What is after The Universe? His mind is
grasping at the nature of the world through beauty. Stephen demonstrates this further by writing
an essay comparing Irish political leader Parnell to Julius Caesar as a figure who is betrayed.
Little Stephen, like Joyce, makes psychocausal connections [He] already understands the
now in relation to the past (Wachtel 14-15). His propensity to connect the present to the past, as
is the case with his essay about Parnell, demonstrates exactly what Wachtel is saying: Stephens
hunger for the aesthetic is not only displayed in his thoughts of beauty, but also in his ability to
appreciate artistic connections in life. Stephen certainly has always had natural creativity but
what James Joyce does with this is how Stephen builds his theories.

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Through trial and error, Stephen tries to snatch glimpses of beauty in the world but his
endeavors show him nothing except the repulsive; he uses the experiences to form his aesthetic.
He becomes involved in the excesses of carnal lust [and] in the excesses of penitent piety
(Reynolds 4631). He indulges in these excesses during his quest because he sees beauty at the
surface level but once he delves deeper, he realizes how unbalanced his life becomes and how
ugly too much of one thing can be. In terms of excess lust, it is easy to see Stephens attraction to
it when Joyce writes: He closed his eyes, surrendering himself to her, body and mind, conscious
of nothing in the world but the dark pressure of her softly parting lips. They pressed upon his
brain as upon his lips as though they were the vehicle of a vague speech (Joyce 71). He sees the
allure in lust because he finds it stimulating like an elusive tale. Excessive piety is less of a way
of finding the exquisite and more of a way of avoiding the grotesque in the world. In another
extreme direction of which Stephen indulges, Hell is described as a stinking sewer or cesspool of
a place during a sermon that he hears. He subsequently has a violent reaction to the sermon that
leads to vomiting because of the descriptive nature with which hell is described (Joyce 98). His
violent reaction is a display of his aversion to the idea of living with the described ugliness
forever so he joins the priesthood to not end up in such a repulsive place as Hell. His folly, in this
case, lies in the fact that he becomes too involved in the church but he realizes how beauty
cannot be understood by looking too closely at piety; he realizes that beauty is a balance. Since
this story is drawn from Joyces life, he has an effective way of portraying Stephens life
journeys in searching for his theories on beauty. Stephen is a reflection in a dark mirror; he is
what Joyce could have been (Kenner 109). This makes Stephen perfect as a character for Joyce
to demonstrate his thoughts. Joyce loves to take Stephens obsession with understanding beauty
through many extremes to show how the true nature of beauty does not lie in extremes but can be
seen in everyday life.

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When Stephens quest seems to come to an end, he has an understanding of the nature of
the world through art; his entire obsession has led to his aesthetic epiphany. He realizes that,
through all of his failed attempts at realization, art can come in different forms but mainly serves
to evoke a feeling in the observer. Stephen poses the question: If a man hacking in fury at a
block of wood make there an image of a cow, is that image a work of art? If not, why not?
(Joyce 156). This is a question on what art entails. It is a rhetorical question on Stephens part
and he is making a point that beauty and art are dependent on the observer. The observers own
opinion is especially important in this case. His question has no correct answer; of course, its
purpose is to cause the listener to think deeply on the nature of art and form their own opinions
about beauty or even to form their own aesthetic. For all the hardship that Stephen has gone
through to arrive at his epiphany, Joyce definitively indicates that the world does not really care
about Stephens revelations. Joyce creates a loud disturbance from traffic in the middle of
Stephens explanation of his revelation as if to mock his attempt to rise above his mundane
surroundings (Kearney 1). Joyce is demonstrating that Stephens theory is more personal than it
is to be shared. This further demonstrates that Stephens realization is about beauty being a
personal experience; Stephens personal goal of capturing the elusive aesthetic has been
Joyce takes Stephen through a series of ordeals because of Stephens hunger to
understand the world around him and its relation with beauty. Stephen finally finds his aesthetic
after searching every facet of his life that appeals to him and realizes that art lies in a balance and
is dependent upon the observer. Joyce uses effective writing in writing about the true nature of
art based on his own experiences when he was not yet the artist that the title mentions. Stephens
natural propensity to search for beauty is really what drives him to partake of extremes before he
finally finds what he is looking for. He uses all of the knowledge that he has gathered to see that

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art lies in the eye of the beholder. The epiphany of aesthetic is the resolution of this
semiautobiographical bildungsroman by James Joyce.

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Works Cited
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Dover, 1994. Print.
Kearney, Anthony. Joyces A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Explicator 56.1 (1997):
33. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.
Kenner, Hugh. The Cubist Portrait. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce.
Ed. Albert Wachtel. Pasadena: Salem, 2012. 101-113. Print.
Reynolds, Ann E. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Critical Evaluation. Masterplots
Fourth Edition Volume 9 Poetry of Campion Saul. Ed. Laurence W. Mazzeno.
Pasadena: Salem, 2011. 4630-4632. Print.
Wachtel, Albert. On A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Beyond Subjectivity - The
Toddler Stephen Theory and the Quest for Truth. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young
Man by James Joyce. Ed. Albert Wachtel. Pasadena: Salem, 2012. 3-17. Print.