Social Sensitivity

As a novel about a young man’s development as he tries to realize an ideal vision of himself as an artist who stands aloof from the conflicts of family, politics, and religion that divide his world, Portrait raises questions about the nature of art and artists and their relationship to the world in which they live: Is the artist an especially gifted being? What duty does an artist owe family, friends, country? Stephen imagines the artist as an indifferent god, paring his nails while his characters go about their business, but a similar indifference marks his relationships with those around him, and he often appears callous, cruel, consumed by various idealized visions of himself as the saintly penitent, for instance, or the heroic artist figure of the novel’s closing pages who grandly promises to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” The novel does not clearly disavow such romantic and heroic notions of the artist, but it does at the very least suggest the cost to others of such a degree of self-absorption, however creative. The nature of art itself is also at issue in the novel. What is it? What is it for? Stephen envisions an art that transcends his world and distills his experience to a pure essence untainted by everyday life; however, we see very little of Stephen’s art in the novel, and what we do see is not remarkable. Further, the book that Joyce has written is very different from the refined aesthetic ideal celebrated by Stephen Dedalus: while Stephen all but refines his beloved E.C. out of existence in his villanelle, Joyce takes pains to remind us that Stephen walks upon the ground. Portrait is not the kind of book that Stephen Dedalus would write, at least, not the Stephen we see at this point.

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