Aesthetics is the philosophy of art. By appreciating the value of aesthetics, one can comprehend the meaning of the abstract notion of beauty. In James Joyce’s novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus’ perception of aesthetics is a key component in the main character’s pursuit of individuality and purpose. Through the use of literary techniques such as diction and tone, Joyce conveys the protagonist’s aesthetic development. This artistic growth, paralleled throughout the novel’s external structure with Dedalus’ coming of age, illustrates the life, purpose and aesthetic ambition of an artist: “To discover the mode of life or of art whereby the spirit can express itself in unfettered freedom” (Joyce 231).
Stephen’s early childhood, depicted in chapter one, exposes the protagonist’s understanding of art through his naïve tone and childlike diction. In this stage of his development, the protagonist’s perception of aesthetics is defined according to what is nice. Also, the interesting use of the rhythmic and phonetic quality of words, along with the integration of verse, contributes to his infantile definition of the nature of art and beauty. The opening of the chapter demonstrates this wordplay through the childish story of the baby tuckoo and the moocow. Furthermore, Dedalus is shown to have an innate comprehension of art: “He wanted to cry quietly but not for himself: for the words, so beautiful and sad, like music” (Joyce 18).
As Stephen becomes aware of his surroundings, his perception of art begins to change. In chapter two, the protagonist’s eager tone leads him to develop a different understanding of the qualities of art. The author makes a literary allusion to Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo in order to exemplify the character’s ideal realization of the beauty of women. Later on, he imitates the style of Lord Byron’s romantic poetry by titling the poem to his beloved “To E—C—”, who is afterwards identified as Emma. Through this initial trial of the sonnet form, Dedalus becomes aware that art should focus on the truly important and ignore the trivial: “During this process all these elements which he deemed common and insignificant fell out of the scene…the verses told only of the night and the balmy breeze and the maiden luster of the moon” (Joyce 62. Art is also shown as an outlet of the emotions when the protagonist blatantly defends Lord Byron over Tennyson, stating that the latter is only a rhymester, whereas Byron goes beyond pure conventional verse into the realm of profound meaning. Through his theatrical experience, Dedalus becomes aware of the transcendental qualities of art, and the similar nature of aesthetic expression and everyday life. Moreover, Dedalus’ moral decay, provoked by the monetary reward gained from a literary contest, exposes that art must be ideally pure in order to be aesthetically fulfilled.
After indulging in sinful conduct, Stephen Dedalus is able to surpass his...