The novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, depicts the life of Stephen Dedalus from his disjointed youth to his clarifying adulthood, in a stream of consciousness approach that reveals his inner thoughts. Throughout the novel, he perceives the world around him in an unusually keen way, considering he is extremely aware of his senses, particularly his sense of smell. People by nature have involuntary connections between their physical world and their mental state, just as Stephen reflects his own subconscious in the everyday smells he encounters. In James Joyce’s, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen’s solidarity allows him to perceive the world in a detached, but consequently, more sensory and observant fashion, demonstrating the theme that isolation leads to self-discovery.
Stephen endures a youth filled with disconnection and confusion, followed by an adolescence trite with rebellion, angst, and a superiority complex. As a boy living in Clongowes University, he feels a sense of detachment that isolates him from the other boys, but in his naivety he doesn’t understand why he is so different and unhappy. Because of his young age, Stephen doesn’t have a fully developed analytical mental process, so he reflects on only what he observes. None-the-less, it is evident Stephen is not in a peaceful mental state upon comparing how he perceives the smells at school versus how he perceives those of his family in his memory. Stephen thinks about his mother, correlating her to “such a lovely warm smell” (22). Contrastingly, he mentions how the infirmary at Clongowes “came a smell of medicine,” (34). This is furthered a few pages later when Stephen’s peer says, “‘They said you got stinking stuff to drink in the infirmary’” (38). Stephen’s time at Clongowes is ridden with unpleasant associations, whereas his memory of being at home, particularly with his mother, is much more positive. Though, Stephen is too young to verbally associate the smells with being “bad,” his subconscious does it for him. Stephen’s disdain for his school is evident, not only by him saying he wants to go home, but also by his reflected emotions within his senses. As Stephen becomes a teenager, he becomes depressive and painfully aware of his unhappiness. His sense of smell again reflects how unhappy he is, now even more grossly emphasized. During one of his particularly dark moments, Stephen is talking about how much he loathes the church and those he sees going. He describes them, “The dull piety and the sickly smell of the cheap hair-oil” (112). Hi hatred for them is reflected in the vividly unpleasant description he consciously gives them. Aside from knowing what Stephen is feeling through these sensory perceptions, his detachment also is revealed. He is more preoccupied with sensory perceptions than he is with social or even scholarly issues. His priorities do not coincide with those of other boys his age, setting him apart from everyone else and making him a social pariah. Furthermore, he is less prone to distractions and has a narrower focus on his own reality, making him a prime candidate to become an artist. His incredible awareness of his surroundings, evident in his meticulous sense of smell, contributes to the qualities that make up an artist.
Stephen’s transformation, taking paling due to the religious sermons, usurps feelings of fear, guilt, and shame, which lead to his feelings of rebirth, discovery, and repent. His sense of smell connotes these emotions through the descriptions of the things he smells. This is the portion of the book that includes his most depressive and disturbed thoughts, so the smells he experiences are the most exaggerated. When Stephen has a nightmarish fantasy, after hearing the vividly impactful sermons, he fears for his soul and recognizes smells as being “evil” and “foul” (144). His dream is so horrifying, ridden with a “reeking odour poring down his throat, clogging and revolting his entrails,” that he wakes up and “vomited profusely in agony” (144). Stephen’s sense of smell is being affected by his emotions. His subconscious is identified through the grotesque descriptions of these smells, making it clear that he is battling with severe fear and unrest. But, it’s also showing the magnitude to which his senses operate. Stephen’s sense of smell, even that of his dream, pushed him to the point of physical illness. His senses are much stronger than most people’s, which makes the sermons he had to sit and listen to much more impactful to him. He could physically experience what the Father was saying, making his radical transformation understandable. His sensory capacity also contributes to his artistic potential. Considering he has a sense of smell that is capable of inducing sickness, his senses are insurmountable in their power and exactitude. Stephen undergoes a frantic need to expulse this torment, and he sees that holiness is the only way to do so. He describes his path to faithfulness and with “quiet fragrance he made a covenant with his heart” (145). He undergoes a momentary sense of peace, evident in this olfactory description of faith. However, this lapse into religion is as lasting as it is genuine. He quickly revolts, not consciously yet, but his senses again reveal his true feelings. As he further delves into saint-hood, he becomes more and more aware of his discomfort, though at the forefront of his mind he remains content. Upon thinking about becoming devout, he associates more foul smells than he does nice ones, showing the growing disdain for his assumed path. He connotes his troubled mental state with smells, describing “The troubling odour of Clongowes” (166). He doesn’t want to revert to his lifestyle back at school, revealing that he isn’t as happy as he claims. He has therefore not yet discovered himself.
Finally Stephen embodies a ponderous, insightful, and peaceful persona. His sense of smell coincides admittedly with his emotions, and for the first time, they are positive. Stephen has identified himself as an artist. This self actualization resonates peacefully within him as the things he smells are described in a calming, lyrical fashion. He develops a questioning nature, pondering and challenging everything. This is what defines him most as an artist, and is what finally sets him apart from the others. His keen senses are not the only divider, but his passion and pursuit also define him as different. It’s apparent he has escaped emotional turmoil in his sensory descriptions as well. When he thinks about the girl from the train, his descriptions no longer connote anxiety or unrest; in fact they create a sense of peace and beauty. His imagination runs ramped in desire as he thinks of her, “Her nakedness yielded to him, radiant, warm, odorous and lavish-limbed, enfolded him like a shining cloud” (225). There is no mention of anything “foul” or anything else unpleasant, even the word “odorous” suggests something pleasant. From this quote it is evident that Stephen finally gains self actualization. He no longer feels only the depressing disconnection that he endures throughout most of the book. Though he still isn’t just like all the others in his life, he isn’t sad anymore. Being different is acceptable for him so long as he understands himself. He finally immerses himself in the artistic world he is destined for, making him content. His sensory perceptions, though still equally powerful as they have been all his life, are no longer reflecting his uncomfortable subconscious, but instead emulating the creative and unique individual he is.
Stephen Dedalus, a rebellious and disconnected boy, grows into a suddenly devout teenager, until he becomes an adult who finally discovered his calling. His differences isolate him from those around him, allowing him to observe the world in a more sensory-based fashion, and evidently leading to his self-discovery as an artist.