A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
James Joyce

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study


Published in 1916, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man established its then thirty-two-year-old author, James Joyce, as a leading figure in the international movement known as literary modernism. The title describes the book's subject quite accurately. On one level, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man can be read as what the Germans call a Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel.

Set in Ireland in the late nineteenth century, Portrait is a semi-autobiographical novel about the education of a young Irishman, Stephen Dedalus, whose background has much in common with Joyce's. Stephen's education includes not only his formal schooling but also his moral, emotional, and intellectual development as he observes and reacts to the world around him. At the center of the story is Stephen's rejection of his Roman Catholic upbringing and his growing confidence as a writer. But the book's significance does not lie only in its portrayal of a sensitive and complex young man or in its use of autobiographical detail. More than this, Portrait is Joyce's deliberate attempt to create a new kind of novel that does not rely on conventional narrative techniques.

Rather than telling a story with a coherent plot and a traditional beginning, middle, and end, Joyce presents selected decisive moments in the life of his hero without the kind of transitional material that marked most novels written up to that time. The "portrait" of the title is actually a series of portraits, each showing Stephen at a different stage of development. And, although this story is told in a third-person narrative, it is filtered through Stephen's consciousness. Finally, the book can be read as Joyce's artistic manifesto and a declaration of independence—independence from what Joyce considered the restrictive social background of Catholic Ireland and from the conventions that had previously governed the novel as a literary genre. More than eighty years after its publication, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man continues to be regarded as a central text of early twentieth-century modernism.

Author Biography

Joyce was born on February 2, 1882, in Dublin, Ireland. He was the eldest child of John Stanislaus and Mary Jane Murray Joyce, who had, according to Joyce's father, "sixteen or seventeen children." Joyce's upbringing and education had much in common with that of the fictional Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce's parents were devout Catholics, and they sent him to Clongowes Wood College, a Catholic boarding school in County Kildare, south of Dublin. Run by the Jesuit order, this was considered the best Catholic school in Ireland. However, Joyce was taken out of Clongowes Wood a few years later when his father suffered some financial losses and the family's standard of living declined. After his family moved to Dublin, Joyce enrolled at Belvedere College, a Jesuit day school, where he was especially interested in poetry and languages.

By the time he entered University College, Dublin (also a Catholic institution), Joyce had become estranged from the Catholic Church and from Irish society in general. However, Joyce gained the attention of the Irish literary establishment with an undergraduate essay that he wrote on the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Joyce was soon introduced to W. B. Yeats, Ireland's greatest poet, but he rejected Yeats's offer of help.

After graduating from University College in 1902, Joyce went to Paris for a year. He was supposed to be studying medicine but spent most of his time reading and writing, and decided to pursue a literary career. He returned to Ireland briefly when his mother became terminally ill. In 1904 he met Nora Barnacle, a young woman from the west of Ireland who worked as a chambermaid at a Dublin hotel. The two became lovers, and in October of that year they left Ireland for good. They first settled in Trieste, Italy, where the multilingual Joyce taught English at the local Berlitz school and worked on an autobiographical novel titled Stephen Hero. Although he did not finish this novel, he later used some of the material from it in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Joyce and Nora moved to Zurich in Switzerland. (Joyce's most famous comment about the war was that it interfered with the public reception of his first two books.) His collection of short stories, Dubliners, was published in London in 1914 after a long dispute with the publisher, Richards. With the help of the American poet Ezra Pound, A Portrait was serialized in The Egoist magazine in London. It appeared in twenty-five installments from February 1914 to September 1915. Published as a complete book in 1916, the novel established Joyce's reputation as one of the most original authors of his time.

Despite his growing fame, Joyce continued to live in relative poverty. He was also troubled by eye problems—a theme that he touched on in A Portrait—and by his daughter Lucia's mental illness. Although he spent most of the rest of his life in Paris and never again lived in Ireland, his subsequent books were all set in Ireland and their characters were Irish. Joyce refined the stream-of-consciousness technique in Ulysses (1922), generally considered his most important novel. In Finnegans Wake (1939), an extended mythic dream sequence filled with obscure multilingual wordplay, private jokes, and arcane references, the stream-of-consciousness technique completely obliterated any trace of traditional narrative.

Joyce regarded himself as a genius and refused to make any compromises in his writing to achieve commercial success. His difficult personality alienated many people who came into contact with him, but he enjoyed the devotion of Nora, his brother Stanislaus, and a number of close friends and patrons who recognized and helped to nurture his exceptional talent. Since his death in Zurich in 1941, readers, critics, and scholars have continued to study his works. He is regarded today as one of the most important authors of the twentieth century and as a giant of literary modernism.

Plot Summary

The young man eventually becoming an artist in James Joyce's first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is the Irish-born Stephen Dedalus. Set at the turn of the twentieth century, the novel charts Stephen's preschool experience to his university years, from an individual at the mercy of events to a person in control of them and himself.

Childhood and School Years

A Portrait devotes the equivalent of only one page to Stephen's pre-school years. The passage contains simple, childlike sentences skipping from subject to subject like a child's attention diverted from object to object. In this short passage, Joyce alludes on one level to Stephen's cultural, political, and familial influences, on another to Stephen's primal joys and fears, and finally to figures of theme and image recurring throughout the book.

From here, the reader is catapulted several years into the future, to the time when Stephen is a young man away at Clongowes, a Jesuit boarding school. The bulk of this first chapter is devoted to Stephen's development from a fearful and confused boy—twice knocked down by other boys—into a brave, confident student successfully protesting to the rector that he, Stephen, has been unfairly beaten on his palms by a prefect.

The school year is only broken up by Stephen's visit home for Christmas. A sole event from the vacation is imparted: a religious dispute at the family's lavish Christmas dinner. All participants are Catholics who favor Ireland's independence from Britain. But while three men object to the Church's participation in politics, one woman, Dante, believes religious involvement is righteous and that the Church must be followed and respected in all matters. By the end of Chapter One, the reader gleans an early version of Stephen's portrait. He is an Irish-Catholic boy confused about language, politics, and religion. He stumbles and falls through childhood, then picks himself up and stands tall before authority, his peers, and himself.

The Girl with the Shawl

Home in Blackrock for the summer, playing, reading, and daydreaming, Stephen increasingly views himself as different from others. That his family fortunes plummet only worsens matters. Forced to pack up and move with his family to Dublin, Stephen walks around the city—young, foolish, and no longer rich.

After a party he walks with an unnamed girl wearing a shawl to the streetcar. The event passes by without even a kiss, yet the memory remains with Stephen throughout the book. In Stephen's second year at the Dublin Jesuit school Belvedere, he performs in a school production as the girl with the shawl watches. His post-performance euphoria is overwhelming and only after running into town and to the stables can the smell of urine and rotting hay bring him back to earth.

Later, Stephen rides with his father to Cork for an auction of his father's family property. Listening to his father's advice and recalling childhood memories and things old acquaintances say about his father, Stephen is struck dumb at the distance between himself and his father, between himself and his surroundings, and between his present self and his childhood. Stephen feels that he never had what his father did, neither a boyhood of "rude male health nor filial piety." He views himself as cold, detached from life, and lustful, drifting "like the barren shell of the moon."

In the final segment of Chapter Two, Stephen wins money from an essay contest and tries—through gifts and loans—to reconnect himself with loved ones. The scheme fails, however, and Stephen feels even more morosely detached and lustful. One night, looking for connection, he wanders the more "hellish" and grimy streets of Dublin and has sex with a prostitute.

Stephen Sins

Stephen's whoring lies uncomfortably on his mind. At the beginning of Chapter Three, he feels guilty. While remaining convinced of his apartness from others, Stephen is not yet ready to detach himself from the Church, especially from the Virgin Mary, a figure he sees as compassionate. At a Catholic retreat for St. Francis Xavier, students are asked to dwell on "last things": death, judgment, heaven, and hell. After attending sermons on the physical and mental torments of hell, Stephen emerges physically shaken. That evening he awakens from a nightmare and vomits. Finally convinced of the enormity of his sin, Stephen confesses, is relieved, and feels himself joyfully connected with all life, from the muddy Dublin streets to a plateful of sausages. The next morning, fully confessed and kneeling at mass, Stephen readies himself to be reborn.

Chapter Four opens with Stephen's immersion in the rituals of devotion and flesh mortification. He begins to doubt his devotion and humility and is only able to keep his doubts at bay by telling himself that at least he has amended his life. Stephen's display of piety is not lost on the director of Belvedere, who asks Stephen to become a Jesuit priest. Realizing he cannot lead a cloistered life, Stephen arrives home to find that his family will once again be moving, presumably because they are unable to pay the rent.

Next, Stephen is shown agitatedly waiting outside the university while his father likely attends to business connected with Stephen's admission. No longer able to wait, Stephen walks to the beach and reflects that, within him, art, nature, and sensuality are gradually overshadowing religion. There is a sense now of Stephen's increasing isolation amid a sea of humanity.

The Final Chapter

Leaving family and religion behind him, Stephen thinks about his courses, classmates, and his increasing poverty. At the university he casually discusses beauty with a dean, attends physics class, and finally meets friends for a political gathering. At the meeting he refuses to sign a declaration for world peace, perhaps because he suspects the emptiness of the gesture and disrespects the classmates who support it, and further, because over the declaration there is a framed picture of the Russian Czar, a figure Stephen dislikes. Stephen's political independence is driven home in a conversation in which he expresses his distaste for Irish nationalism. Walking out on politics and into another discussion about beauty and art, Stephen later writes a poem to the shawled girl of ten years ago. One evening he stands watching migrating birds over the library, foretelling of his eventual departure from Ireland. Finally, walking and talking with a friend, Stephen declares his distance from family, nationality.


Father Arnall

Father Arnall is a Jesuit priest who teaches at Clongowes Wood College, the first school that Stephen Dedalus attends.

Mr. John Casey

Mr. Casey is a friend of Stephen Dedalus's father, Simon Dedalus, in Chapter One. When Mr. Casey visits, young Stephen likes to sit near him and look at "his dark fierce face." Stephen notices that "his dark eyes were never fierce and his slow voice was good to listen to." He gets into the argument with Dante on Christmas, asserting that the Church should stay out of politics and leave Charles Stuart Parnell alone.

Uncle Charles

Charles is Stephen Dedalus's great-uncle. He is present at the family's Christmas dinner in Chapter One but does not take part in the argument. Indeed, he seems somewhat bewildered and only mutters a few vague comments to try to calm things down. Uncle Charles is kindly but slightly eccentric and ineffectual. Later in the chapter readers learn that he has died.

Father Conmee

A Jesuit priest who is the rector (principal) of Clongowes Wood College, the first school that Stephen Dedalus attends. In Chapter One, after Father Dolan pandies Stephen (punishes him by hitting his hands with a stick known as a pandybat), Stephen's friends urge him to go to Father Conmee and report Father Dolan. Although he is afraid to do so, Stephen works up the necessary courage and goes to Father Conmee's room. Although Stephen (and the reader) expects that Father Conmee will react angrily, he in fact receives Stephen in a kindly manner and listens to his complaint sympathetically. Stephen's visit to the rector is his first act of independence and self-determination. Stephen'sfather later reveals that Father Conmee has told him about this incident, and that the rector and Father Dolan had a good laugh over it.


A friend of Stephen Dedalus at University College, Dublin, Cranly appears in Chapter Five and is one of the four friends who tries to tempt Stephen. The opposite of Davin in many respects, Cranly is sophisticated and irreverent. Stephen finds Cranly's accent and use of language dull; it reminds him of "an echo of the quays of Dublin given back by a bleak decaying seaport" and its energy "an echo of the sacred eloquence of Dublin given back flatly by a Wicklow pulpit." He represents expedience, compromise, and hypocrisy. Beneath his bluster, Stephen also perceives a form of despair in him.


Davin is a friend of Stephen Dedalus and a student at University College, Dublin. Davin appears in Chapter Five and is one of the four friends who tries to tempt Stephen. He is from the Irish countryside and is described as a peasant. His speech has both "rare phrases of Elizabethan English" and "quaintly turned versions of Irish idioms." Strong and athletic, Davin is honest, straightforward, and without guile. He calls Stephen "Stevie." In the book, he represents Irish nationalism, a viewpoint that Stephen rejects. Davin is a member of the Gaelic League, an organization that advocates a return to the Irish language and traditional Irish sports.

Dean of Studies

Stephen Dedalus discusses his ideas of art and beauty with the unnamed Dean of Studies at University College, Dublin. The Dean, a Jesuit priest and an Englishman, is kindly and approachable. He also displays a dry sense of humor, remarking that "We have the liberal arts and we have the useful arts." The Dean acknowledges that Stephen is an artist. He tells Stephen that "the object of the artist is the creation of the beautiful. What the beautiful is is another question."

Mrs. Dedalus

Stephen's mother's first name is never given, and although she appears on several occasions she remains a more shadowy character than her husband, Simon Dedalus, Stephen's father. Like most of the other characters, she seems to exist only in relation to Stephen. The character is based largely on Joyce's mother, Mary Jane Murray.

Mr. Simon Dedalus

Simon is Stephen's father. Based on Joyce's own father, John, Mr. Dedalus appears in only a few scenes, but his presence is omnipresent. He is generally portrayed as an amiable man, but there is also a sense of failure about him. He is known as a storyteller. During the novel, Mr. Dedalus suffers some financial misfortune; to save money he has to take Stephen out of Clongowes Wood College and move the family to a smaller house. When he takes Stephen to visit his hometown, Cork, in southwest Ireland, he regales Stephen with tales that Stephen has heard before. In an attempt at a heart-to-heart talk, he advises Stephen to "mix with gentlemen."

As Stephen grows older, he regards his father with some embarrassment and distances himself from the older man. In Chapter Five, while talking to his friend Cranly, Stephen "glibly" describes his father as "a medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician, a small landlord, a small investor, a drinker, a good fellow, a storyteller, somebody's secretary, something in a distillery, a taxgatherer, a bankrupt, and at present a praiser of his own past." There is the implication that in rejecting Ireland and deciding to pursue a course of creative independence, Stephen is also rejecting his father and his father's failure.

Stephen Dedalus

Stephen Dedalus is the "artist" and "young man" of the title. It is impossible to consider him in the way that a reader would consider most characters in fiction, for his roles goes far beyond that merely of central character. He is the sole focus of the book, and the events of the novel are filtered through his consciousness. His presence is felt on every page.

The character is based largely on Joyce himself. The name "Stephen Dedalus" itself has symbolic significance. Saint Stephen was the first Christian martyr, put to death for professing his beliefs. In Greek mythology, Dedalus was an inventor who escaped from the island of Crete using wings that he had made; however, his son Icarus flew too near the sun, melting the waxen wings and crashing into the sea. From the novel's opening page, it is clear that Stephen is sensitive, perceptive, intelligent, and curious. He also proves to be aloof and at times arrogant and self-important. Moreover, despite his intelligence, he is often the victim of his own self-deception.

Joyce's narrative is not continuous, and there is no "plot" as such. Rather, the book is a series of "portraits" of Stephen at various important moments in his young life, from his introduction as an infant ("baby tuckoo") through selected schoolboy experiences to his declaration of artistic independence as a student at University College, Dublin. The process of Stephen's maturation is registered in his expanding awareness of the world and in the novel's increasingly sophisticated use of language. His relationship to his family, schoolmates, teachers, friends, religion, and country as well as to his own language form the essence of this novel.

In a series of epiphanies and corresponding anti-epiphanies, Stephen alternately affirms and rejects different aspects of his existence. In so doing, he makes difficult moral and aesthetic choices that help to define his character. Perhaps the most telling characterization of him occurs during the episode set in Cork. Here, Joyce describes Stephen as "proud and sensitive and suspicious, battling against the squalor of his life and against the riot of his mind." In the final chapter Stephen confides to his friend Cranly that he will henceforth rely on "the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning." Given the originality of James Joyce's conception of this character, it is significant to note that the book ends not with Stephen himself but with excerpts from his diary that indicate his intention to "go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race."

Father Dolan

Father Dolan is a Jesuit priest who is the prefect of studies at Clongowes Wood College, the first school that Stephen Dedalus attends. He punishes Stephen. Believing he has been punished unfairly, Stephen later goes to see the rector, Father Conmee, and reports this injustice. Father Conmee listens sympathetically and promises that he will speak to Father Dolan. Stephen's defiance of Father Dolan earns him the acclaim of his schoolmates and is seen as his first assertion of his independence. Later in the book, Stephen's father reveals that Father Conmee and Father Dolan had a good laugh over this incident.

Media Adaptations

  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was adapted as a feature film by Judith Rascoe, directed by Joseph Strick, and starring Bosco Hogan, T. P. McKenna, Rosaleen Linehan, John Gielgud, Maureen Potter, Brian Murray, and Luke Johnson, Ulysse, 1979. Available from Howard Mahler. Distributed by Instructional Video.
  • The book was also recorded, unabridged, in a series of eight sound cassettes, read by Donal Donnelly. Available from Recorded Books, Prince Frederick, MD, 1991. The publisher's catalogue number is 91106.

Vincent Heron

Heron is a boy who is a friend of Stephen Dedalus and a fellow student at Belvedere College. The relationship between the boys is uneasy: as two of the top boys at the school, they are as much rivals as friends. There is a disturbing edge to Heron's mockery of Stephen. Heron criticizes Stephen for saying that Byron is the greatest poet of all. Heron and his friends verbally and physically abuse Stephen, but Stephen refuses to give in to Heron's insistence that Tennyson is the best poet. Heron also strikes Stephen twice on the leg with his cane to make him admit that he is interested in a particular girl. Stephen notices that Heron's face is "beaked like a bird's. He had often thought it strange that Vincent Heron had a bird's face as well as a bird's name."


Lynch is a friend of Stephen Dedalus and a fellow student at University College, Dublin. Described by Joyce as appearing reptilian, he argues with Stephen about art and aesthetics. In this respect, he represents a foil for Stephen, allowing him (and, by extension, Joyce himself) to expound his own theory of art and beauty. Although he seems to be interested in Stephen's long intellectual talk, Lynch is really unable to appreciate Stephen's ideas or to contribute to the conversation on Stephen's level. Whereas Stephen has high artistic aspirations, Lynch's personal goals are much narrower. He will be satisfied with a job and a conventional life.

Mrs. Dante Riordan

Dante is introduced on the first page of the novel, when she and Uncle Charles applaud young Stephen's dancing. Dante introduces the theme of the Church and politics. Stephen is conscious of the fact that Dante has two brushes: "The brush with the maroon velvet back was for Michael Davitt and the brush with the green velvet back was for Par-nell." (The two brushes have symbolic significance.)

Dante later appears at Christmas dinner at the Dedaluses, where she has a furious argument with Mr. Casey. The argument centers around the Church's denunciation of the Irish nationalist politician Charles Stuart Parnell, who had an affair with a married woman, Kitty O'Shea. Dante, a devout Catholic, argues that it was right for the Church to denounce the sinful Parnell, who she calls "a traitor, an adulterer!" She says that the Irish people should submit to the authority of the bishops and priests, even if this means losing a chance for independence. Mr. Casey, who is also a Catholic, bitterly resents the Church's actions in the Parnell case. He argues that the clergy should stay out of politics. The argument escalates, and the chapter ends as Dante flies out of the room in a rage, slamming the door behind her. Stephen does not understand why Dante is against Parnell, but he has heard his father say that she was "a spoiled nun."


Temple is a friend of Stephen Dedalus at University College, Dublin. Temple appears in Chapter Five and is one of the four friends who tries to tempt Stephen. Described by Joyce as a "gypsy student … with olive skin and lank black hair," he professes to be a socialist and to believe in universal brotherhood, but he does not present a strong intellectual argument for his beliefs. Temple admits that he is "an emotional man…. And I'm proud that I'm an emotionalist."

Eileen Vance

Eileen is the first girl Stephen knows. In his early childhood, Stephen imagines that "when they were grown up he was going to marry Eileen." He particularly notices her "long white hands," which feel cool to his touch and which he likens to ivory. Dante does not want Stephen to play with Eileen because she is a Protestant.



In literary terms, one of the revolutionary aspects of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is the fact that there is no actual plot to the book. Instead, the progress of the novel is organized around the growing consciousness of the central character, Stephen Dedalus. His consciousness of the world around him is an ongoing theme and is developed differently in each of the book's five chapters. He experiences many types and levels of consciousness. Moreover, Joyce uses a highly original "stream-of-consciousness" technique to render Stephen's thoughts and experiences.

Stephen's initial consciousness comes through his five senses, a theme that is introduced on the first page. Here Joyce reports Stephen's awareness of how his father's face looks, how the wet bed feels, the "queer smell" of the oilsheet and the nice smell of his mother. He sings a song and listens to his mother's piano playing.

From the beginning, Stephen is conscious of words as things in themselves. When he goes to Clongowes Wood College, he becomes conscious of what words mean—and of the fact that a word can have more than one meaning. Stephen's consciousness of trouble is at first vague—he is not sure what Dante and Mr. Casey are arguing about at the Christmas dinner, but he knows that the situation is unpleasant. He is conscious of impending trouble when Father Dolan enters the classroom and threatens to "pandy" any "idle, lazy" boys. A little later he is also conscious that his father is in trouble of some sort, but he does not know the cause of this trouble.

Stephen develops a consciousness of the opposite sex early in his life, though that consciousness does not translate into conscious action until the end of Chapter Two, when he encounters a prostitute. Subsequently he is troubled by his consciousness of sin. Foremost, however, is his creative consciousness. As the novel progresses, Joyce's language becomes more sophisticated, matching Stephen's growing maturity and understanding. Simultaneously Stephen becomes increasingly conscious of his artistic vocation, until in the last chapter he decides to devote himself entirely to his art, regardless of the consequences to his life.

Artists and Society

As the title indicates, a central theme of the book is the development of the young artist and his relationship to the society in which he lives. The opening sentences of the book show baby Stephen's awareness of language and of the power of the senses. Because the novel is to a large degree autobiographical, it is not only about Stephen's development as a literary artist but also about Joyce's own development. Joyce believed in "art for art's sake," and A Portrait reflects this belief. That is, Joyce did not feel that art was supposed to have a practical purpose. It was not the function of the artist to express a political or religious opinion in his or her work, or even to teach the reader about the society in which he or she lived. To the contrary, the artist was to remain aloof from society and devote himself to his art.

For Stephen, as for Joyce, the ability to use the language to create a work of art is its own reward. Stephen is especially sensitive to words and to sensuous phrases, such as "a day of dappled seaborne clouds" and "Madam, I never eat muscatel grapes." He is not so much concerned with what sentences mean as with how they sound and what they suggest. This musical, suggestive quality of his art comes through in the villanelle ("Are you not weary of ardent ways …") that Stephen writes near the end of the book. Because of his artistic temperament, Stephen feels increasingly estranged from society. He considers the vocation of the artist a sort of independent priesthood "of eternal imagination" that ultimately prevents him from serving the Catholic Church, from taking part in politics, and even from participating in ordinary Irish life.

Throughout the book, Stephen records his feelings of being different and distant from his classmates, his siblings, and even his friends. At the end of the novel, Stephen records his artistic manifesto in his diary: "I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race."

Coming of Age

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is not generally considered a "coming of age" novel as such. Joyce intended the book to have a wider scope, and the novel encompasses more than the brief time-scale—often just a single school year or a summer—that usually marks the "coming of age" genre. In Joyce's novel, the chronology spans approximately twenty years, as we follow the central character, Stephen Dedalus, from his very early childhood to his college years. Nonetheless, there are a number of typical "coming of age" elements here. Among them are young Stephen's growing consciousness of self-identity and of family problems, his increasing understanding of the rules that govern the adult world, and, later, his keen awareness of and preoccupation with the mysteries of sex.

God and Religion

Religion—in the form of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church—forms a major theme of the novel. Indeed, religion was a pervasive force in late nineteenth-century Irish life, the time in which this novel is set. Stephen's first consideration of God occurs early in Chapter One. While looking at his name and address on his geography book, Stephen ponders his place in the world. This stream of consciousness leads him to wonder about the infinity of the universe and about God: "It was very big to think about everything and everywhere. Only God could do that…." He goes on to consider God's name in other languages and the fact that God can understand all languages: "But though there were different names for God in all the dif-ferent languages in the world and God understood what all the people who prayed said in their different languages, still God remained always the same God and God's real name was God."

The place of religion in Ireland, and the conflict between clerical and secular authority, is the subject of the argument between Dante Riordan and John Casey at Christmas dinner in Chapter One. The argument centers on the Church's treatment of the Irish nationalist politician Charles Stuart Parnell. Parnell, a member of the British Parliament, had led the fight for Home Rule, a form of limited independence for Ireland. However, just as he seemed on the verge of success, he had been named in a divorce case. (Parnell had been having an affair with a married woman, Kitty O'Shea.) Because of this, the Catholic Church in Ireland denounced Parnell, who was disgraced and who died shortly thereafter. Dante argues that it was right for the Church to denounce the sinful Parnell, saying that the Irish people should submit to the authority of the bishops and priests even if this means losing a chance for independence. Mr. Casey, who is also a Catholic, bitterly resents the Church's actions in the Parnell case. He argues that the clergy should stay out of politics, and says that "We have had too much God in Ireland." Simon Dedalus echoes this argument, calling the Irish "an unfortunate priestridden race…. A priestridden Godforsaken race!"

Stephen is a silent witness to this argument, but he soon becomes embroiled in questions of religion himself. Much of the novel concerns Stephen's relation to his religion, and his ultimate rejection of that religion. Although he finally rejects church authority, Stephen is nonetheless shaped by his Jesuit education and by a powerfully Roman Catholic outlook on life.

In Chapter Four, the unnamed dean asks Stephen to consider becoming a priest. Stephen is tempted by the invitation and imagines himself leading a religious life. He decides not to join the priesthood. He wishes to maintain his independence and does not feel that he can be a part of any organization. His power, he realizes, will come not from his initiation into the priesthood but from devoting himself to his solitary art, even at the cost of losing his family, friends, nation, and God.

Topics for Further Study

  • The Order of Catholic priests that figures in Joyce's novel, the Society of Jesus, is known historically for its schools and colleges. Research the order and its educational philosophy. What is the approach of the Jesuits to teaching and study? In what ways would the Jesuit education that Stephen Dedalus received have differed from a public school education in America today?
  • Research the Irish Literary Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Who were some of the writers in this movement and how did their ideas differ from the literary ideas that Stephen Dedalus expresses?
  • Research the Irish Home Rule movement and the role that Charles Stuart Parnell played in that movement. How do Dante's and Mr. Casey's differing attitudes toward Parnell reflect Irish public opinion of the time?
  • James Joyce once said that if Dublin was destroyed, people could reconstruct the city from his books. Research the city of Dublin. What are some its famous buildings, sights, and landmarks, and how does Joyce use these places as settings in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?


Sin—particularly Stephen's sense of sin, as defined by the Catholic Church—is a major aspect of his awareness of God and religion. Deeply disturbed by the consciousness of his own sin (including masturbation and encounters with prostitutes), Stephen goes to confession. Afterward, absolved of his sins, he is "conscious of an invisible grace pervading and making light his limbs…. He had confessed and God had pardoned him. His soul was made fair and holy once more, holy and happy." He feels that life is simple and beautiful, and that life is spread out before him. For all his efforts, however, Stephen is unable to maintain this kind of life, and he lapses once again.



Like many of the novels that precede it, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is written in the third person point of view. However, this novel is anything but a traditional third-person narrative. Joyce's narrative voice is utterly unlike the omniscient (all-knowing) narrative voice found in traditional nineteenth-century novels. Earlier novelists such as Charles Dickens and George Eliot concentrated on exterior detail and attempted to give a broad overview both of the action that they were depicting and the society in which it took place. Joyce had no interest in writing this sort of novel. His narrative is narrow and tightly focused; he does not tell what is happening but rather tries to show what is happening without explaining the events that he is showing.

There is no plot as such in the novel; the narrative is not continuous but fragmented, with gaps in the chronology. The focus is exclusively on the central character, Stephen Dedalus, who is present on virtually every page. Every narrative detail is filtered through Stephen's consciousness. Joyce uses the experimental techniques stream-of-consciousness and interior monologue to let the reader see, hear, and feel what Stephen is experiencing as the action unfolds. One result of this focus on Stephen is that most of the other characters are seen only in relation to him.

In the earlier sections of the novel, Stephen is very young and is not fully aware of the significance of the situations in which he finds himself. Here the narrative mirrors the level of Stephen's intellectual development. For example, at the very beginning of the book, Stephen is a baby or, at the most, a toddler. Thus, Joyce begins the book using a simple vocabulary and imitates the style of a children's story: "Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road…." A little later in the novel, young Stephen witnesses a political argument during a Christmas dinner. The dialogue of the argument, between Mr. Casey (a friend of Stephen's father) and Stephen's Aunt Dante, is reported without comment. Stephen is not aware of what the argument is about, but he knows that it is disturbing and that it disrupts the harmony of the Christmas dinner. However, Joyce the author knows that readers of his day certainly would have recognized the significance of the argument, which concerns the late Irish nationalist leader Charles Stuart Parnell. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is full of this sort of narrative duality: Joyce the author knows what is happening, the reader might know what is happening, but the central character through whom the action unfolds is not always aware of its full significance.

The narrative becomes increasingly sophisticated as Stephen matures. By the last chapter, Chapter Five, Stephen is a student at University College, Dublin. Much of the chapter is taken up with philosophical discussions of art and aesthetics. In several conversations, Stephen explains his ideas, which are based on the ideas of Aristotle and of Thomas Aquinas. Critics have remarked that Stephen's dialogue in this section reads more like a nonfiction philosophy work than like fiction.


The action of the book takes place in Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century and at the turn of the twentieth century, a span of about twenty years. Although Joyce gives specific settings for the incidents in the book, he does not give dates for the events that he is reporting. However, critics know that the events of Stephen Dedalus's life mirror events in Joyce's own childhood and young adulthood.

Specific settings include various Dedalus homes (the first outside Dublin and later ones in the city), the schools that Stephen attends (Clongowes Wood College in County Kildare and Belvedere School in Dublin), the chapel where Father Arnall delivers his fiery sermon, and, later in the book, University College, Dublin. Stephen also visits the city of Cork in southwest Ireland with his father. Both indoor and outdoor settings are used.

Regardless of the specific setting of any scene in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce gives a minimum of external description. He is more concerned with the state of mind of his main character, Stephen Dedalus, than with the external circumstances of Stephen's situation. Yet without giving lengthy descriptions of a classroom, for example, Joyce is able to create the atmosphere of a school.

Joyce himself was a Dubliner by birth and upbringing. He does not evoke the city of Dublin in as much detail here as in his earlier short story collection Dubliners or in his later novels Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Nonetheless, in A Portrait, Dublin is prominent both as a physical city and as a symbol of the center of Irish consciousness. In any case, whether he is writing about Stephen's life at school, at home, or at large in Dublin or in particular neighborhoods elsewhere in Ireland, Joyce's larger subject is always Ireland—a subject that he renders in an ambivalent stance.


A Portrait of the Artist is divided into five chapters. Each chapter deals with a different period in the first twenty years of the central character, Stephen Dedalus. Each also addresses a specific theme related to Stephen's development as an artist.

Chapter One takes Stephen from his infancy into his first years at school. In this chapter, Stephen becomes aware of the five senses and of language itself, and he takes the first steps to assert his independence. Chapter Two includes his awareness of his family's declining fortunes and his move from Clongowes Wood School to Belvedere School in Dublin. It ends with his sexual initiation in the arms of a prostitute. In the third chapter, Stephen is preoccupied with his sin and the possible consequences of his sin. The fourth chapter takes place at Belvedere School. Stephen attempts to understand the precepts of his religion and to lead a life in accordance with those precepts. However, he recognizes that his independent nature will not allow him to serve as a priest of the Church. Instead, he will become an artist, a "priest of eternal imagination." In Chapter Four, Stephen takes further steps to formulate his aesthetic theory. He also makes a final declaration of independence from his friends, his family, his religion, and his country.

Within each chapter there are several distinct, self-contained scenes or episodes. These episodes are, in effect, "portraits." Each episode centers around or culminates in an epiphany—a moment of euphoric insight and understanding that significantly contributes to Stephen's personal education. The epiphany often occurs during an otherwise trivial incident, and is the central organizing feature in Joyce's work. However, these epiphanies are undercut by "anti-epiphanies"—moments of disillusion or disappointment that bring Stephen back to earth. Each shift between epiphany and anti-epiphany is accompanied by a shift in the tone of Joyce's language. The epiphany scenes are generally written in a poetic and lofty language. By contrast, the language in the anti-epiphany scenes emphasizes less noble aspects of life. Taken together, Joyce uses the give-and-take shift between epiphany and anti-epiphany to show the paradoxes of life.


The author's punctuation is not normally an issue in a discussion of a work of fiction. Up until Joyce, most English-language novelists used standard punctuation. As part of his effort to create an entirely new type of novel, however, Joyce employed unusual punctuation. Immediately noticeable in Portrait is the fact that there are no quotation marks. Instead, Joyce uses a long dash at the beginning of a paragraph where he wishes to indicate speech by a character. (One effect of this technique is that the reader is not immediately able to tell what portions of a paragraph might be part of the narrative apparatus rather than the speaking voice of a particular character.) Joyce is also sparing in his use of commas. Many of his longer sentences appear to be "run-on" sentences. He does this deliberately to show the "run-on" nature of a character's thoughts—a technique known as the "stream of consciousness."


Critics have remarked on Joyce's unique combination of realism and naturalism on the one hand and symbolism on the other. Joyce's realistic and naturalistic approaches are evident in his pretense that he is presenting things as they are. At the same time, he uses symbolism extensively to suggest what things mean.

The five senses—sight, sound, taste, smell, touch—are recurrent symbols throughout A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen's reliance on the five senses is signaled in the book's first few pages. Here we are made aware of the way his father looks to Stephen (sight), the songs that are sung to him and the clapping of Uncle Charles and Dante (sound), the feeling when he wets the bed (touch), and the reward of a "cachou" (cashew—taste) from Dante. Joyce considered the five senses to be indispensible tools for the literary artist. Of these, the sense of sight is most prominent. The importance of sight—and its fragility—is a recurring motif throughout the novel. This reliance on, and fear for, sight is embodied in the phrase "the eagles will come and pull out his eyes," which Dante says to Stephen after his mother tells him to apologize for something. Stephen makes a rhyme, "pull out his eyes / Apologise." (Significantly, Joyce suffered from eye problems later in his life, and was to undergo several eye operations.) At various points in the novel, Stephen refuses to apologize for his actions and decisions, even at the risk of perhaps losing his vision, metaphorically. For example, in Chapter One he listens to Mr. Casey's anecdote about spitting in a woman's eye. At Clongowes school, Father Dolan punishes Stephen for having broken his glasses. In Chapter Four, Stephen attempts a mortification of the senses to repent for his earlier sins.

Religious symbols abound. There are numerous references to various elements and rites of Roman Catholicism: the priest's soutane, the censor, and the sacraments of communion and confession. Bird symbolism is prominent too. In addition to the eagles mentioned above, there is Stephen's school friend and rival Heron, who is associated with the "birds of prey." Stephen later thinks of himself as a "hawklike man," a patient and solitary bird who can view society from a great height but who remains aloof from the world that he views.

Historical Context

Joyce's Ireland: The Historical and Political Context

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is set in Ireland in the late nineteenth century and at the very beginning of the twentieth century. Joyce does not give precise dates in the narrative, but there is a reference to at least one historical event (the fall of Parnell) that helps to date the action. Moreover, critics agree that the incidents in the life of Stephen Dedalus, the "young man" of the title, closely parallel incidents in the life of Joyce himself. (In 1904, Joyce wrote an autobiographical essay titled "A Portrait of the Artist.") Joyce was born in 1882 and graduated from University College, Dublin, in 1902. These years approximately form the parameters of the novel.

Joyce grew up in an Ireland that constitutionally was a part of a nation formally known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Located just to the west of the island of Great Britain, Ireland had its own distinctive customs and culture. Most significantly, while Protestantism was the predominant religion in Great Britain, most native Irish people were Roman Catholics. However, both politically and economically, Ireland had long been dominated by Britain.

This dominant British presence in Ireland went back to the middle ages, when Norman knights from England first arrived in Ireland at the invitation of local Irish chieftains. The British presence in Ireland grew over the next few hundred years, for a variety of reasons. During the reign in England of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603), British settlers (mainly from Scotland) went to Ireland and suppressed local Irish resistance. In the mid-1600s, British rule of Ireland was further consolidated by the English Parliamentary leader Oliver Cromwell, whose army scoured the Irish countryside. Cromwell drove many thousands of native Irish from their land and persecuted Irish Catholics. The Roman Catholic Church was outlawed in 1695, but Catholic priests continued to practice underground.

Periodically, Irish factions rebelled against British rule, but these rebellions (notably one in 1798) were easily put down. (Ironically, many of the leaders of these Irish nationalist movements were Irish Protestants who were descended from earlier British settlers.) In 1800 the Irish parliament in Dublin was dissolved, and the two countries were joined under a single government headquartered in London. Nonetheless, despite British persecution of the native Irish, a distinctive Irish identity remained strong. By the late nineteenth century many Irish people aspired to a form of limited Irish independence known as Home Rule.

The Great Famine of the 1840s saw the deaths or emigration of some several million Irish men, women, and children—more than half the total population of Ireland at the time. However, this period proved a turning point in the Irish struggle for self-determination. In 1879 a Catholic nationalist named Michael Davitt formed the Irish National Land League, which agitated for rights for the Irish Catholic tenants of Protestant-owned land. Davitt is mentioned in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, along with Charles Stuart Parnell.

The action of A Portrait occurs some time after the activities of Davitt and the downfall of Parnell. However, in the novel the memory of Parnell is still strong. Joyce, an individualist, was disturbed both by Ireland's nationalist politics and the strict doctrine of the Catholic Church. He regarded himself as a cosmopolitan, a citizen of Europe if not of the world. This is made very clear in the final chapter of A Portrait, in which Stephen Dedalus declares his intention to fly past the nets of "nationality, religion, language." Nonetheless, like Stephen himself, Joyce was very much shaped by the history and religion of his country. Ironically, the Irish nationalist uprising that eventually led to Irish independence occurred in 1916, the very year in which A Portrait was published in England. By this time, Joyce was living in Zurich.

Joyce's Ireland: The Literary Context

By the time Joyce made his mark as a writer, Ireland already had a long and distinguished literary history. During the so-called Dark Ages, Irish monks helped preserve classical learning, copying classical texts in beautiful manuscripts. Poets were greatly esteemed and held high positions in the courts of Irish kings. During the long period of British domination, some of the finest writers in the English language were Anglo-Irish (that is, Irish of British descent). Among these were the poet and satirist Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), who served as dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin; the poet and prose writer Oliver Goldsmith (1730?–1774); the statesman and political philosopher Edmund Burke (1729–1797); the lyricist Thomas Moore (1779–1852); the novelist Maria Edgeworth (1768–1849); and the comic writers Somerville and Ross (pen name of Edith Somerville, 1858–1949, and Violet Martin, 1862–1915), whose stories chronicled the chaotic lives of Anglo-Irish landlords and their servants and tenants in the "big houses" of rural Ireland.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1880s–1910s: The entire island of Ireland is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ire land. Ireland does not have its own government, but Irish representatives are elected to the British Parliament in London.

    Today: The independent Republic Ireland, comprised of 26 Irish counties, has its own government in Dublin. The six counties of Northern Ireland remain affiliated with the United Kingdom and send representatives to the Parliament in London.
  • 1880s–1910s: The majority of Irish people be long to the Roman Catholic Church, which has a strong influence on most of the population. However, most of the leading writers, landowners, and political figures in Ireland belong to the Church of Ireland, a Protestant denomination related to the Church of England.

    Today: Roman Catholicism is the predominant religion in the Republic of Ireland, with ninety-five percent of the population considered Catholic. Virtually all Irish political leaders are Catholics. However, the Church's influence on Irish society is less strong than in the past.
  • 1880s–1910s: A large number of educated people, including James Joyce himself, emigrate abroad in search of greater economic and cultural opportunities.

    Today: Irish emigration rates remained high for most of the twentieth century. However, by the 1990s, authorities report that many young educated Irish who had moved abroad are returning to Ireland, attracted by a vibrant economy and an interesting cultural life.
  • 1916: A small group of Irish nationalists seizes the main post office in Dublin and proclaims Ireland an independent republic. British troops quickly crush the revolt and fifteen revolutionary leaders are executed. However, support for independence grows; in 1922 the twenty-six southern counties of Ireland gain self-government as the Irish Free State. The majority of voters in the six northern counties—Northern Ireland—vote to remain part of the United Kingdom.

    Today: Members of the outlawed IRA (Irish Republican Army) carry out intermittent attacks against British troops and pro-British Protestant citizens in Northern Ireland, as well as terrorist bombings in England. However, the majority of Irish people, both Catholics and Protestants, favor a peaceful solution to the problems in Northern Ireland.

By the mid-1800s, however, sentimental stories and ballads of no great literary merit were the norm. The late 1800s and early 1900s—the time frame during which A Portrait is set—saw a movement known as the Irish Literary Revival. Leading writers in this movement were Douglas Hyde (1860–1949, founder of the Gaelic League), Lady Augusta Gregory (1852–1932), and the playwright John Millington Synge (1871–1909). Unquestionably the central figure in this group was the poet and dramatist William Butler Yeats (1865–1939). Almost single-handedly Yeats created a new Irish literature. By the time Joyce was an undergraduate student at University College, Dublin, Yeats was the most famous living Irish writer. However, the work of Yeats and his associates made much use of Irish themes and subjects drawn from Irish folklore and mythology.

Joyce, on the other hand, had discovered the work of French writers and of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Stephen Dedalus's statements in Chapter Five of A Portrait suggest that Joyce had already decided to reject the celebration of Irish nationalism as a literary theme. When the young Joyce was introduced to Yeats, he told Yeats that the poet was already too old to help him. Rather than write about ancient heroes and legends, Joyce wanted to chronicle the lives of ordinary people in his early fiction.

There is another notable difference between Joyce and his best-known predecessors. At a time when Protestants dominated the cultural institutions of Ireland, Joyce was the first major Irish Catholic writer. Even though he himself rejected Roman Catholicism—a process that is detailed in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—he made his religious background an integral aspect of this novel. And although he wrote brilliantly in the English language, Joyce was keenly aware that he wrote in the language of Ireland's conquerors.

Critical Overview

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man attracted much attention when it was published, and also caused controversy. The book was widely reviewed in Europe and the United States. The most enthusiastic reactions came from other leading novelists and intellectuals of the period, who acclaimed it as a work of genius. However, not all early critics agreed on the book's merits. Rather than praising its originality, some critics denounced the work as formless or as blasphemous and obscene.

The English novelist H. G. Wells reviewed the book in 1917, the year after its publication. Writing in the New Republic, Wells called it "by far the most living and convincing picture that exists of an Irish Catholic upbringing. It is a mosaic of jagged fragments that … [renders] with extreme completeness the growth of a rather secretive, imaginative boy in Dublin." Wells went on to remark that "one believes in Stephen Dedalus as one believes in few characters in literature." However, Wells was also disturbed by Joyce's references to sex and bodily functions. Like many critics of the time, Wells felt that these subjects were best left out of a serious work of literature. Joyce, he said, "would bring back into the general picture of life aspects which modern drainage and modern decorum have taken out of ordinary intercourse and conversation."

Other critics were more blunt and more scathing in their attacks on the novel. An anonymous reviewer in Everyman called the book "garbage" and said that "we feel that Mr. Joyce would be at his best in a treatise on drains." Some of the reviews in Ireland were particularly harsh. A reviewer for the Irish Book Lover warned that "no clean-minded person could possibly allow it to remain within reach of his wife, his sons or daughters." The reviewer for the British newspaper the Manchester Guardian was more receptive, saying that "When one recognizes genius in a book one had perhaps best leave criticism alone."

The distinguished British novelist Ford Madox Ford admired the book for its stylistic excellence. In a 1922 review of Joyce's next novel, Ulysses, he paid tribute to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He called it "a book of such beauty of writing, such clarity of perception, such a serene love of and interest in life, and such charity…."

The book's impact continued to be felt in Ireland long after Joyce's death. Although the Catholic Church disapproved, important Irish writers saw it as the first great Irish novel of the twentieth century. In 1955, the short-story writer Sean O'Faolain remarked that "this autobiographical-imaginative record [is] so mesmeric, so hypnotic a book that I can never speak of it to young readers without murmuring, Enter these enchanted woods ye who dare…."

In the decades since its publication, A Portrait of a Artist as a Young Man has continued to receive the attention of many scholars and critics. It has perhaps suffered in comparison with Ulysses, which critics generally regard as a much richer, more ambitious, and more complex novel. For example, Joyce's biographer Richard Ellmann devoted an entire book (Ulysses on the Liffey) to Ulysses but had noticeably less to say about A Portrait.

The Oxford don J. I. M. Stewart (better known as the author of detective novels under the pseudonym Michael Innes) appreciated Joyce's command of language and imaginative brilliance in A Portrait, but felt that the result was uneven. According to Stewart, "Stephen Dedalus is presented to us with a hitherto unexampled intimacy and immediacy." However, Stewart found that this was "achieved at some cost to the vitality of the book as a whole." Because the narrative focuses exclusively on Stephen's thoughts, the reader is "locked up firmly inside Stephen's head." As a result, Stewart says, "There are times when when we feel like shouting to be let out." Also, because the central character "is aware of other people only as they affect his own interior chemistry, there is often something rather shadowy about the remaining personages in the book."

Hugh Kenner has pointed out that the opening pages of the novel attempt to do something that has never been done before. The author does not guide the reader in understanding the narrative, but leaves the reader to work things out for himself or herself. Kenner sums up the book's impact on literary history, saying that after this novel, "Fiction in English would never be the same."


Jhan Hochman

Hochman, who teaches at Portland Community College, analyzes whether Joyce's hero should be viewed as either serious or absurd, and he discusses references to Greek mythology in the book.

James Joyce's first published novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), recounts Stephen Dedalus's struggle to understand and then break free of family, church, and country. The journey of this representative young artist is a growing apart or wrenching away from increasingly imprisoning influences, in Stephen's case, from an economically impoverished home, a theologically impoverished Catholic Church, and the politically impoverished nationalism of Irish independence. Crucial here is that familial, religious, and national "railings" that first fascinate and guide the child increasingly become "bars" that imprison the adult. The task of the artist, then, is to break free of these constraints and from their bars forge new and better formations. The artist will create not only the guide-posts and protective railings of the future, but in the process will likely have to sacrifice his well-being and perhaps a bit of his sanity as well. For Joyce, the image of the artist apart conjures up ambivalence, specifically, excitement alternating with dread.

At the beginning of A Portrait of the Artist, Stephen is not only a very young child, an "object" protected and guided, but an object in a story, a character (baby tuckoo) "written" in by his father's narration. Stephen is the near-opposite of a man apart—he is the very young child whose story is being created by another. Stephen is at once both a child shaped by his parents and a character embedded in a story he didn't create, a combination producing an object who is anything but apart. Later, at home and in Catholic school, Stephen is either speechless (at Christmas dinner) or victimized (knocked down by schoolmates and beaten on the palms by a prefect). Stephen's only independence revolves around his sensitivities to words ("belt," "iss," "suck") and stimuli, especially temperature, moisture, and smell.

By the end of Chapter One, however, Stephen commits his first real act of independence: he protests his palm-whipping. At the end of Chapter Two, the increasing apartness Stephen feels as the result of his family's sudden poverty and his sen-sibilities—which separate him from his father and his surroundings—culminates in his "French kiss" with a prostitute, the prelude to a period of whoring that would seem to break his ties to Catholicism. The social apartness created by Stephen's whoring is less a creative, artistic separation than a destructive, uncreative separation, a mere rebellion. Therefore, in Chapter Three, Stephen gradually regrets his falling away from the Church until, at the end, he not only confesses but readies himself for the Host. In this chapter, Joyce creates, after a gradual slope toward the heights of separation, a fall: this physically central chapter of the book is a loss of Stephen's momentum toward apartness, a reversal, a device to create audience conflict and make final victory more sweet: the reader, cheering Stephen on toward separation, wonders, "Can he do it, can he really break free?"

What Do I Read Next?

  • Dubliners is James Joyce's first published book of fiction. It is a collection of fifteen short stories about ordinary characters in Dublin in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The themes are childhood, adolescence, maturity, and old age. Some of the stories first appeared in an Irish magazine in 1904, under the pseudonym "Stephen Dedalus." The last and most famous story, "The Dead," was finished in 1907, but publication of the book was delayed until 1914.
  • The character Stephen Dedalus also appears in Joyce's 1922 novel, Ulysses, a classic of literary modernism. The action is set in a single day, June 16, 1904 (the date on which Joyce met his future wife, Nora Barnacle). The story follows Stephen, a newspaper advertising salesman named Leopold Bloom, and Bloom's wife Molly as they go about their business in Dublin. This elaborately structured novel parallels Homer's classic epic The Odyssey. Each chapter is written in a different prose style, and Joyce makes much use of the stream-of-consciousness technique.
  • The Country Girls, published in 1960, is the first novel by Edna O'Brien, Ireland's most famous female writer. Two girls leave their homes in the Irish countryside and go to Dublin to escape their strict Catholic upbringing and seek excitement. Because of its feminist viewpoint and frank treatment of adolescent female sexuality, this book caused much controversy when it was published.
  • Fools of Fortune (1983), by William Trevor, is about a doomed love affair during the Irish civil war as seen through the eyes of a young boy. Born in Ireland in 1928, Trevor is considered one of the finest Irish writers of his time and is particularly known for his poignant short stories.
  • Christopher Nolan's Under the Eye of the Clock (1987) is a remarkable autobiography by a young Dubliner who is severely physically disabled and unable to speak. Nolan overcame great obstacles to write a book that critics have compared to the work of Joyce.
  • Richard Ellmann's James Joyce (1959, revised 1982) is the definitive biography of this author.
  • For a different view of Joyce's life in Europe, read Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom, by Brenda Maddox. Published in 1988, this book shows how Nora Barnacle helped Joyce as he struggled to create great literature in the face of economic and personal hardship.
  • The Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland, edited by R. F. Foster and published in 1989, is a good introduction to Irish history. Chapter Six, "Irish Literature and Irish History," by Declan Kiberd, provides a useful survey of Irish writers and their relationship to the culture from which they sprung. Among the many interesting pictures is a photograph of James Joyce at the piano.

Joyce keeps reader conflict alive as Stephen decides to mortify his flesh and devote himself to prayer. But Stephen's movement toward separate-ness cannot, of course, be stopped: interior apartness is manifested when Stephen declines an offer to join the Jesuits; exterior apartness is forced on him when his family must move because they cannot pay the rent. Later, Stephen wanders alone on the beach meditating on his apartness from immature peers and staring at multiple figurings of his solitude: little islands of sand amidst the sea; the moon as a body detached from earth, solitary in the evening sky; a hawklike man confused for a god.

Chapter Five cuts once and for all Stephen's ties to family, religion, and nation. Leaving the house, Stephen figuratively leaves behind the economic and spiritual poverty that make him feel apart. Then he asserts his interior solitude. Arriving at the Catholic university, he scorns a dean for his cloistered lifelessness, attends a boring physics class with cobwebbed windows and a droning professor, and denounces a political gathering for its unthinking worship of hero and nation. In conversations with friends, and in a poem he writes to the shawled girl, E. C., or Emma Clery (fully named in Stephen Hero, Joyce's first and only unpublished novel from which A Portrait of the Artist was taken), Stephen asserts aesthetic independence. Finally, Stephen asserts his independence from nation when he tells Cranly he will leave Ireland. Here then, is a heroic odyssey into apartness, one ending far from its beginning: from a character (baby tuckoo) in someone else's story and real life drama (his family's) to, at the end of the book, Stephen's diary entries, those solitary, mini-narratives, where others become, for Stephen, characters in his story. Stephen traverses the distance from a character inextricably interconnected to a creator apart.

A recurring debate in Joyce criticism concerns this issue of Stephen's heroism. The question is whether Stephen's journey from character in a story to the creator of stories is heroic. Joyce's brother, Stanislaus, regarded the title he invented, Stephen Hero, as deliberately ridiculous. Wayne Booth states and asks, "The young man takes himself and his flight with deadly solemnity. Should we?" F. Parvin Sharpless answers, "Joyce's classicism sees all aspects of human life as meaningful and absurd at the same time. This is true even of things which he might be expected to value most: the creative process of the literary artist." While Sharpless's answer is a good one, it might be better if Booth's question were broken into two more specific questions. First, Is Stephen an exciting victor or a tragic loser? Second, Is Stephen a serious or absurd figure?

Searching for an answer to the winner/loser question, readers can look back to the last name Stanislaus Joyce invented for Stephen, "Dedalus." Daedulus, "Old father, old artificer" as Stephen calls him in the last line of the book, was a mythical Greek figure whose name means "cunning craftsman." Recall here Stephen's declaration: "I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning." Daedulus is an ambivalent figure. A renowned sculptor and engineer, he apprenticed his nephew, Talos, but pushed him off a cliff when Talos proved a greater genius than Daedulus and when it was discovered Talos was having incestuous relations with his own mother, Daedulus's sister. Daedulus also built several ambivalent devices. First, a hollow wooden cow so King Minos's wife Pasiphae could have sex with a magnificent white bull. Second, the labyrinth, which kept in the half-man/half-bull minotaur (the monstrous product of the coupling mentioned above) but also kept his food—humans—from getting out. Finally, Daedulus created the famous wax wings that melted and caused Icarus's fall.

In summary, Daedulus, the mythic character on which Joyce builds his novel's character, is not just skillful but deceitful or cunning. Further his devices are ambivalent, both good and bad. The depiction of Daedulus, and other artificers in mythology, points to the idea that human creation and creations have their price, their down side, just as valued knowledge of good and evil produced its price: the Fall from the Garden of Eden.

The reader should also recall the Latin epigraph (opening quotation) from Portrait of the Artist that Joyce borrowed from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Here is a translation: "And [Daedulus] altered/improved the laws of nature," written in the context of constructing the waxy wings. The figure of the great artist and grand artificer are myths still having purchase on the present, on the role of the artist, but especially for our own times, on the ambivalent state of technology: that all creations are ambivalent, not only in their effects upon their creators, but upon nature and humanity. The artist, then, is both hero and, like Daedulus, Icarus and Talos, victims who when approaching too close to the gods or the "laws" of nature, must either be punished or sacrificed. This is key to understanding Stephen's friends calling him "Bous Stephanomenos" and "Bous Stephanoforos." As Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch explains, Bous is Greek for bull. Foros is the bull as powerful victor and menos is the bull as sacrificed animal. Stephen, as artist, is this bull, an ambivalent symbol of powerful victor and tragic victim.

While the bull symbol still has application to the pagan bullfight, it has largely been replaced by the Christian symbol of a meek sacrificial lamb. The lamb may have less magical ambivalence because it is not both strong and weak, but it does have greater application to the more common defeat of the weaker by the stronger. Armed with all of this classical mythology, it should be clearer why Stephen has been represented as a bull rather than a lamb: he is strong, or resolved, and un-Christian; further he is becoming a pagan, a lover of nature, the senses, and experience.

Now to the question of whether Stephen is absurd or serious, which may, in turn, be broken down into multiple specific questions. Here are just three of many that could have been asked. Is the recently self-excommunicated Stephen absurdly selfish or uncompromisingly principled when he refuses to do his "easter duty" for his mother? Is Stephen's villanelle to be taken by readers as an adolescent poem or a serious work of art? Is Stephen's own association with Daedulus, including the line, "I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race," to be looked on as the product of foolish youth, or as an inspiring declaration. There is little doubt that Stephen views his principles, artistic output, and philosophy as serious. But, echoing Booth, should we? This is a far more difficult question than whether Stephen is a winner or loser for this answer depends far more on taste. While Joyce, as I hope I have shown, furnishes ample and hard hints that Stephen is both winner and loser, Joyce does not tell the reader what his—Joyce's—tastes are.

Some might sympathize with Stephen's principled rejection of his "easter duty" feeling that his mother will get over it. And some of us might like Stephen's anti-love poem which combines images of mother, Virgin, and Emma Clery; womb and mind; gestation and artistic creation; the child, the poem, the art object; religious devotion, sexual attraction, and self-sacrifice. But others might view the poem and its creation as elementary. But there is still the question of whether we readers should regard Stephen's most famous declaration above as absurd or serious. In other words, should we understand this line as an example of childish megalomania, hubris, and youthful pride bound for an adult fall? Or is this serious stuff, the artist as smith of a new conscience, new ethics, a new way of seeing and understanding the world?

Perhaps this question can have no answer, since we cannot know what Joyce meant here (unless it is stated somewhere clearly in his letters). Without evidence we must decide for ourselves. Perhaps it is just as well. Even if we interpret Stephen as a selfish and foolish youth, it is less the rightness or wrongness of his struggle that is at issue than depicting the struggle itself. And, after all, if Stephen is selfish and foolish, this is, after all, a portrait of a young man, not a mature one. Had Stephen's principles, poems, and aesthetic philosophy been mature and fully formed, these would not have belonged to the realist portrait of a young man.

Whether or not one likes the way Stephen handles his struggle, it does show the effects of the battle fought by anyone refusing to act on certain received ideas or act out particular received practices: ostracism, loneliness, self-doubt, and conversely, intolerance, selfishness, hubris. In many ways, Joyce knew these problems as his own. Should readers fault either Joyce or Stephen—or both—if they deem Stephen's principles selfish, his poem adolescent, and his declaration overblown? Or should they credit Joyce for a realistic portrait of youth? As answering involves knowing the thoughts of Joyce, perhaps it is better to shift focus from mere evaluation of talent toward his work's effect on the world. Perhaps we might say the following: If Stephen and Joyce can be faulted for anything, it is far less for what they said and did than what they didn't say or do. That is, in Portrait of the Artist both concentrated almost exclusively on how the artist, him or herself, must suffer and be sacrificed for freedom. On the other hand, precious little in Portrait of the Artist indicated how the artist's "alteration or improvement of nature," as Ovid put it in Joyce's epigraph, impacts upon the world.

Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.

William O'Neill

In the excerpt below, O'Neill illustrates how Joyce's understanding, appreciation, and use of myth in forming one's identity is revealed in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The Literary Revival of turn-of-the-century Dublin was much concerned with expressing Irish aspirations through heroes. Finn and Cuchullain supplied imaginatively what Ireland had not been able to achieve in reality: an Irish hero who vanquished all foes. Joyce's contempt for this form of self-consolation is well documented. In his broadside "The Holy Office" he parodies Yeats as he declares that he, Joyce, "must not accounted be / One of that mumming company." Stephen of Stephen Hero devotes much energy to debunking the Revival. What is perhaps less well known is that Joyce's initial contempt gave way to a profound understanding of the psychology of the Revival and of the uses of myth in the creation of identity….

The English, having been their own masters for centuries, have created many models of the successful life; the Irish, being colonials, have been unable to do so. As with American blacks and Indians, subjection to a foreign culture has destroyed all authority figures in the society.

This latter point is, I think, the theme of the first episode of A Portrait. The novel begins with the beginning of a children's story, a moocow coming down along the road and meeting a nicens little boy, Stephen. The little boy, who will grow up to become the "bullock befriending bard," learns as he grows older to associate cows with mothers and with mother Ireland. And what comes down along the road and meets Stephen in the early part of the novel is his nationality. He goes off to Clongowes to find that his father is not as important as the other fathers.

—What is your father?

Stephen had answered:

—A gentleman.

Then Nasty Roche had asked:

—Is he a magistrate?

Lesson: the civil officers of the English government are the important people in Ireland. He learns the Story of Hamilton Rowan, who used the only strategy available to him, silence, exile, and cunning, to escape English captivity. Lesson: Irish heroes are not conquerors, but people who cope cleverly with being conquered. He gets shouldered into the square ditch. Lesson: the small and the weak must develop cunning or must suffer.

He summarizes the lessons he has learned on the flyleaf of his geography book:

Stephen Dedalus

Class of Elements

Clongowes Wood College


County Kildare



The World

The Universe

For now, at least, he is defined by his place. His mind will be formed by the experience of this place. And the process of formation is what we are reading: the narrative style of this section is that of a young boy's internal voice explaining the salient features to himself:

That was the way a rat felt, slimy and damp and cold. Every rat had two eyes to look out of. Sleek slimy coats, little little feet tucked up to jump, black shiny eyes to look out of. They could understand how to jump. But the minds of rats could not understand trigonometry. When they were dead they lay on their sides. Their coats dried then. They were only dead things.

Unlike the internal voice of Maria in the story "Clay," which helps her exclude anything which might endanger her rather fragile idea of who she is, Stephen's voice, like Leopold Bloom's, actively explores his world and comes to conclusions about world and self that are scrupulously tentative. It is this scientific approach which will eventually enable him to see his personal myths and those of his culture for what they are: an imaginative accommodation of subject status to the creation of a significant self.

Stephen's education in the effects of colonial status is also the theme of the Christmas dinner episode which follows. The real tragedy of the fight between Dante and the two men, Mr. Casey and Simon Dedalus, is not that the family does not get along, but that their ideas of themselves have been formed entirely by the institutions that govern them. Their powerless rage succeeds only in spoiling the dinner, and is capped by Mr. Casey's tale of spitting in a woman's eye, and Dante's boast of the church's role in killing Parnell. Injustice of the conqueror begets the meaner injustice of the conquered. This Christmas dinner is Stephen's first with the adults; the children eat in a separate room. It is his initiation into the adult world, and what he learns is that, in Ireland at least, there is no adult world. Stephen writes his complete address as citizen of the universe, but Simon, Mr. Casey, Dante show him that Ireland will be his farthest boundary if he stays there.

Stephen encounters his nationality just as David Copperfield encounters Murdstone and Grinby's warehouse or as Pip gets temporarily lost in the feckless Finches of the Grove men's club, but his is the greater hurdle. The nationality dilemma is particularly insidious because one's identity is derived from the very thing that is the impediment to one's development.

Young Stephen comes to awareness of his situation only gradually, by intuiting from small signs. There is something about the adult males around him that affects his feeling about himself. For example, he thinks how pleasurable it would be to deliver milk for a living

if he had warm gloves and a fat bag of gingernuts in his pocket to eat from. But the same foreknowledge which had sickened his heart and made his legs sag suddenly as he raced round the park, the same intuition which had made him glance with mistrust at his trainer's flabby stubblecovered face as it bent heavily over his long stained fingers, dissipated any vision of the future. In a vague way he understood that his father was in trouble and that this was the reason why he himself had not been sent back to Clongowes.

The father's descent has apparently been precipitated, as John Joyce's was, by the demise of Parnell and the victory of anti-Parnell forces within the Irish Party. Stephen's fantasies of himself as the Count of Monte Cristo indicate that something of this has come through to his youthful consciousness. The Monte Cristo fantasy is formed on the same pattern as the Celtic Revival fantasy. Edmond Dantès (read heroic Ireland) languishes in prison while Mercedes (read Kathleen ni Houlihan) is forced to marry the rich enemy; Dantès escapes, becomes rich Count, gets revenge. It is, of course, the usual fantasy of the powerless. Later Stephen will figure himself as artist spurned by a materialist woman, and, in Ulysses, as Hamlet: characters wrongfully cast out by philistines. The mythic formula of his life has been determined by the story of Parnell and its aftermath in his own family. The Celtic Revivalists had resurrected Parnell as Cuchullain, but Stephen, as he did under the table, chiasmically changes the form of the story. Parnell rises from obscurity to heroic status, then falls; Dantès falls from heroic status to obscurity, then rises. In progressing from the Count to Hamlet, one essential change has taken place: his youthful belief in ultimate victory has been defeated.

This habit of savoring one's position as victim of injustice is a species of mental sin discussed by Aquinas under the name "morose delectation." "He chronicled with patience what he saw, detaching himself from it and testing its mortifying flavour in secret." It is a solitary sin, dependent for its continuance upon continued mortification. This helps to explain why Stephen is not interested in joining societies for the improvement of things in general:

[W]hen the movement towards national revival had begun to be felt in the college yet another voice had bidden him be true to his country and help to raise up her fallen language and tradition…. [But] he was happy only when he was far from [such voices], beyond their call, alone or in the company of phantasmal comrades.

As an alternative to his private myths the Celtic Revival is emotionally unsatisfactory: the spring-dayish optimism of the civic improver lacks the kind of interesting complexity he seeks.

In choosing Edmond Dantès over Cuchullain, Stephen has chosen, with Gabriel Conroy, the Continent in preference to Ireland. He has also chosen a literary form: he has chosen to be a novelistic hero in preference to an epic hero. As M. M. Bakhtin has pointed out, epic heroes do not develop and they have no secrets:

The individual in the high distanced genres is an individual of the absolute past and of the distanced image as such, he is a fully finished and completed being. This has been accomplished on a lofty heroic level, but what is complete is also something hopelessly ready-made…. He is, furthermore, completely externalized. There is not the slightest gap between his authentic essence and his external manifestation. All his potential, all his possibilities are realized utterly in his external social position…. Everything in him is exposed and loudly expressed.

Clearly, Stephen Dedalus, he who hides under the table and composes the chiasmic word-charm, he who will understand trigonometry and politics, cannot be a never-changing Cuchullain. Similarly, the world that he inhabits cannot be the easily interpreted good-or-bad world of the epic and of the Celtic Revival; it must be the difficult to interpret world of the novel. Cuchullain always knows who his enemies are. Even if they are his son or his foster brother, there is no doubt about their enmity, and his course of action is clear. Edmond Dantès, on the other hand, does not know who his enemies are, is not aware of all the machinations and secret self-interests that determine his fate.

The peasant theme in A Portrait offers an example of the shifting and tentative, the novelistic nature of Stephen's personal mythopoeia. Stephen's thoughts on the subject begin with a struggle between the romantic view of peasants as picturesque and the view that associates them with darkness and bats, and, unlike the peasant theme in Stephen Hero, undergoes a progression. Stephen, going to sleep at Clongowes, thinks,

It would be lovely to sleep for one night in that cottage before the fire of smoking turf, in the dark lit by the fire, in the warm dark, breathing the smell of the peasants, air and rain and turf and corduroy. But, O, the road there between the trees was dark! You would be lost in the dark. It made him afraid to think of how it was.

Romantic notions based on the repetition of the word fire give way as the word dark repeats in his mind. Living with peasants would destroy his boundary line, the embryonic identity he has been constructing; the "you" he has created, a person who, in contrast with rats, will someday understand trigonometry and politics, would disappear in the darkness.

But his attitude is not one of simple revulsion. He likes the way peasants smell, and from the beginning he has associated the sense of smell with his mother, who put the queer-smelling oilsheet on his bed. Mothers are frightening too because they embody the dark womb that precedes the "once upon a time" of consciousness. He sees the peasant seductress of Davin's story as "a type of her race and his own, a batlike soul waking to the consciousness of itself in darkness and secrecy and loneliness and, through the eyes and voice and gesture of a woman without guile, calling the stranger to her bed." The guileless Kathleen calls the stranger, a common Irish term for the English, to her bed. The political joining of Ireland with England which took place in 1800 was called the Act of Union. Out of this union is born the "disorder, the misrule and confusion of his father's house and the stagnation of vegetable life, which was to win the day in his soul."

Later the girl he is in love with flirts with a priest who is of the Celtic Revival persuasion. The priest, Father Moran, has a brother who is a potboy in Moycullen, so Stephen imagines her as giving herself to the peasantry and associates her with Davin's seductress. Again: feminity—peasantry—preconsciousness. Stephen contrasts himself to this peasant priest: he himself is the "priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life." In the logic of this metaphor the Celtic Revival is journeying into dark chaos looking for the "radiant image of the eucharist." And the priest is perfectly willing to encourage the journey toward the Celtic past and toward the peasant life, knowing that it leads to Catholic Ireland.

The peasant theme of the novel concludes with the diary entry—a condensation of a section of Stephen Hero—about John Alphonsus Mulrennan, a Celtic Revival folklorist who has just returned with a new hoard of material he got from an old man with red eyes; material about terrible queer creatures at the latter end of the world. Stephen, as he did at Clongowes, expresses fear:

I fear him. I fear his redrimmed horny eyes. It is with him I must struggle all through this night till day come, till he or I lie dead, gripping him by the sinewy throat till … Till what? Till he yield to me? No. I mean him no harm.

It is here that the peasant theme reveals itself for what it has been from the start: a personal myth which has changed gradually in its meaning. At Clongowes Stephen longed for some ideal life away from home and school, a Lake Isle of Innisfree, and the peasant cottage appeared briefly in this form. Then he needed a creation myth to explain his condition, and Davin's Kathleen ni Houlihan seductress filled the part. Later, as he began to see his life as a struggle for intellectual survival the peasant became the force of primordial darkness. In Mulrennan's account, however, he is too much the real peasant, with pipe and comic carryings on, to sustain any of these myths. The peasant myth collapses. And with the collapse Stephen takes a step toward achieving the classical temper he has been striving for.

The first step in the direction of truth is to understand the frame and scope of the intellect itself, to comprehend the act itself of intellection. Aristotle's entire system of philosophy rests upon his book of psychology and that, I think, rests on his statement that the same attribute cannot at the same time and in the same connection belong to and not belong to the same subject.

Stephen's peasant, like the Celtic Revival peasant, has been formed by the fears and desires of the beholder. In this final passage, before he catches himself at it, he has nearly turned the peasant into the jailer of Edmond Dantès. Stephen, like his countrymen, has been actively repairing the damage of colonial status with elaborate mental constructions. Having begun to realize this, he rejects the Yeatsian reconstruction of the Celtic past as the proper goal of his art: "Michael Robartes remembers forgotten beauty … Not this. Not this at all." According to his own esthetic doctrine he will have to learn to see through his own mental nimbus and discover a consistent view of his subject based upon its perceivable attributes.

And A Portrait itself, when compared to Stephen Hero, illustrates this point. In Stephen Hero Stephen's objection to the Celtic Revival is the subject; in A Portrait the mythopoeic process itself—the human need which results in Celtic Revivals—is the subject. "Once upon a time" signals the beginning of Stephen's conscious life as the be-ginning of a made-up story. "He was baby tuckoo." All human identity is myth-created. We know ourselves by a story we tell, or are told. Joyce has "disentangle[d] the subtle soul of the image from its nest of defining circumstances." "The image," that which will be his artistic subject in all of his major work, is identity and mythopoeia.

The theme is a treacherous one; to deal with it the writer must first undergo a stripping of his own self-myth. The high-flying images of the final diary entry show that Stephen, although he has taken the first steps, is not yet ready. In Ulysses, under the tutelage of the clear-eyed Leopold Bloom, he will complete the lesson begun here.

Source: William O'Neill, "Myth and Identity in Joyce's Fiction: Disentangling the Image," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 40, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 379-91.

William T. Noon

Noon is an American educator and literary scholar who has written frequently on Joyce's work. He is the author of Joyce and Aquinas. In the following excerpt, he offers a general study of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, focusing upon it as a novel of personal rebellion.

James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was first published forty-seven years ago, not in Ireland but in New York, 1916. This was a year in the First World War; in Dublin the year of the Easter Week rebellion. Joyce, then at Zurich in neutral Switzerland, was thirty-three, fifteen years younger than [Samuel] Butler had been when he gave up his rewriting of The Way of All Flesh. The haze was not so dense for Joyce, and he had not so far to look backward. The Portrait is also a most carefully rewritten or restyled novel, in fact an entirely recast one. He had begun it in its original form as Stephen Hero even before he went away from Ireland in 1904. He had carried this first form of the book forward to double the final, present length of the Portrait, and then gave it up still incomplete so as to start his story all over. Looking back, he himself called Stephen Hero "rubbish." But even as it stands, the Portrait might be justly styled in part an autobiographical revenge, for like Butler Joyce voices through his story the grievances that he still held against his home, his mother country and most of her people. His recollections of the System, if that is the right word here, are rather bitter ones, though the bitter tone is notably muted by comparison of the Portrait with what survives of the earlier Stephen Hero draft. The real life prototypes are at times so thinly veiled that any reader with even the most casual knowledge of James Joyce and his city is obliged to recognize some of them and to sense that the Portrait as a whole is the actual life story of a gifted young man's Catholic upbringing in Ireland at the turn of the century. The great danger is to read it as straight third person, the entire story comes filtered to us through the consciousness of a persona, here the young man whose artistic dilemmas and moral strictures it re-presents. Stylistically it is the most subtle of the three novels in the interaction of its own images and the verbal miming of its own thought. It is a literary classic of our times. Already it shows us Joyce busy as a beaver working hard to rechannel the tradition of the novel and to dam up the deep and dark waters of the subconscious, or unconscious. Quite explicitly he proclaims a revolution of the word.

Rebellion, revolt, and resistance have for centuries found in Ireland a fertile soil in which to flourish. "The Croppy Boy," "Kelly the Boy from Killanne," "The Rising of the Moon," "Seaghan O'Duibhir an Gleanna," are a few only of the defiant rebel songs, set to traditional airs, that Joyce, a gifted singer as a young man, heard in the air all about him in his own Irish days:

   And though we part in sorrow
   Still Seaghan O'Duibhir a cara
   Our prayer is "God, save Ireland"
   And pour blessings on her name.
   May her sons be true when needed,
   May they never fail as we did,
   For Seaghan O'Duibhir an Gleanna
   We're worsted in the game.

Most of these are political rallying songs. James Joyce's disenchantment with Ireland extended so far as to make him despair of the turn taken by most of Ireland's revolutionary politics, of her better-left-unspoken Gaelic speech, and, as he saw it, of the fatal paralysis that left her prostrate at the portals to the realm of the spirit, "the realms of gold" that he himself most of all respected: art, the way of the artist, and in particular the power that the word of the artist, or literature, has to help a people know itself, judge itself truthfully, and face the chaos and possibilities that the contemplation of its own image might disclose. Thus the Portrait becomes an artist's, not a social reformer's story as is Butler's Way. Stephen Dedalus leaves Ireland at the end of the story, but he is defiantly hopeful: "I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." "Silence, exile, and cunning" are the "only arms" that he now finds at hand to defend himself in the unjust warfare that has been provoked, as he sees it, by his home, his fatherland, and his church. No one would dream from this ending that Dublin was then a city of classical song and the center of the Irish Renascence, Lady Gregory, the Abbey Theater, W. B. Yeats; nor might one infer readily, nor indeed at all that some few years earlier, 1886, Dom Columba Marmion, the distinguished Benedictine, a curate in Dundrum on the outskirts of Dublin, also left Ireland to enter a European cloister at Maredsous. Still one wonders sometimes: If those whose job it was to educate James Joyce had been themselves more creative spirits, would his Catholic faith have become so much unhinged? They might have opened their minds and hearts perhaps wider to what was going on in his.

Stephen Dedalus is as deeply convinced that the Church is to blame for the paralysis he finds all around him as had been Butler's Ernest Pontifex. Whereas Ernest blames mostly the Church of England, Stephen blames instead the Church of Rome. For the English Establishment, for Crown and Castle, for the Anglican Ascendancy in Ireland, Stephen has as much contempt as Ernest has for Victorian piety, but Stephen's own spiritual reaction has been conditioned by the Catholicism that as he sees it had made Ireland a land neither of scholars, artists, nor of saints.

The Stephen Dedalus story, at least as we have it in the Portrait, is that of a young man's growing up in Holy Ireland, his discovery of himself and of his vocation, his loss of innocence and his growth in experience, his flight to the continent of Europe. "You talk to me," he says, "of nationality, language, and religion. I shall try to fly by those nets." The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, another subversive book, is the American novel with which the Portrait has been persistently compared. Huck's territory and Stephen's, the wilderness and the urban diaspora, are, however, different kinds of solitude for retreat. Hemingway's Nick Adams, "the town's full of bright boys," and Scott Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway, in The Great Gatsby, are American cousins of Stephen Dedalus as well as is Huck Finn. This quest is age-old, as old as Homer. It sent the son of Odysseus on his travels. Joyce calls the three opening Stephen Dedalus chapters of Ulysses his Telemachia.

The Portrait tells the Stephen story mainly in terms of the three Jesuit schools that Stephen, and Joyce himself, attended in Ireland: Clongowes Wood, an exclusive elementary boarding-school; Belvedere College, or high school, as we might say, Dublin; and, finally, University College, Dublin, the Catholic University that John Henry Newman founded for Ireland in the early 1850s, which had been rescued by the Jesuits from extinction in 1883 and carried on under their administration for the next troubled quarter-century until 1909. Although it might look at first sight as though Stephen is as hard on his Irish Jesuits as Ernest Pontifex is on his Anglican schoolteacher divines, this judgment would go beyond the evidence of the Portrait itself. Father Dolan, "Baldyhead Dolan," the prefect of studies, a priest of the Dr. Skinner type, beats Stephen at Clongowes for having broken his glasses, but Father Arnall, Stephen's own class teacher, is remembered as "very gentle," and Father Conmee, the Clongowes Rector, as a "kind-looking" man, who treats Stephen's protest decently. Long after this, in Finnegans Wake, Joyce alludes to The Way of All Flesh as "a butler's life … strabismal [or, wall-eyed, cross-eyed, and abysmal] apologia." Jesuit readers of the Portrait, more likely than others, are apt to take note of Stephen's appraisal of those Irish Jesuits who in the fiction at least show themselves eager at Belvedere to welcome the sixteen-year-old Stephen as a novice into their own priestly ranks: "Whatever he had heard or read of the craft of Jesuits," writes Joyce, "he [Stephen] had put aside as not borne out by his own experience. His masters, even when they had not attracted him, had seemed to him always intelligent and serious priests."

The central conflict that the Portrait dramatizes is that of Stephen's vocation: Shall he be an artist or shall he be a priest? This conflict is actually resolved in the fourth, or Belvedere, section of the novel, after the crisis of Stephen's high school retreat. Stephen is intellectually tempted by the prospect of a priestly vocation. His imagination, however, is powerless to view this otherwise than as "the pale service of the altar," "cerements shaken from the body of death," and in the half-vision, half-actuality of seeing the bird-like girl "in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea," he makes up his mind not to be a priest but an artist, and to follow this vision of "mortal beauty," "profane joy," wherever it might lead him, even unto "the gates of all the ways of error and glory." Unlike Ernest Pontifex, Stephen never commits himself to a priestly service in which he has no heart: "I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church." Still the Portrait nowhere inveighs against the family system that brings down in retrospect Ernest's strictures. In fact, tried as it is, Stephen's sense of solidarity with his family is very strong. Stephen's father, Simon Dedalus, is a drunkard, but on the whole he is shown as an amiable drunkard, who flirts with the barmaids and knows how to sing. Stephen's mother is a rather ineffectual lady, but always a lady, a gentle lady, even when she and her impoverished brood of children are obliged, after many auctions and house-movings, to live on the wrong side of the tracks as the novel comes to a close.

For the most part its tone is serene; at times it is very comic. It would not be easy to find in modern fiction a more amusing and still realistic scene than the famous Christmas-dinner in the first section, when Stephen comes home from Clongowes Wood during his family's affluent days to celebrate with them the birthday of the Prince of Peace. The Dedalus family and their invited guests quarrel violently about the rights and wrongs of Kitty O'Shea's divorce and the consequent repudiation of Charles Stewart Parnell, "uncrowned king of Ireland": the dinner breaks up with door-slammings, shouts, curses, clenched fists and crashes, upturned chairs and rolling napkin-rings—a first-class Irish brawl. The much frightened little boy Stephen "sobbed loudly and bitterly." As Joyce closes the incident, "Stephen, raising his terror stricken face saw that his father's eyes were full of tears." Whereas the wealthy, leisured aristocrat Towneley is Ernest's hero in The Way of All Flesh, so an idealized Parnell, blameless and broken, is Stephen's hero in the Portrait. Neither Stephen nor James Joyce ever forgave Ireland for throwing Parnell to the wolves. Stephen cannot follow Parnell in person, and he cannot serve God as priest at the altar. He has no call to the drawing-room. What can he do? He can be, he thinks, an artist. In this way he will be saving Parnell and all his people, "race of clodhoppers" that he calls them, for the world of art: "I tried to love God, he [Stephen] said at length. It seems now that I failed."

Fortunately it is not any man's business to judge of Stephen's, or Joyce's, failure before God. Joyce himself succeeded admirably as artist; as he grew older, he edged far away from his symbolic identification with Stephen Dedalus. In Ulysses, the good man is Leopold Bloom: as Joyce told his friend Frank Budgen while Ulysses was still in the making, "As the day wears on Bloom should overshadow them all." And in Finnegans Wake, he is Everyman, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, H.C.E., "Here Comes Everybody," in a story where Everybody is Somebody Else. Stephen Dedalus did not become a priest at the altar, and neither did Joyce. When Stephen says in the Portrait that he will become instead "a priest of the eternal imagination," his metaphor is meaningful, but he is talking about something else than the rite of priestly consecration. This metaphor should not be pushed too far in Stephen's case, and in Joyce's own it is one that has tended to obscure the two vocations between which he made an election; he himself chose not altar but art. It is a choice that haunted him most of his life.

Source: William T. Noon, "Three Young Men in Rebellion," in Thought, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 151, Winter, 1963, pp. 559-77.


Ford Madox Ford, "A Haughty and Proud Generation," in YR, No. 9, 1922, p. 717.

Hugh Kenner, A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers, Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.

J. I. M. Stewart, "James Joyce," in British Writers, Vol. VII, edited by Ian Scott-Kilvert, The British Council/ Charles Scribner's Sons, 1984, pp. 41-58.

For Further Study

Chester G. Anderson, editor, James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Text, Criticism, and Notes, Viking Press, 1968.

Considered the definitive critical edition of Joyce's novel, the work includes excerpts from a number of early reviews.

Bernard Benstock, "James Joyce," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 36: British Novelists, 1890–1929: Modernists, edited by Thomas F. Staley, Gale, 1985, pp. 80-104.

An essay by a leading Joyce scholar. Benstock surveys Joyce's literary accomplishment and discusses the narrative technique and symbolism of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch, "View Points," in Twentieth Century Interpretations of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, edited by William M. Schutte, Prentice Hall, 1968, pp. 114-15.

A discussion of "Bous Stephanomenos" and "Bous Stephanoforos."

Wayne Booth, "The Problem of Distance in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," in Twentieth Century Interpretations of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, edited by William M. Schutte, Prentice Hall, 1968, pp. 85-95.

Booth discusses irony in Portrait.

Joseph A. Buttigieg, A Portrait of the Artist in Different Perspective, Ohio University Press, 1987.

This work attempts to come to terms with the effect of Joyce's modernism in a postmodern age.

Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, Oxford University Press, 1959; second edition, 1982.

The definitive biography of James Joyce by one of the leading scholars of modern Irish literature.

A Nicholas Fargnoli and Michael Patrick Gillespie, James Joyce A to Z, Facts on File/Oxford University Press, 1995.

A handy reference source to the life and work of James Joyce.

William E. Morris and Clifford A. Nault, Jr., editors, Portraits of an Artist, Odyssey, 1962.

This anthology collects publisher's comments, essays, reviews, and pedagogical questions.

W. M. Schutte, editor, Twentieth Century Interpretations of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Prentice-Hall, 1968.

Includes useful essays by a number of scholars including Wayne Booth and Hugh Kenner.

David Seed, James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, St. Martin's, 1992.

This is a study of many aspects—language, women, diary, etc.—of Joyce's novel.

Weldon Thornton, The Antimodernism of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Syracuse University Press, 1994.

Thornton discusses Joyce's novel alongside the question of whether Western society can live with the modernism it has long wished for.

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

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