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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

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English Literature

Stephen Dedalus is a bright young man who grows up in a dark, repressed society that views his thoughts as dangerous. Desperate to become a writer, Stephen yearns to break free from the shackles of identity and create his own self. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) is a semi-autobiographical novel by James Joyce that broke many established conventions and started a few new ones.

The setting of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is set in Dublin, Ireland, around the turn of the 20th century. The vast majority of Ireland's population was devoutly Catholic, and the Catholic Church dominated Irish society. Moral norms and expectations adhered to Catholic teachings, and in all aspects of life, the Church expected complete obedience from the population.

Priests ran the country's educational institutions, strictly enforcing Catholic dogma in the classrooms. This repressive atmosphere is apparent throughout the novel and fundamental to understanding Stephen's struggle to become an artist and an individual.

Another essential element of life in early 20th century Ireland is the struggle for political independence from Britain. A developing sense of Irish nationalism and identity sought to free Ireland from centuries of British colonization emerged in this era and defined the Irish political scene. This sense of identity was often deeply entwined with Catholicism.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Portrait of James Joyce, StudySmarterA portrait of the writer, James Joyce. The book's protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, serves as Joyce's alter-ego.

Summary of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man begins with the early childhood of Stephen Dedalus. His earliest memories are recounted in baby talk. As he becomes more conscious and articulate, the book's text also evolves. Stephen is from a respectable middle-class family on the outskirts of Dublin. At a very early age, he is sent to Clongowes, a boarding school run by Jesuit priests, where he struggles to fit in due to his sensitive and creative nature.

During a visit home at Christmas, Stephen witnesses the family's adults fiercely debate the political leader Charles Stewart Parnell. The fractious argument divides the family over ideas of faith and nationalism and profoundly marks young Stephen. Back at Clongowes, Stephen suffers the wrath of an overly strict Jesuit priest and receives corporal punishment for having broken glasses.

Outraged, Stephen reports the incident to the priest's supervisor, who tells Stephen that it will not occur again. Stephen gains self-confidence from having stood up for himself.

Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891) was the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. As a key figure in the Irish nationalist movement, he led the campaign for Home Rule, a form of self-government for Ireland. In 1890 his affair with a married woman was revealed. Catholic Ireland was scandalized, and he fell from grace. Although Parnell never appears as a character in the novel, his presence looms over Stephen's childhood.

Due to his father's financial blunder, the family is forced to downgrade their lifestyle. After moving to Dublin, Stephen is sent to a day school where he flourishes in writing and begins to question the strict religious dogma that dominates all aspects of life. He feels a burgeoning desire to become a writer and begins to stand out amongst his classmates. He sees his father become more bitter, seeking solace in alcohol and nostalgia.

As Stephen reaches adolescence, he becomes sexually aware and begins to masturbate. Initially feeling guilty about this "sin," Stephen begins a period of decadent indulgence, enjoying gluttony and sloth. He spends most of his scholarship money on prostitutes and becomes increasingly influenced by the philosophies of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas rather than the Church's teachings.

On a three-day spiritual retreat, Stephen is deeply affected by a priest's sermon on the horrors of hell. In fear of eternal damnation, he repents and vows to dedicate the rest of his life to religious devotion. Noticing the change in Stephen, the Jesuit teachers encourage him to consider entering the priesthood. Stephen is torn between the pressure and expectations of religion and his yearning for artistic freedom.

Unable to reconcile his sinful nature with life as a priest, he joins the University set to become a writer. He finds solace in new friends who share some of his ideas but is frustrated by their adherence to the institutions he wishes to escape. He realizes he will never get this in Ireland. It is only in exile that he can become a true artist.

Joyce began drafting Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in 1904. It was originally titled Stephen Hero.

Characters from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Here is a summary of the main characters.

Stephen Dedalus

Stephen Dedalus is a semi-autobiographical version of James Joyce. The novel covers his life from age 6 to 20 and documents his struggle to accept his calling as an artist. Pulled between the highly religious atmosphere of conformity and his desire to be a writer, Stephen reflects on Joyce's struggles and journey. Stephen also appears in Joyce's next novel Ulysses (1922).

The novel's protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, is James Joyce's alter-ego and literary stand-in for this semi-autobiographical novel. Joyce even published a few short stories under the pseudonym early on in his character. So why did Joyce choose such an odd name?

In Greek mythology, Daedalus was a prolific architect and inventor. His king, Minos, commissioned Daedalus to build an elaborate maze to safely contain a beast called the Minotaur. Later on, Daedalus angered his king and was banished, along with his son Icarus, into the inescapable labyrinth. To break free, Daedalus built a set of wings from feathers and wax so they could fly away. Icarus flew too close to the sun, which melted the wax, and plummeted to his death.

Having studied the classics at university, Joyce was intrigued by the tragic beauty of such tales. The Daedalus myth is heavily referenced throughout Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Like Daedalus and Icarus, there is much tension and misunderstanding between Stephen and his father, Simon.

Just like Daedalus, Stephen yearns to be free and wants to escape the narrow confines of life in Ireland, representing the labyrinth. Initially, Stephen is teased for having a strange surname, but he embraces his uniqueness and creativity as the novel progresses. In the book's final chapter, Stephen decides to leave Ireland and follow his calling as an artist. Joyce reflects this using imagery of flying and freedom.

Simon Dedalus

Simon is Stephen's father and head of the Dedalus household. He is a former medical student and shown to be nostalgic for his long-gone past. His financial blunder means the family has to downscale their lifestyle, and he becomes increasingly bitter and detached. Joyce uses Simon to represent the burden of being indebted to the past.

Stephen's father, Simon, is presented as being nostalgic and indebted to the past. How does this contrast with Stephen's view of the world?

Mary Dedalus

Mary is Stephen's very religious mother. She often argues with her son about his reluctance to attend mass and adhere to Catholic teachings.

Emma Clery

Stephen is in love with Emma. She is the inspiration for his early attempts at poetry and is portrayed as being physically beautiful. Stephen's attraction to her remains on a surface level.

Cranly

Cranly is Stephen's fellow student and best friend at University. Stephen opens up to Cranly as the two share similar feelings about art and life. Stephen opens up to him; he needs to escape. Stephen soon recognizes the limit of their friendship when Cranly encourages him to repress his feelings and conform.

Dante (Mrs. Riordan)

The governess to the Dedalus children is highly religious and discourages Stephen from seeing a protestant neighbor.

Themes of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Individual identity

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Themes, StudySmarterStephen struggles with his journey to become both an artist and an individual. Pixabay

Throughout the novel, Stephen is frustrated by the limitations of Irish Catholic society. He is expected to conform to the religious dogma limiting his thoughts and expressions and reject his calling to be an artist. Joyce uses the story to show the formation of Stephen's individual identity – separate from the people and society he grew up in.

As Stephen matures, his consciousness develops, and he can reject the shame and limitations inherent in his setting. The journal entries at the end of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man show Stephen has fully embraced his desire to be a writer and is ready to form his own philosophy of life.

The novel shows Stephen's journey from a member of the collective to an individual. As a child, he believes in the teachings of the Church and the strict identity boundaries of his society. As he grows older, both these conflict with his own development as an artist and individual. Though Stephen tries to reject his calling and embrace the religion of his upbringing, Joyce shows that being an artist is Stephen's real spiritual calling.

Religion

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Catholic statues, StudySmarterIn the Ireland of Joyce's childhood, the Catholic Church held absolute power over all aspects of life. Pixabay

On the journey to becoming an individual, Stephen's biggest struggle is overcoming the influence of Catholicism. The social norms taught by the Church dictate that elements of Stephen's nature are evil and impure; his sexuality, his thoughts, and his desire to be an artist. He wrestles with feelings of inadequacy and shame due to his inability to simply fail in line with the Church's teachings. As the most important social institution in Ireland at the time, Stephen's rejection of the Church, shows us how difficult Joyce's own journey must have been.

Like Joyce himself, Stephen's journey to becoming an artist is not smooth. Stephen is tortured by the idea that his calling and very nature are inherently sinful. As Stephen reaches adolescence and sexual awakening, the tension between his true feelings and the pressures of living a pure life becomes unbearable. He seems to wallow in sinful behavior (masturbation, visiting prostitutes) before running back to the Church to seek forgiveness and absolution. Stephen believes that there are only two choices; living a devout life without the beauty of art or the hedonistic indulgence of beauty without any religious beliefs.

Torn between the two extremes, Stephen struggles to find his true self until Chapter IV, when he witnesses a girl swimming in a stream. He suddenly realizes this moment of everyday life is full of spiritual beauty and that, as a writer, he can capture this beauty through art. He also acknowledges that his sexual desire is natural and part of his identity. This moment clarifies everything for Stephen; finally, he is free of religious guilt and can embrace his call as an artist.

Stephen has a complex relationship with religion and sin throughout the book. Many of his teachers are priests and monks. What was Joyce trying to say about the influence of religion on the education system?

Becoming an artist

Art offers Stephen an escape from the repressed drudgery of his settings; it also becomes his passion. Through reading and writing, Stephen begins to question the social order he grew up in and starts to explore other theories and philosophies outside the teachings of the Catholic Church. After seeing a girl swimming, Stephen realizes that only art can capture the true beauty of life's moments. This realization leads him to embrace his calling and accept that he must commit his life to create art.

Joyce shows how isolating and lonely the life of an artist can be as Stephen is teased and bullied for thinking differently. This response makes Stephen fearful of accepting his calling, but ultimately, Stephen learns that his desire to be an artist is liberating.

Nationalism

Joyce uses Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to explore many key aspects of Irish identity and nationalism. With the family's split over Parnell, Stephen learns about politics' destructive and divisive power. Throughout the novel, he considers the role of history in the Irish identity. While lamenting the lasting impact of the British colonization of Ireland, he seeks to be free of history's debt. Stephen also sees the Catholic Church's control over Ireland as damaging as Britain's colonial rule and complains that the Irish people are too subservient.

Despite being critical of the limits of identity and history, Stephen considers himself to be Irish, knowing that his upbringing and group identity will always be part of him. He sees his role as an artist contributing to forming a new Irish identity.

Style of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is coming of age and written in the modernist style.

Modernism

Modernist literature emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe and USA. Modernist works are characterized as highly experimental and deal with themes of political upheaval, new technologies, and the emergence of the individual. Many works sought to break with tradition and question the dominant social institutions.

Stream of consciousness

The novel traces Stephen's development from child to man using age-appropriate vocabulary and language, reflecting the evolution of Stephen's consciousness and growth. Joyce uses the stream of consciousness mode to show Stephen's inner monologue and reactions to the world in real-time.

The novel begins with simplistic baby-talk to represent a six year-old's worldview. The thoughts and observations are disorganized and chaotic as they would actually be in the undeveloped mind of a young child. As Stephen grows, his thoughts become more organized and structured into the thinking of an adolescent. Finally, as Stephen matures into adulthood and encounters important philosophical writings, Joyce presents the inner thoughts of a fully formed artist.

Joyce uses the stream of consciousness technique sparingly in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, only going into passages of lucid thinking at select stages. He does this to show the reader Stephen's consciousness, to understand how he views the world and interacts with people in real-time.

The naturalistic flow of thoughts paints an unedited version of Stephen's mind that gives key insights into his true feelings. By employing the stream of consciousness technique, Joyce fully displays the inner workings of Stephen's mind and the development of his mind from childhood to maturity.

James Joyce is credited with being one of the first writers to adopt stream of consciousness.

Bildungsroman

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man traces the development of Stephen Dedalus from the age of 6 to 20. In the beginning, Stephen is shown as lost and frustrated by the world around him. He is shy and lacks the confidence to express himself or his desire to become an artist.

As the novel develops, so too does Stephen's psychological and mental state. He begins to find his own voice and slowly starts to reject the limitations of his religious upbringing. Religious teachings are strictly enforced by Stephen's family, friends, and teachers, but Stephen is exposed to classic literature and philosophy forced on Stephen begins to develop his philosophy of life. The novel is a classic example of bildungsroman as Joyce takes us through Stephen's painful growth from an introverted child to the beginning of a more self-assured adulthood.

Bildungsroman is a literary genre concerned with a character's growth and development, usually from child to adult. The word Bildungsroman is composed of the German words Bildung (education) and roman (novel). Some notable examples of bildungsroman works are coming of age stories like Catcher in the Rye (1951) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Quotes

“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.” (Chapter 1)

The novel’s opening line is written in baby talk to reflect Stephen’s unformed mind. The disjointed observations are an example of a stream of consciousness narrative mode.

"Eternity! O, dread and dire word. Eternity! What mind of man can understand it? And remember, it is an eternity of pain. Even though the pain of hell were not so terrible as they are, yet they would become infinite, as they are destined to last forever." (Chapter 3)

The priest’s sermon on the horrors of hell and eternal damnation is an example of the Catholic Church's strict control over people. Stephen is tormented by the idea that his sexual desires are sinful and must be repressed.

"Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow. When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight." (Chapter 5)

Stephen compares Irish society to a mother pig eating her young to show how he feels limited by the expectations of his friends, family, and teachers. Stephen knows that his calling to become an artist is not socially acceptable.

This race and this country and this life produced me, he said. I shall express myself as I am.” (Chapter 5)

In the end, Stephen manages to free himself from the shackles of religion and identity but still acknowledges the people and places that made him. He is ready to embrace his future.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - Key takeaways

  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was written by James Joyce and published in 1916.
  • The novel is set in Dublin, Ireland, around the start of the 20th century.

  • The novel is semi-autobiographical, with the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, the alter-ego of James Joyce.

  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is an early example of the Modernist style.

  • The key themes in the book are religion, identity, and art.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

The book's main themes are religion, identity, and art. 

Yes! As well as being one of Joyce's most accessible texts, the book deal is easy to relate to and understand. 

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a short novel and shouldn't take too much time to complete!

In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce uses stream of consciousness to show the inner workings of Stephen's mind. The prose reflects his reactions to the world in real-time.

Joyce started his earliest drafts in 1904 when it was titled Stephen Hero. He revised it many times, finally publishing it in 1916. 

Final Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Quiz

Question

In which city is Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man set?

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Answer

Dublin

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Question

What religon is Stephen Dedulas? 

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Answer

Catholic

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Question

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is an example of which style?


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Answer

Modernism

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Question

Stephen instantly fits in at his boarding school is soon a class leader. 

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Answer

False

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Question

Isolated at school, Stephen finds escape in what activity? 

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Answer

Reading

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As Stephen's mind develops, he begins to question the teachings of which institution?

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Answer

The Catholic Church

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Question

What type of art is Stephen most interested in?

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Answer

Writing 

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Stephen often has fought with his mother about which topic? 

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Answer

Religion 

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Which character becomes Stephen's best friend at university? 

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Answer

Cranly

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Question

Joyce based many of the characters and experiences of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on his own life?

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Answer

True

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Question

In Joyce's earliest drafts of the novel,  the protagonist was named Stephen ______ ?

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Answer

Hero

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What rhetorical device does Joyce use to explore Stephen's inner thoughts? 

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Answer

Stream of consciousness

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Question

AT the end of the novel, Stephen comes to an important realization about his future. What is it? 

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Answer

He must leave Ireland to grow as an artist. 

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Question

In which year was the complete novel finally published? 

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Answer

1916

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Question

One of the novel's most important themes is individuality. 

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Answer

True

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