A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Introduction to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

First published back in 1916, the novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, was written by James Joyce, an Irish artist, author, and icon of a new writing style. Called as ‘kunstlerroman’ contrary to a bildungsroman, the novel took the readers by surprise due to its presentation of an unusual life of an artist, showing some clues of the personal life of the writer. The story of the novel presents Stephan Daedalus, an artist, showing features of his rebellion against the accepted Catholicism and Irish social traditions, leading to his imaginary self-exile from his country. The publication of A Portrait and the short story collection earned the author a place at the forefront of literary modernism.

Summary of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

The story of the novel presents the time of the 19th century ending with Stephan Dedalus, an Irish teenager, deciding to throw away the social constraints to live as an artist. The author here is showing us the genesis of a future artist’s interpretation of the world. As a boy, Stephen has faced heavy impacts of Irish nationalism as well as Catholic Christianity during his educational years at Clongowes Wood College. He has not adjusted himself to the strict school environment, and the author focuses on key incidents which impacted Stephen’s personality. He is first pushed into a cesspool by a bullying classmate which leads to him developing fever. This is when he starts believing that he is an outsider. When he is six years old, he visits his home to celebrate Christmas and is invited to sit with the adults at the dinner table for the first time, and the existing political leader, Charles Steward, becomes a hot topic of debate at the dinner table.

When he returns to school, he breaks his glasses and isn’t able to complete his classwork, and gets punished by a cruel prefect. He gathers courage with the help of his friend and obtains justice after going to the reactor. This instills a healthy self-confidence in him. Nearing his teenage years, Stephan comes to know about the profligacy of his father, Simon and becomes aware that the family prospects are declining fast and that the family is trapped in debts. When he spends some time with his uncle, Charles, he comes to know his final days at Clongowes. It is because the uncle has informed him of their migration to Dublin, the main city of Ireland, where he starts attending Belvedere, a good school of its time and becomes a school actor and writer.

Soon he experiences his first sexual encounter which changes his thinking about the future after he spends some time with a young prostitute in Dublin. The first encounter starts a confrontation between his ideas and the realities existing around him. He finds himself mired in some sort of a sinful life as he used to think. Yet he could not shake off the religious impacts from his psyche and attends a religious retreat where the sermons being delivered shook him to the core. He is overcome with guilt and remorse and he believes that the Father was talking to him.

He seeks out a kind old Capuchin priest. His reversion to religion takes over his soul and he starts becoming a true catholic person with a strict lifestyle. When the school director sees a change in his lifestyle, he advises him to join the priesthood, though, it causes severe conflict in his aesthetic taste and religious devotion. On the other hand, the financial constraints force the family to move after which he thinks of joining the university, though a simple incident of watching a beautiful young girl on the beach changes his option to join the world or the religion and he goes for the world of beauty, considering it an option instead of a source of shamefulness.

Stephen begins a new life as a young man searching for his own values and credo. Shedding the false covers of nationalism, religion, and ethical frameworks, Stephen joins the university and finds himself with soulmates similar to him. Cranly, a young man of bizarre tastes, becomes his chum and they start wrangling with the theories of art. Soon he finds himself a free soul and tries to escape Ireland but could only imagine becoming a mythical figure flying away from the mundane obstacles.

Major Themes in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

  1. Religious and Social Constraints: Stephan’s adaptability in the school is surprising when the family moves to Dublin. He immediately comes to know the limitations of his religious and social upbringing. Religious teachings, family ethics, and national aspirations become a burden on his soul. Soon he faces the confrontation of these restrictions on his free soul, making him shameful of his acts and reverting to religion. However, this reversion does not stay permanent. He realizes the religious dogmatic impacts on the individuals and wishes to be a free artist in the university flying away from Ireland to the free world having wings like a mythical figure.
  2. Catholicism: The theme of Catholicism and the impacts of its constraints on Stephan Dedalus, entirely confuse him about his physical requirements and intellectual capability. When he sees a beautiful lady on the beach, a conflict in his ideas ensues, leading him to feel sensuous pleasures but he immediately pulls himself out and feels ashamed at his actions. Then he plunges into religious preaching. This back-and-forth mental conflict leads him to aspire to be a mythical figure, leaving the very spirit and place of Catholicism.
  3. Escape: The theme of escape is shown in the final dream of Stephan Dedalus in that he wants to cross all the limits. Although he has studied in a religious school and then found the same in terms of nationalism at home, yet he could not express his ideas freely. He finds himself feeling a sense of shame at such freedom of mind and heart. Even his name shows the author’s freedom of borrowing mythical terms to show his own desire for escaping the social restriction and religious limitations. So, escape from realities is a significant theme of the novel.
  4. Independence: The theme of the human desire for independence is experienced through the central character of Stephan Dedalus. Although he faces bullying in the early period of his childhood during his school and even sometimes during his university years, he feels constrained by society and religion. This makes him desire an escape to break these barriers to win independence for him. So, when he joins the university, he rather strives for freedom and liberty at every cost even if it is in art.
  5. Beauty and Sensuousness: The theme of beauty and sensuousness is also seen through the central character. Stephen goes through the grueling religious and national acclimatization at school but when he comes to know the beauty and physical response to beauty, he feels immediately enamored of it. However, the barriers of religion and ethical framework immediately come between his sense of morality and his physical pleasures. That is why he wants to enjoy it as a freeman through an imaginative mythical figure.
  6. Art and Artist: The novel presents James Joyce’s theory of art that an artist always thrives for art and nothing else. Even religion and ethical framework are put aside in the pursuit of excellence in arts. When Stephen Dedalus becomes an artist, he feels suffocated by religion, ethics, and nationalism. However, he desires to leave both of these things aside to achieve excellence.
  7. Innocence: The novel shows the theme of innocence through Stephen, for he devotes his life whole-heartedly to studies and Catholic education, including his staunch support to Irish nationalism. Even the experience of beauty on the beach causes him a sense of self-loathing after which he reverts to religion with more dedication. However, as soon as he becomes an artist, he feels flying away after having experienced these socially constructed narratives.
  8. Inspiration: The thematic strand of inspiration is also experienced through Stephen as he wants to become an artist after having inspired by different people, things, and events. However, he does not know how to achieve this, for even a little glimpse of the beauty has started a conflict in him which led to his increased dedication to religious life. Hence, when he finds it easy to escape the social bonds and gets inspired by such natural wonders, he thinks of flying away from these constraints to realize his inspirations.

Major Characters of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

  1. Stephen Dedalus: Stephen Dedalus is the central character, the protagonist, and autobiographical sketch of James Joyce, who represents his heartful desire of escaping all social constraints to reach the pinnacles of art. Even after he stays dedicated to his religious upbringing and family name for being the son of Simon and Mary Dedalus, an Irish nationalist family, he still vies to fly away from them to break these barriers. Despite his sensual and beauty consciousness, he revers religion after having seen a beautiful girl on the beach. Yet he again strives for freedom after reaching the university from a home where national debate does not leave their dinner table. His final realization about Ireland and his Catholic background is that all these are social constructions that he must escape to become a great artist.
  2. Emma Clere: Stephen’s love, Emma is significant in the novel as she succeeds in creating introversion and shyness in Stephan. She leads him into thinking of her as an ethereal creature, living far away from the flesh and blood of the world. However, it is interesting that the novel does not present her detailed figure except that the poem depicting her exemplary beauty that Stephen writes in her praise. With the failure of the first poem, Stephan again feels inspiration from her figure which makes him write another poem that wins public applause for him.
  3. Simon Dedalus: Simon Dedalus is the head of the Dedalus family and Stephan’s father. He is highly profligate and irresponsible in terms of finances in that he lets the family dip further into acute poverty. Despite this, he is a staunch Irish, wearing his nationalism on his sleeves. Having unfulfilled desires to study medicines, he leaves everything behind with nostalgic memories but cliché-ridden advice for his son, who has charted his own course of action in writing.
  4. Mary Dedalus: A deeply religious woman, Mary is Simon’s wife and mother of Stephen. However, it seems interesting that the son of such a deeply religious lady spurns religion and nationalism both. It transpires through the analysis of her personality that the burden of bringing up ten children might have suppressed her creative ability to rear children coupled with the pressure of financial woes.
  5. Dante: Dante is significant as the governess of the Dedalus children. Like her mistress, she, too, is attached to Catholicism very deeply and feels that faith and church are above all other mundane things. She has been with the family since its heydays and stays until Stephan is a young man. She loses her luck with the family when she involves herself with the argument with Mr. Simon, the family head, over Charles Parnell, the Irish nationalist leader.
  6. Cranly: Cranly becomes significant in the course of the novel as Stephen’s close friend during his university days. He loves and trusts him more than anybody else on account of their shared interests and love for art. He provides Stephen with self-reflection to see his personality through his own prism. When he feels him wearing his nationalism on his sleeve, he feels that the time for their friendship to end has arrived.
  7. Eileen Vance: A young girl from a Protestant family, Eileen, spends her childhood with the Dedalus family despite her being from the opposite denomination. She is the first one to impact Stephan as he vows to marry her after which he has to challenge Dante for this seemingly profane action.
  8. Uncle Charles: A very lively figure, Uncle Charles is a household name in the Dedalus family as the closest relative. His character becomes significant for leaving happy memories for the family.
  9. Brother Michael: A monk in the infirmary at the Clongowes, he fills Stephen with confidence through his kindness and gentle behavior. He teaches them reading through his article reading practice to Stephen and Athy, a sick boy, living at the Clongowes. Stephen learns about Charles’s passing from him.
  10. Mr. John Casey: A staunch nationalist, John Case is old Dedalus’s friend and often visits them when he is free. He is involved in an argument with Dante over the national leader, Charles Parnell, at the dinner table as mentioned in the novel.
  11. Father Conmee: Father Conmee’s character is also significant as head of Clongowes Wood College where Stephen goes after his school. He later assists him in getting admission to Belvedere College.

Writing Style of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

The novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is written in third person narrative which is a limited point of view in that the narrator shows characters when required and only from his point of view. The sentence style adopted in the novel is quite unusual as well as unique. After starting a story, James has referred to some verses. The sentence structure is longer when it suits the characters and conversations but very short, slow, and somewhat quirky when it suits the situation of the rebellion of the spirit of Dedalus. For literary devices, the author has relied on metaphors, similes, and allusions.

Analysis of the Literary Devices in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

  1. Action: The main action of the novel comprises the life and growth of Stephen Dedalus from a shy and introverted child to a fiery artist. The falling action occurs when Stephen Dedalus again reverts to religion after having caused a conflict in his mind after watching a beauty on the beach. However, the rising action occurs when he meets prostitutes and makes the final decision whether he should accept modernity or religion.
  2. Anaphora: The novel shows examples of anaphora as given below,
    i. It was not Wells’s face, it was the prefect’s. He was not foxing. No, no: he was sick really. He was not foxing. And he felt the prefect’s hand on his forehead; and he felt his forehead warm and damp against the prefect’s cold damp hand. (Chapter-I)
    ii. 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-I)
    iii. His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face. (Chapter-I)
    iv. Dante had two brushes in her press. The brush with the maroon velvet back was for Michael Davitt and the brush with the green velvet back was for Parnell. (Chapter-I)
    v. No touch of sin would linger upon the hands with which he would elevate and break the host; no touch of sin would linger on his lips in prayer to make him eat and drink damnation to himself not discerning the body of the Lord. (Chapter-IV)
    These examples show the repetitious use of “he was not”, “this moocow”, “his father”, “the brush” and “no touch of sin.”
  3. Allusion: The novel shows good use of different allusions as given in the below examples,
    i. Visit, we beseech Thee, o Lord, this habitation and drive away from it all the
    snares of the enemy. May Thy holy angels dwell herein to preserve us in peace
    and may Thy blessings be always upon us through Christ Our Lord. Amen.
    . (Chapter-I)
    ii. God bless my father and my mother and spare them to me!
    God bless my little brothers and sisters and spare them to me!
    God bless Dante and Uncle Charles and spare them to me!
    iii. Either they went to the left towards the Dublin mountains or along the Goatstown road and thence into Dundrum, coming home by Sandyford. Trudging along the road or standing in some grimy wayside public house his elders spoke constantly of the subjects nearer their hearts, of Irish politics, of Munster and of the legends of their own family, to all of which Stephen lent an avid ear. (Chapter-II)
    iv. His evenings were his own; and he pored over a ragged translation of The Count of Monte Cristo. (Chapter-II)
    v. —i am cast away from the sight of thine eyes: words taken, my dear little brothers in Christ, from the Book of Psalms, thirtieth chapter, twenty-third verse. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. (Chapter-III)
    vi. Sunday was dedicated to the mystery of the Holy Trinity, Monday to the Holy Ghost, Tuesday to the Guardian Angels, Wednesday to saint Joseph, Thursday to the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, Friday to the Suffering Jesus, Saturday to the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Chapter-IV)
    These examples show different allusions such as from the Bible, the Holy Ghost, Christ, religious symbols, and figures, novels, and geographical places.
  4. Antagonist: The antagonist of the novel shows Stephen Dedalus’s own fears and anxieties creating obstacles for him. Therefore, the main character is the antagonist in the novel.
  5. Conflict: The novel shows both external and internal conflicts. The external conflict is going on between Stephan Dedalus and the society, while the internal conflict is about his loyalty to the ethical framework of his time, religion, and country.
  6. Characters: The novel shows both static as well as dynamic characters. The young man, Stephen Dedalus, is a dynamic character as he shows a considerable transformation in his behavior and conduct by the end of the novel. However, all other characters are static as they do not show or witness any transformation such as Father Conmee, Simon Dedalus, Mr. John Casey, and Uncle Charles.
  7. Climax: The climax in the novel occurs when Stephen Dedalus finally decides to fly away from the social constraints.
  8. Imagery: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man shows the use of imagery as given in the examples below,
    i. He was caught in the whirl of a scrimmage and, fearful of the flashing eyes and muddy boots, bent down to look through the legs. The fellows were struggling and groaning and their legs were rubbing and kicking and stamping. Then Jack Lawton’s yellow boots dodged out the ball and all the other boots and legs ran after. He ran after them a little way and then stopped. It was useless to run on. Soon they would be going home for the holidays. After supper in the study hall, he would change the number pasted up inside his desk from seventy-seven to seventy-six. (Chapter-I)
    ii. Every morning, therefore, uncle Charles repaired to his outhouse but not before he had greased and brushed scrupulously his back hair and brushed and put on his tall hat. While he smoked the brim of his tall hat and the bowl of his pipe were just visible beyond the jambs of the outhouse door. His arbour, as he called the reeking outhouse which he shared with the cat and the garden tools, served him also as a sounding-box: and every morning he hummed contentedly one of his favourite songs: O, twine me a bower or Blue eyes and golden hair or The Groves of Blarney while the grey and blue coils of smoke rose slowly from his pipe
    and vanished in the pure air. (Chapter-II)
    iii. It would be a gloomy secret night. After early nightfall the yellow lamps would light up, here and there, the squalid quarter of the brothels. He would follow a devious course up and down the streets, circling always nearer and nearer in a tremor of fear and joy, until his feet led him suddenly round a dark corner. The whores would be just coming out of their houses making ready for the night, yawning lazily after their sleep and settling the hairpins in their clusters of hair. (Chapter-3)
    These examples show images of color, sound, and feelings.
  9. Metaphor: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man shows a good use of various metaphors as given in the examples below,
    i. The little silk badge with the red rose on it looked very rich because he had a blue sailor top on. (Chapter-I)
    ii. But his dark eyes were never fierce and his slow voice was good to listen to. (Chapter-I)
    iii. The swift December dusk had come tumbling clownishly after its dull day and, as he stared through the dull square of the window of the schoolroom, he felt his belly crave for its food. (Chapter-3)
    iv. A feverish quickening of his pulses followed, and a din of meaningless words drove his reasoned thoughts hither and thither confusedly. (Chapter-IV)
    v. But an unresting doubt flew hither and thither before his mind. (Chapter-IV)
    These examples show that several things have been compared directly in the novel as the first shows a comparison of the silk badge with the red rose, the second shows the dark eyes with some weapon, the third shows the dusk with a jester or a clown, and the third shows the pulses compared with words, while the last one shows the doubt compared to a bird.
  10. Mood: The novel shows various moods; it starts with a happy mood but becomes fiery, flamboyant, tragic, and serious with the turn of events in the life of Stephen Dedalus.
  11. Motif: Most important motifs of the novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, are music, the flight of imaginations, religion, and songs.
  12. Narrator: The novel is narrated from a third-person point of view i.e., the narrator, who is the author himself.
  13. Parallelism: The novel shows the use of parallelism as given in the examples below,
    i. The fellows were struggling and groaning and their legs were rubbing and kicking and stamping. (Chapter-1)
    ii. No touch of sin would linger upon the hands with which he would elevate and break the host; no touch of sin would linger on his lips in prayer to make him eat and drink damnation to himself not discerning the body of the Lord. (Chapter-IV)
    The novel shows the use of parallelism in these sentences as their clauses are of equal length.
  14. Paradox: The novel shows the use of paradox as given in the examples below,
    i. When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the
    oilsheet. That had the queer smell. (Chapter-I)
    ii. He could not get out the answer for the sum but it did not matter. White roses and red roses: those were beautiful colours to think of. And the cards for first place and second place and third place were beautiful colours too: pink and cream and lavender. (Chapter-I)
    The novel shows the use of contradictory ideas within each of these sentences such as warm and cold, and then white and red roses.
  15. Personification: The novel shows examples of personifications as given below,
    i. The cold slime of the ditch covered his whole body; and, when the bell rang for study and the lines filed out of the playrooms, he felt the cold air of the corridor and staircase inside his clothes. (Chapter-I)
    ii. The swift December dusk had come tumbling clownishly after its dull day and, as he stared through the dull square of the window of the schoolroom, he felt his belly crave for its food. (Chapter-III)
    iii. A cold lucid indifference reigned in his soul. At his first violent sin he had felt a wave of vitality pass out of him and had feared to find his body or his soul maimed by the excess. Instead the vital wave had carried him on its bosom out of himself and back again when it receded: and no part of body or soul had been maimed but a dark peace had been established between them. The chaos in which his ardour extinguished itself was a cold indifferent knowledge of himself. (Chapter-III)
    These examples show slime, dusk, indifference, and wave as having life and emotions of their own.
  16. Protagonist: Stephen Dedalus is the protagonist of the novel and his personal challenges are portrayed as antagonist. The novel starts with his entry into the world and moves forward as he grows young and becomes an artist.
  17. Repetitions: The novel shows the use of repetition as given in the below examples,
    i. They were all in different countries and the countries were in continents and the continents were in the world and the world was in the universe. (Chapter-1)
    ii. It was not Wells’s face, it was the prefect’s. He was not foxing. No, no: he was sick really. He was not foxing. (Chapter-1)
    iii. No angel or archangel in heaven, no saint, not even the Blessed Virgin herself, has the power of a priest of God: the power of the keys, the power to bind and to loose from sin, the power of exorcism, the power to cast out from the creatures of God the evil spirits that have power over them; the power, the authority, to make the great God of Heaven come down upon the altar and take the form of bread and wine. What an awful power, Stephen. (Chapter-IV)
    iv. He would know the sins, the sinful longings and sinful thoughts and sinful acts, of others, hearing them murmured into his ears in the confessional under the shame of a darkened chapel by the lips of women and of girls; but rendered immune mysteriously at his ordination by the imposition of hands, his soul would pass again uncontaminated to the white peace of the altar. (Chapter-IV)
    The novel shows the use of repetition in these examples such as countries, foxing, the power, sins, and sinful have been repeated.
  18. Rhetorical Questions: The novel shows a good use of rhetorical questions at several places as given below,
    i. Was it right to kiss his mother or wrong to kiss his mother? What did that mean, to kiss? You put your face up like that to say good night and then his mother put her face down. That was to kiss. His mother put her lips on his cheek; her lips were soft and they wetted his cheek; and they made a tiny little noise: kiss. Why did people do that with their two faces? (Chapter-I)
    ii. –Indeed you might, answered Heron. We saw her, Wallis, didn’t we? And deucedly pretty she is too. And inquisitive! And what part does Stephen take, Mr Dedalus? And will Stephen not sing, Mr Dedalus? (Chapter-II)
    This example shows the use of rhetorical questions posed but different characters not to elicit answers but to stress upon the underlined idea.
  19. Setting: The setting of the novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is Dublin, Ireland and its outskirts in late 19th century and early 20th
  20. Simile: The novel shows good use of various similes as given in the examples below,
    i. But soon the gas would be lit and in burning it made a light noise like a little song. (Chapter-I)
    ii. It made a roar like a train at night. (Chapter-I)
    iii. And when he closed the flaps the roar was shut off like a train going into a tunnel. That night at Dalkey the train had roared like that and then, when it went into the tunnel, the roar stopped. He closed his eyes and the train went on, roaring and then stopping; roaring again, stopping. (Chapter-I)
    iv. His brain was simmering and bubbling within the cracking tenement of the skull. Flames burst forth from his skull like a corolla, shrieking like voices. (Chapter-II)
    v. The thought slid like a cold shining rapier into his tender flesh: confession. But not there in the chapel of the college. (Chapter-II)
    These are similes as the use of the word ‘like’ shows the comparison between noise and song, roar and the sound of a train, shutting of the roar and tunnel entry, skill and corolla, and slid and cold shining rapier.