A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a novel by the Irish modernist writer James Joyce. It follows the intellectual, moral and spiritual development of a young Catholic Irishman, Stephen Dedalus, and his struggle against the restrictions his culture imposes. Portrait can be placed in the tradition of the bildungsroman – novels that trace the personal development of the protagonist, usually from childhood through to adulthood. Joyce contrasts the rebellion and the experimentation of adolescence with the sombre influence of Stephen’s Catholic education. For example, his startled enjoyment of a sexual experience in chapter two is followed by the famous ‘Hellfire sermon’ in chapter three which leaves him fearing for his soul. The name Dedalus links to Ovid’s mythological story of Daedalus – the ‘old artificer’ – and his son Icarus, who flies too close to the sun. We are reminded of this image when Stephen tells his friend Davin: ‘When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets’.

Though the technique used in much of the novel’s narration can be described as ‘stream-of-consciousness’, some critics complain that this term tells us little about the effect it achieves. Joyce traces Stephen’s various stages of development, by adjusting the style of his language as his protagonist grows up. From the baby-talk of the opening, to the high-minded aesthetic discussion towards the end, Joyce’s language play mimics Stephen’s phonetic, linguistic and intellectual growth. By the end of the novel, Stephen has resolved to follow his calling as an artist and to leave Ireland in order to ‘forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race’.

In many respects, the novel represents Joyce’s own artistic development, and Stephen plays out fictionalised versions of many of his author’s experiences: the episode surrounding the death of the disgraced Irish home-rule leader Charles Stuart Parnell has many similarities with the arguments this event caused in the Joyce household.

The novel was serialised in the modernist magazine, The Egoist, between 1914 and 15, starting on 2 February (Joyce’s 32nd birthday), and printed as a complete book in 1916 in the US and in 1917 in the UK (though the editions are dated 1916).

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