A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Summary By James Joyce
An Introductory Note:
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, autobiographical novel by James Joyce, published serially in The Egoist in 1914-15 and in book form in 1916; considered by the greatest bildungsroman in the English language. The novel portrays the many early years of Stephen Dedalus, who later reappeared as one of the main characters in Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man takes place in Ireland at the turn of the century. Young Stephen Dedalus comes from an Irish Catholic family; he is the oldest of ten children, and his father is financially inept. Throughout the novel, the Dedalus family makes a series of moves into increasingly dilapidated homes as their fortunes dwindle.
His mother is a devout Catholic. When Stephen is young, he and the other Dedalus children are tutored by the governess Dante, a fanatically Catholic woman. Their Uncle Charles also lives with the family. The book opens with a stream of consciousness narrative filtered through a child’s perspective; there is sensual imagery, and words approximating baby talk.
We leap forward in time to see young Stephen beginning boarding school at Clongowes. He is very young, terribly homesick, unathletic and socially awkward. He is an easy target for bullies, and one day he is pushed into a cesspool. He becomes ill from the filthy water, but he remembers what his father told him and doesn’t tell the boy. That Christmas, he eats at the adult table for the first time. A terrible argument erupts over politics, with John Casey and Stephen’s father on one side and Dante on the other. Later that year, Stephen is unjustly hit by a prefect.
He complains to the rector, winning the praises of his peers. Stephen is forced to withdraw from Clongowes because of his family’s poverty. The family moves to Blackrock, where Stephen takes long walks with Uncle Charles and he goes on imaginary adventures with boys from around the neighbourhood. When Stephen is bit older, the family moves to Dublin, once again because of financial difficulties. He meets a girl named Emma Clere, who is to be the object of his adoration right up until the end of the book.
His father, with a bit of charm, manages to get Stephen back into private school. He is to go to Belvedere College, another institution run by the Jesuits. Stephen comes into his own at Belvedere, a reluctant leader and a success at acting and essay writing. Despite his position of leadership, he often feels quite isolated. He continues to be a sensitive and imaginative young man, acting in school plays and winning essay contests. He is also increasingly obsessed with sex; his fantasies grow more and more lurid. Finally, one night he goes with a prostitute.
It is his first sexual experience. Going with prostitutes becomes a habit. Stephen enters a period of spiritual confession. He considers his behavior sinful, but he feels oddly indifferent towards it. He cannot seem to stop going to prostitutes, nor does he want to stop. But during the annual spiritual retreat at Belvedere, he hears three fire sermons on the torments of hell. Stephen is terrified, and he repents of his old behavior. He becomes almost fanatically religious.
After a time, this feeling passes. He becomes increasingly frustrated by Catholic doctrine. When a rector suggests that he consider becoming a priest, Stephen realizes that it is not the life for him. One day, while walking on the beach, he sees a beautiful girl. Her beauty hits him with the force of spiritual revelation, and he no longer feels ashamed of admiring the body. He will live life to the fullest.
The next time we see Stephen, he is a student at university. University has provided valuable structure and new ideas to Stephen: in particular, he has had time to think about the works of Aquinas and Aristotle on the subject of beauty. Stephen has developed his own theory of aesthetics. He is increasingly preoccupied with beauty and art. Although he has no shortage of friends, he feels isolated.
He has come to regard Ireland as a trap, and he realizes that he must escape the constraints of nation, family, and religion. He can only do that abroad. Stephen imagines his escape as something parallel to the flight of Daedalus, he escaped from his prison with wings crafted by his own genius. The book ends with Stephen leaving Ireland to pursue the life of a writer.
An Analytical Summary:
I. The novel begins with Stephen Dedalus’ first memories, when he was about three years old. The fragmented lines are from a childhood story and a nursery song, and are linked with family associations, sensory perceptions, and pieces of conversation. In this opening scene, Joyce is presenting to us the genesis of a future artist’s perception and interpretation of the world.
II. Moving from Stephen’s infancy to his early days at Clongowes Wood College, a Jesuit boarding school for boys, Joyce focuses on three key incidents which significantly affect Stephen’s personality. First, Stephen is pushed into an open cesspool by a bullying classmate, and, subsequently, he develops a fever which fines him to the school infirmary; here, he begins to discern that he is “different,” that he is an outsider.
III. Later, when he is probably six years old, Stephen returns home to celebrate Christmas dinner with his family and is invited, for the first time, to sit with the adults at the dinner table. This extraordinarily happy occasion is marred by a heated political argument between Stephen’s old nurse, Dante Riordan, and a dinner guest, Mr. Casey, leaving Stephen confused about the issues of religion and politics in the adult world.
IV. On returning to school, Stephen accidentally breaks his glasses and is unable to complete his classwork. He is unjustly humiliated and punished by the cruel prefect of studies, but after receiving encouragement from a friend, Stephenfearfully) goes to the rector of the school and obtains justice Travely (if success of this meeting instills in him a healthy self-confidence and ennobles him, for a moment, in the eyes of his classmates.
V. After a brief summer vacation at his home in Blackrock, Stephen learns that his father’s financial reversals make it impossible to return to Clongowes Wood; instead, he is enrolled in a less prestigious Jesuit day school, Belvedere College. Here, he develops a distinguished reputation as an award-winning essay writer and a fine actor in his school play.
VI. Despite these accomplishments, however, Stephen feels increasingly alienated from his schoolmates because of his growing religious skepticism and his deep interest in literature and writing. This feeling of isolation is intensified during a trip with his father to Cork, where he learns more about his father’s weaknesses.
VII. Stephen becomes increasingly repelled by the dead-end realities of Dublin life. Frustrated by his loss of faith in the Catholic Church, in his family situation, and in his cultural bonds, Stephen seeks to “appease the fierce longings of his heart.” After wandering through the city’s brothel district, he finds momentary solace with a Dublin prostitute. He is fourteen years old, and this is his first sexual experience.
VIII. After a period of “sinful living,” Stephen attends an intense three-day spiritual retreat. During that time, he is overwhelmed by guilt and remorse; he believes that Father Arnall is speaking directly to him. Panicking, he seeks out a kindly old Capuchin priest, pledges moral reform, and rededicates himself to a life of purity and devotion. He fills his days with fervent prayers and takes part in as many religious services as he can.
IX. Noticing Stephen’s exceedingly pious behavior, the director of the school arranges a meeting to encourage Stephen to consider entering the priesthood. At first, Stephen is flattered, fascinated by the possibilities of the clerical life, but increasingly he is tormented by carnal desires. He finally realizes that his “inherent sinful nature” makes it necessary for him to reject a religious vocation.
X. Having made this discovery about himself, Stephen decides to enroll in the university, where he hopes to shape his destiny as an artist. This decision is immediately followed by a climactic “epiphany”: he sees a girl wading in the sea; to Stephen, she embodies the attraction, the promise, and the abandon which he wishes to experience in life. It is at this moment that Stephen understands that he can only hope to gain this experience through a life of artistic expression.
XI. Shortly thereafter, Stephen begins a new life as a young man in search of his I own values and his own credo. In comparison with the other college students, Stephen often seems anti-social and more concerned with pursuing his own interests than supporting the causes of others.
Even Stephen himself realizes that unlike most of his friends, he is unusually introspective. He is not the typical devil-may-care university student; he rejects the typical blind patriotic blather, and although he continues to respect the Catholic faith, he no longer believes that its tenets should govern his life.
XII. Through conversations with friends and a dean of studies, Stephen eventually develops his own aesthetic theory of art, based on the philosophies of Aristotle and Aquinas. Simultaneously, he concludes that if he is ever going to find his artistic soul, he must sever all bonds of faith, family, and country. He must leave Dublin and go abroad to “forge” his soul’s “uncreated conscience.”
The title works on a few levels. It is a portrait of an artist. It is about the artist James Joyce himself. The title places the book in a certain tradition of self-portraits. Many famous painters and sculptors created “Portrait(s) of the Artist(s);” in calling his book by this title, Joyce compares writing to the fine arts.
The title, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, signals the book is a bildungsroman; this word, from two German words, bildung (‘education“) and roman (“novel”), is used to label comingof-age novels. The label is fitting, as the main character, Stephen Dedalus, develops as an artist in this self-portrait.
James Joyce’s 1916 novella A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is about the early manhood of Stephen Dedalus, later one of the leading characters in Ulysses. Stephen’s growing self-awareness as an artist forces him to reject the whole narrow world in which he has been brought up, including family ties, nationalism, and the Catholic religion. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was first published in serial form in the Egoist in the years 1914-15.
Chronicling the life of Stephen Dedalus from early childhood to young adulthood and his life-changing decision to leave Ireland, the novel is profoundly autobiographical. Like Stephen, Joyce had early experiences with prostitutes during his teenage years and struggled with questions of faith. Like Stephen, Joyce was the son of a religious mother and a financially inept father.
Like Stephen, Joyce was the eldest of ten children and received his education at Jesuit schools. Like Stephen, Joyce left Ireland to pursue the life of a poet and writer. Joyce began working on the stories that formed the foundation of the novel as early as 1903, after the death of his mother. Previous to the publication of Portrait, Joyce had published several stories under the pseudonym “Stephen Dedalus.”