James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. B.W. Huebsch, Inc, 1916.

Summary of Work
Stephen Dedalus, a young boy in Ireland near the end of the nineteenth century, is the main character of this story. The stream of consciousness narrative style follows Dedalus throughout his growth, letting the character’s thoughts and actions dictate the narrative rather than a completely omniscient narrator. While still a young boy, his parents send him to a Catholic boarding school, Clongowes Wood College, which is run by Jesuits. When he first arrives, he is homesick and gets bullied. He is chased into a ditch and gets sick from the cold water, and the other boys beg him not to tell on them for their actions. Soon after that, he begins to make friends with the other boys, and he also enjoys his time at home. One Christmas when he is home, political conversation starts and gets heated at the table because the Irish political leader Charles Stewart Parnell has died. One of his relatives insists that these men ought to follow the will of God and the preachers who preach it, and his father, Simon, states that priests should stay out of politics and says to hell with God.

Simon Dedalus is very bad with his money, and so while Stephen is away at school, the family falls deeper and deeper into debt. It gets to the point that one summer, his family realizes they cannot send their son back to school. Stephen spends the summer with his Uncle Charles, and then that Fall they move to Dublin. When they move, they put their son in Belvedere, a very well-reputed school, and he begins to excel in academics, particularly writing and acting. He has sex for the first time with a prostitute, and the experience shakes Stephen; he is guilt-ridden and full of shame over the experience because of his strong Catholic beliefs. He tries to rid himself of these feelings by casting aside religion and instead masturbating and committing other sinful acts. However, his Catholic religion comes back in full force as he goes to a three day retreat for school, and sermons about hell and the judgment day scare him so badly that he decides to repent and return to a life of piety. He goes from one extreme to the other, and is the model of a Christian life, the life of a priest: he attends Mass each day, practices abstinence, self-denial, and even self punishment for his sins.

His example to the entire school leads the school master to suggest that he should take holy orders and join the priesthood. After taking time to consider the opportunity, Stephen decides that he cannot join the Church because he would fall; he values physical beauty far too much to live a good, priestly life. After making that decision, he learns that he and his family will again move because of his father’s poor financial skills. Meanwhile, he awaits a letter from the University to know if he was accepted or not, and as he is waiting, he decides to take a walk on the beach. There, he sees a girl swimming in the sea, and he is so struck by her beauty that he decides that beauty and desire and love should not be considered shameful, and he should stop denying himself enjoyment of that beauty and love and desire. This leads him to decide that he will not be constrained by structured institutions such as family and the Church, but that he will live his own life as an individual.

He is accepted into the university, and Stephen moves there and beings making many strong friendships; he is especially close to his friend Cranly. They take many classes, and Stephen is very poor at remembering what day it is or getting to them on time, but he enjoys debating and learning and developing theories about life and aesthetics. He uses his friends as a sounding board for his theories, and one of his professors suggests that he should be writing essays about his theories on aesthetics. The more he experiences and writes and thinks, the more he desires to be independent from his friends and family, and in the end he determines that he will leave Ireland in order to escape all of those relationships. He believes that it is the best way for him to succeed as an artist.

Brief Note on Themes
The name Dedalus is a play on the Greek Myth of Deadalus, the man who builds himself and his son Icarus a set of wings to fly out of imprisonment, leading to Icarus flying too close to the sun and getting killed because the wax of his wings melt. The stream of consciousness narrative is a main point that makes the story unique because readers get to experience the main character’s growth with him, as many times Stephen can only describe sensations because of his lack of language or his immaturity. Readers watch the artist grow from inexperienced and very impressionable to a young man full of opinions and striving for full independence. The novel is also semi-autobiographical, as many of Joyce’s influences are what influence Stephen: language, religion, family, culture, sex, to name a few.

Religion is a major player in this piece, as Stephen goes from casual but regular observance of religion to no religion to extreme adherence to religion and then a falling away again. Yet the message here is that as Stephen follows first a life of sin with abandon and then strictly adheres to the doctrines of the church, he comes to realize that doing things in extremes is harmful, and that doing things with strict obedience, not thinking for oneself, causes him to live a false life. In order to fully experience life, Stephen decides that he must live life within the two extremes, both believing in God and at the same time doubting doctrines that ask for people to deny the pleasures that come with love and beauty and desire.

The discussion of what it takes to become an artist starts to come into play toward the end of the novel, when Stephen decides that he is going to be a writer. The discussions of aesthetics show readers that Stephen is developing his ideas about artistry, but the largest discussion point is individuality. Stephen believes that in order to be an artist he must be divorced from the influences of his direct community: friends and family. This causes him to leave tradition and culture behind in an attempt to serve that same community by bringing them art and new techniques and aesthetics.

Similarly, the Irish-English conflict is always in the background of this book. The Irish have the same innate need for autonomy and self-government that Stephen does. Stephen sees this in the Irish language, which is in fact something he sees as belonging to England; he sees it in the slavery that he believes is Ireland’s fate (this is a slavery he refuses to accept and desires to escape, just like many Irishmen); and he sees his Irishness in his traditions and cultural heritage, which he desires to escape from if only to escape from what he sees are chains holding his country back from freedom and cultural development.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s