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




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


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


Title: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Author: James Joyce
Year of publication: 1916

Setting and time period:
Dublin, Ireland; End of the 19th Century

Primary characters (name/ relationships/ job/ key traits):

Stephen Daedalus: Protagonist of the story. Many consider him to be Joyce’s alter ego; he is smart, loves writing, and has a lot of experience with religion.

Secondary characters (brief identifications):

Simon Daedelus: Stephen’s father
Dante: Stephen’s nurse who is anti-Parnell
Father Dolan: Priest who wrongly punished Stephen
Emma Clery (EC): Stephen loves her
Uncle Charles: Stephen’s uncle who lives with the Dedalus family and takes walks with Stephen
Heron: A friend and rival of Stephen’s at Belvedere
Cranly: Stephen’s best friend at the university

Point of view and other notable structural, literary and stylistic techniques:

The majority of the book is in third person, written in mimetic style (stream of consciousness); the reader can see Stephen’s perspective, and the text matures with Stephen, though Stephen himself is not the narrator. The beginning of the book consists random memories, but as he matures, the plot of the story solidifies.The ending is the only part of the book in first person, related through Stephen’s diary entries. Stephen is often thought to be a representation of Joyce himself.

Bildungsroman: The book follows the growth and development of Stephen Dedalus into an artist.

Major conflicts (in abstract terms, with resolutions):

Religion vs. Reason
Throughout Portrait, Stephen finds himself grappling with the idea of religion. People at Clongowes try to pound it into him, and we see the effects during the long sermon of chapter 3. It is important that his occurs after Stephen has begun to see prostitutes. He struggles with the idea of religion and muses on whether or not he really regrets his sins. In chapter 4 he finally decides not to follow religion, marking an important step in his development as an artist.
Family and Ireland vs. Isolation to become an artist
The first two chapters of Portrait provide insight into Joyce’s experiences with Ireland and his family. They are not positive, as Ireland is a very stagnant, controlling society, while his family struggles as his father brings home less and less money and their social class declines. As Stephen attends school and eventually the university, he begins to realize his longing to become an artist, and by the end of the book, reaches the conclusion that he must exile himself from his family and country in order to truly become an artist.

Key scenes (turning points, resolutions, climaxes--inc. page #'s):
“the last sins oozed forth, sluggish, filthy. There was no more to tell. He bowed his head, overcome” (126).

 In this passage Stephen is being absolved of his sins, this marks the beginning of his extremely religious period. It will soon be clear that Stephen is merely going from one addiction to another : from sex to prayer.

“Their piety would be like their names, like their faces, like their clothes; and it was ideal for him to tell himself that their humble and contrite hearts, it might be, paid a far richer tribute of devotion than his had eve been, a gift tenfold more acceptable than his elaborate adoration”(146).
After a sting of devotion to the church, Stephen realizes that he doesn’t have the devout spirit need to be a priest.

“I am not speaking of that, Cranly said in a colder tone. I ask you if you ever felt love towards anyone or anything. --- I tried to love God, he said at length. It seems now I failed. It is very difficult” (214). In this scene Stephen is confronted by his good friend Cranly. Cranly asks him if he has ever loved anyone, and Stephen answers truthfully that he tried to love God but failed. Cranly than asks him if he loves his mother, and Stephen can’t really bring himself to say he does, this illustrates Stephens complete disconnect from people. Later in that same seen Stephen says: “You made me confess the fears that I have. But I will tell you also what I do not fear. I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, a lifelong mistake and perhaps as long as eternity too” (220). This is one of Stephen’s epiphanies(which are a main characteristic of Joyce), he has come to the conclusion that he is willing to disregard Nation and Religion in favor of art. The battle between isolation and community is over, he has chosen to be alone, and is willing to face the consequences.

Key quotations (annotate: identify speaker, situation, and relevance--inc. page #'s):

“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.” (180)
Steven is the speaker. After he is accused of not being patriotic enough, he bluntly responds that living in Ireland holds people back, and he intends to avoid the paralysis. This is a turning point for Stephen because it helps end the conflict of Ireland vs. Art, Stephen chooses art.  

“What was after the universe? Nothing. But was there anything round the universe to show where it stopped before the nothing place began? It could not be a wall but there could be a thin line there all around everything. It was a very big to think about everything and everywhere. Only God could do that”(13).
Stephen is the speaker. Here Stephen is a young child away at school for the first time. This is the first scene where he tries to grapple with the ideas of the universe. There are already hints of a lack of faith in Stephen. Also in this same scene he talks of sensory images frequently, which shows his observation skills.

26 April: I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

27 April: Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead” (241).
Stephen is the speaker. These are the last lines of the book. With this quote, Stephen confirms his intentions to devote the rest of his life to his art. He stresses that he wants to use his individual talent to speak for his race, or his country. He then appeals to his “old father,” which could refer to his literal father or his country, both of which played a large role in his past and his development as an artist. This quote represents his final conviction that he is entirely an artist.

Theme statements (and "central questions"):

  • To become a true artist, one must exile himself from society.
  • Religious extremism is negative.
  • Is Ireland a stagnant society? Should it become independent?


Your reactions/ reader responses (note personal reactions to any of the above categories, or any other element of the reading experience):

Portrait is very dense at times, the language is sometimes highfalutin, and there are times when Stephen is down right dis-likable. That beings said, the imagery Joyce creates is very impressive, and the stream of consciousness makes everything a bit more interesting. I was surprised at how much I could relate to how Stephen felt towards people, he represents the potential cynic and misanthrope in all of us.

Notable literary devices present in work and how they contribute to meaning:

Allusions: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man relies on allusions to Greek Mythology for both meaning and form.
Wooden Moocow- On the first page of the book, Joyce mentions a “moocow that was coming down along the road” (3). Stephen Dedalus’s name connects him with the mythological figure, Daealus, who built a wooden cow. Pasiphae got inside the wooden moocow and coupled with the bull, creating the monster, the Minotaur. This thus represents the beginning: the creation of the monster and future artist that is Stephen Dedalus.
Labyrinth- After the Minotaur was born, Daedalus built a labyrinth to contain it. He eventually finds his son, Icarus, and himself trapped in it. The labyrinth represents the struggle that Stephen undergoes throughout the book, as he finds himself as an artist and moves toward his escape from society.
Icarus and his Wings- Daedalus created wings for himself and his son in order to escape from Crete. Icarus, however, flew too close to the sun (ignoring his father’s instructions), and his wings melted, leading to his death. Daedalus escaped. Stephen actually realizes his nominal connection to Daedalus in the book; he knows that he, like Daedalus and Icarus, must escape society and exile himself to become a true artist.

Stream of Consciousness & Mimetic style:
Joyce was revolutionary in his use of Stream of Consciousness. This style of writing directly represents what the character is thinking. When Stephen is a small child he describes binaries and senses mainly, as most children would. When he grows older his thoughts, along with sentence structure, become more clear and lengthy. Joyce is also known for using mimetic style this is a type of writing where the structure reflects the character, and “mimics” it.

Important Symbols:
Birds- Birds are mentioned in the book multiple times, and each time, Stephen reacts with particular anxiety. Because birds have wings, they, like Icarus, represent the flight and escape that Stephen desires. This is evident when Dante mentions eagles picking his eyes out, and when he interacts with his friend Heron, who “had a bird’s face as well as a bird’s name” (Joyce 57). Stephen has a negative connotation of birds at first, but eventually he turns it into a positive one and connects his view of a women with birds, thus creating art out of life and creating a positive connotation.

Green and Maroon- Stephen Dedalus associates Green with Parnell and Maroon with Davitt, leaders of the Irish nationalist movement. Toward the beginning, Dante states that Parnell is a bad man, and sets the two colors in conflict with one another. Stephen wonders as a young boy if it is right to be for the green or for the maroon. The colors represent his conflicts with Ireland.

Motif: Women
Stephen has many associations with women throughout the book that seem to inspire his work as an artist. When he is young, he places a negative connotation on women, such as his mother and Dante, who punish him. Later, however, we see him become infatuated with women such as EC and Mercedes from The Count of Monte Christo. He also has relations with prostitutes. These experiences motivate his art. Just as Pasiphae’s desire to have sex with the bull eventually leads to Daedalus’s entrapment and escape, Stephen’s relations with women at first trap him (especially when he at first believes the sermon) and then allow him to escape from religion to create his art.

This text would be good for the following type(s) of prompt:
Prompts involving:
Internal Conflict (portrayed with elements of typical external conflicts)
Form and Organization



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