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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: An Analysis

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    First published in book form in 1916, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is essentially a revealing autobiographical novel covering the first two decades of author James Joyce’s life, and deals with his struggle for intellectual freedom and his eventual awakening to the desire to become a great artist. Joyce writes in the third person as Stephen Daedalus, the oldest child in a large Irish family with a father who is prosperous but rather unfocused at making a living.

    The novel describes the master/servant relationships Stephen experiences, beginning with his earliest memories of his parents telling him silly stories when he was a baby. Then the narration moves ahead quickly to his years at a Jesuit boarding school where he finds that he is extraordinarily conscientious and sensitive to his tangible surroundings, but is still not free, for he is in a new master/servant relationship, this time with the priests as his masters instead of his parents, especially his mother.

    In terms of the dynamics of servitude, punishment, and rebellion in the relationship between Stephen and the priests who teach at the school he attends, it is clear that the priests at Clongowes are rigid taskmasters and strict disciplinarians, and James Joyce vividly depicts the undeserved punishment Stephen must endure when he is caught idle at his lessons.

    The specter of eternal punishment also haunts Stephen, for he has been far from a good Catholic boy. Among other things, he’s been visiting the brothels, and the warnings of the priests of the wages of sin frighten him terribly. They fill the students’ heads with terrifying visions of hell, and Stephen ultimately endeavors to become more devout, to avoid and resist impure thoughts, and thus save himself from an eternity of torment in a lake of fire.

    Stephen’s new religious devotion impresses the priests at his school so much that they recommend he consider joining the order. He consents to this idea at first, but one day he has an epiphany while watching birds in the sky and realizes the boundless freedom that is available to him. He decides he doesn’t want to be a priest, and the idea of becoming an artist really starts to take hold. He rebels against religion and moves across the Channel to Paris.

    When he finally finds the courage and determination to renounce the rigid mastery of the Catholic Church and chooses to “learn the wisdom of others himself wandering among the snares of the world,” (Joyce) Stephen Daedalus realizes in the final section of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that he must inevitably confront and break free of the master/servant relationship bonds that his friends, mother, religion, and country have claimed on him.

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    One by one, through enlightening discussions and encounters with his classmates, he slips these bonds and resolves to put behind him everything that keeps him earthbound. This courageous decision, and all it infers, make A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man a powerful novel of growth and deliverance.

    Essentially, James Joyce is presenting to the reader the experiences of a troubled and sensitive young man who is caught between the powerful appeal of the sensual world and the obligation of the perfectionist ideals he has acquired through his mother and the priests at his school. Stephen is torn between rebellion and going his own way, and the alternative of trying to fit in.

    The novel tells a story about personal growth, and I noticed that some of the metaphors illustrate the sensation of being born again and again and again, cold, wet and naked into the world, with each dramatic new experience and epiphany. These metaphors, as well as the astonishing development of imagery, the searching for a reality that embodies the fantasy of place, of woman, or of God, and the struggle for moments of epiphany serve to liken Stephen to a survivor of a shipwreck struggling to surface in a sea of sensual obscurity.

    The spiritual maturation of Stephen also makes a powerful impression, for he begins as an innocent child mired in the sins of his family, country, and religion, and finishes by breaking the bonds that chain him to the earth to soar from Dublin as a great artificer. The painful, glorious growth of a soul reaching for truth and beauty is chronicled here with sharp intensity by Joyce.

    One example of this is when Stephen is castigated unfairly by Father Dolan and bravely reports the breach to the rector. But his courage is not rewarded, for he is greeted with sneering jibes by his father, who relays to Stephen that he has had a good laugh about the incident with Father Dolan. “‘You better mind yourself, Father Dolan,’ says I, ‘or young Daedalus will send you up for twice nine.’ We had a famous laugh together over it. Ha! Ha! Ha!” (Joyce) The betrayal by both masters, his father and the church, is very intense and painful to Stephen, a humiliating slap in the face, and another epiphany for him to ponder.

    Perhaps the greatest thing about A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is that the narrator is inextricably tied to the book. Stephen Daedalus is the narrator, and he is as far from omniscient as one can get. Every perception the reader has is through his eyes, so the reader is dragged through all of his moods, and his struggle for freedom becomes their struggle for freedom. At the end of every chapter, when Stephen has an epiphany, so does the reader. Significantly, after the last epiphany, the reader is left to wonder whether Stephen has attained absolute truth, or whether his epiphany will be negated by future experiences.

    Most readers can relate to Stephen in some way, for he is struggling to find the meaning in his own life. He cannot find it through his mother, his nationality, family, or even religion. Likening himself to Lucifer, Stephen remains in a state of doubt and disbelief in Catholicism, claiming “I will not serve.” (Joyce) He finally understands that he must break free from all of the restraints that are holding him back from individual thought and go beyond the mastery of others in order to find the path he must go down and begin the journey to maturity and self-understanding.

    I believe this novel to be one of the most brilliantly conceived, complex psychological testaments to the life of a human being ever written. It is the compelling story of a young man, growing up in Dublin in the same manner as all other boys, but more importantly, it tells how he became different than the rest. In this age, when society is obsessed with peering into other people’s lives, the power of A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man is that through Joyce’s genius we can all peer into someone’s soul, a great artist’s soul.

    In conclusion, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a masterpiece of subjectivity, a fictionalized memoir, and a brilliant coming-of-age prose-poem. This classic novel introduces Joyce’s alter ego, Stephen Daedelus, the hero of Ulysses, and begins the narrative experimentation that would help change the concept of literary narrative forever

    In Portrait James Joyce traces the childhood and youth of protagonist Stephen Daedalus from the day he was born. The story is told in the baby babble at the beginning, and progresses by stages to boyish fancy and youthful paradox, until the last chapter, which reveals the talent and eloquence of a nascent artist. From beginning to end, Joyce captures every stage of his own development and conquest through the main bends of the road of life.

    Stephen is struggling to find out who he is. He is in search of his identity, and finds it when he sees the woman at the end not as a carnal object, and not as something forbidden, but as a thing of beauty. In perceiving and understanding her in this way, because he has matured and freed himself from the masters who had run his life, Stephen has become an artist. He has found himself.

    In the final analysis, through the experiences of Portrait’s youthful protagonist Stephen Daedalus, James Joyce is communicating to his readers his deep conviction that everyone in their everyday lives should strive to free themselves of the bonds that tie them down. Life is a struggle for spiritual freedom, and the battle must be waged every day against those who would be the masters of others, for the battle itself is a profoundly important part of the lesson of life.


    • Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Dover Books, 1994.

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