Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”

Intro and Wilde: The novel follows certain key-like moments in the life of Stephen Dedalus’s youth, adolescence and early studenthood. Although the character represents Joyce’s literary alter-ego, the work is not entirely auto-biographical.

The Picture of Dorian Gray”, which concerns the an artist who produces a portrait of a young man, may be regarded as one of the sub-textual elements of the novel. The Greek names given to the central characters in both works invite to an association, however a key difference is yielded: Stephen wants to escape from Ireland’s limitations, while Dorian pursues his self-destruction in England.


Structure and Style: One of the most important modernist, experimental novels, it presents itself with instances of free indirect discourse, making it anything but easy to read. It does not follow so much a plot, rather than the character’s consciousness and ideas. The novel is episodic, with little to no transition from one situation to another, however its five parts all culminate with the main character’s “suffering” of an epiphany, rendered in elevated language: his communion with the fellow students after complaining to the Rector, at the end of part I;  his sexual initiation with a prostitute at the end of part II; his post-confession peace at the end of part III; his commitment to art after the encounter with an idealised woman at the end of part IV; the exclamations about hope for the future at the end of his journal. The narrative structure emphasizes repetition and the dominant stylistic device is the use of contrary elements in combination for the rendering of Stephen’s life and experiences. This represents a putting into practice of Blake’s concept that “without contraries is no progression” and it can best be seen in instances such as those of the violent political and religious antagonism that Stephen witnesses during the Christmas dinner at the end of part I, or in the fact that after each of the insight-offering, transformational episode at the end of each chapter, Joyce turn, ironically, to a realistic style filled with realistic details and offers a feeling of anti-climax.


Politics: The only relevant political feeling expressed by Stephen in the novel is his resentment of the English, which is clear in his discussion with the Dean of University College. Stephen considers him a foreign presence in Irish culture once because he is English and twofold because is a Roman Catholic convert. Joyce’s anti-English sentiment may also have been fueled by the fate of Oscar Wilde, for whose downfall he blames the British society and who reminds Joyce of the Irish parliamentary leader, Charles Stewart Parnell. Parnell was an advocate of the Irish Home Rule and is extensively mentioned in the novel’s first, second and fifth parts. Wilde, like Parnell was brought down by the English.


Character’s Name: “Dedalus” comes from the mythological hero, “Daedalus” and, just like the ancient figure, our character has to fly – metaphorically this time, of course. Stephen needs to ‘fly by’ the nets that bind his soul: family, church, Ireland and even the English language. He wants to escape from the pressure to conform in Ireland, however “fly by” may also mean turning the nets into his advantage.

Icarus, the one who flew dangerously high is, of course, Oscar Wilde, who dared to expose English society for what it really was.


Irony: There is a certain irony regarding the novel’s structure because, as mentioned before, each episode of revelation at the end of each chapter is followed by one dominated by anti-climax. Also, a certain amount of irony is represented by Stephen’s youth: the task he takes upon himself is too great, considering he is armed only with a half-baked aesthetic theory. Lastly, there is an ironic note to the term “portrait” itself due to the fact that it represents a possibility for representation which we do not encounter in Joyce’s later work.


Language: The main issue with language is that of the linkage of sounds and meanings, which puzzles young Stephen. He notices that there is a difference between what is possible in the real world versus what is possible with words, which creates confusion. To combat this confusion, a sense of security must be established, in the sense that the outside world need to be defined, established with words. The mechanism of repetition intervenes here and marks itself as the most important and most emphasised linguistic practice in the novel: it is used to help Stephen understand the world (in his own words, of course). Repetition is a mechanism for establishing truths about the world and persists in being a tool for comprehension even as Stephen grows older. By repetition, we mean both the repetition of actual words and the repetition of things that are already known to the protagonist.


Self-Identity: The novel does have a bildungsroman character: Stephen tries to find out who he is and to create a consciousness for his nation. The search for self identity is not performed through gaining, but rather through emancipation and through letting go of family, church and Ireland. It is interesting to note that young Stephen anticipates his transformation. Very few hints are given as to why Stephen wants to place a distance between himself and his family, however the issue of faith in the church is given much more textual attention. Stephen received a Jesuit education, just like Joyce. Early signs of problematic dealings with the Roman Catholics are given when an young, innocent Stephen is flogged, in an exposure of the church’s brutality and hypocrisy. His faith is severely shattered after his encounter with the prostitute and there is also the problem of questioning the doctrine, even though it was supposed that he had studied the answers to all his questions. In regard to Ireland, although Stephen/Joyce wants to create a genuine literary and cultural experience of Irish essence, he refuses to take part in Yeat’s cultural, nationalist movement. Stephen wants to save Ireland from repetition, escaping, but not from it: with it; bringing it into another world.


Aesthetics: The character’s theory is incomplete and mostly theological. The purpose of the artist is the creation of the beautiful, though what the beautiful is is unclear or open to debate. He introduces a theory of aesthetic apprehension, which, minimalistically as it is described in the novel, supposes that the focus of observation should be moved from the aesthetic object to the feelings that it stirs in the subject of the apprehension (and he says those emotions are universalia of the human nature). The only other important aspect to mention would be that Joyce moves away from Pater’s aestheticism of the art for the sake of art and the veneration of the beautiful.


Outro: Stephen’s emotional and potential and his artistic talent remain to be developed when he writes the last, hopeful entries in his journal. This anticipates “Ulysses”.


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