Summary of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Looking for the book?
We have the summary! Get the key insights in just 10 minutes.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man book summary

Literary Classic

  • Novel
  • Modernism

What It’s About

The Desire for Great Art

Many an author has written about their coming of age, but there is hardly anyone who approached this task as uncompromisingly as James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce follows the development of his alter ego with painstaking precision, from the state of naive childhood to self-confident and independent artist. It is no accident that the main character’s name, Dedalus, is reminiscent of the Dedalus of Greek mythology, who escapes from prison with his self-made wings – though for Stephen, freedom from the confines of his Irish upbringing comes through visits to brothels, philosophical debates and solitary walks along the beach. Joyce’s debut novel foreshadows what was to follow in its wake: stylistically and intellectually demanding literature that would define the era of Modernism. With A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce created a masterpiece: high art that still is full of life.

Take-Aways

  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is James Joyce’s first novel and a milestone of modern literary history.
  • Stephen grows up in the deeply nationalistic and religious culture of Ireland. During his time at Jesuit schools and university, he struggles to find his own identity and break free of the culture of his childhood. He eventually leaves the church, university, his parents and his country in order to find his true self.
  • The novel describes the emotional and mental development of the main protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, from childhood to independent artist.
  • The style develops in line with the character: While, initially, the language is childish and naive, it changes to increasingly academic and intellectual the older Stephen gets.
  • In the novel, Joyce experiments with the stream-of-consciousness technique, which he later perfects in Ulysses.
  • The novel is strongly autobiographical: Stephen’s development and experiences are, to a large extent, similar to Joyce’s own.
  • Art and reality are often portrayed as at odds in the novel. Especially as a child, Stephen lives in a fantasy world that he realizes is impossible to recreate in reality.
  • The novel references other literary works throughout, from Dante’s Divine Comedy to numerous Greek myths.
  • Joyce collected “epiphanies” – small, everyday and magical observations that held the possibility of discovering greater connections and insights.
  • “This race and this country and this life produced me, he said. I shall express myself as I am.”
 

Summary

Pre-School Stephen

Little Stephen Dedalus is at home, listening to his father telling stories of “baby tuckoo” and a “moocow,” and singing songs. His mother plays the piano, and Stephen likes to dance. When he grows up, he wants to marry Eileen, the girl next door. One day, he hides under the dining table, and his mother asks him to apologize for something, but he doesn’t know what. His governess Dante Riordan threatens that an eagle will peck out his eyes if he doesn’t apologize.

A Cesspool and Its Consequences

Stephen is at Clongowes Wood College, attending elementary class. He is playing sports with the other boys, but he doesn’t enjoy it – he would much rather be inside in front of a fire, thinking about poetry. One boy makes fun of his name. The cold reminds Stephen of the time his classmate, Wells, pushed him into the water of the toilet’s cesspool. Wells pushed him because he refused to swap his snuffbox for a hacking chestnut. Stephen can’t stop thinking about the cold water.

During a lesson, Father Arnall chooses him as a candidate for a math competition. The calculation is too hard, and Stephen fails to come up with the correct answer. His team loses. Stephen starts thinking about the universe, about the nothingness that surrounds him and about God, who has different names in different languages but is still the same everywhere.

“By thinking of things you could understand them.”

After lessons, he sits and watches the other boys play. He feels homesick and dreams of being back with his mother. He falls asleep dreaming of going home for the Christmas holidays. The next morning, he wakes up with a temperature – he has caught a cold. His classmate Fleming goes to get the prefect. Wells appears at his bed and begs him not to tell anyone that he threw him into the cesspool. The prefect takes Stephen to the infirmary, where Brother Michael looks after him. Stephen wonders if anyone told his parents that he is sick and if he is going to die of his cold. He imagines what it would be like if he died and what kind of funeral he would have. He doesn’t die, but in the evening, Brother Michael announces another death – that of the Irish patriot Parnell.

Christmas Arguments

Stephen is back home, and the family gathers for a meal on Christmas Eve. There are his mother and father, his Uncle Charles, Dante and John Casey, a friend of his father. A heated argument around politics, religion and Charles Stewart Parnell starts. Parnell committed adultery and the Catholic church has been heavily criticizing him. Stephen’s father and John Casey, who are staunch supporters of Parnell and his cause, argue that the church should keep out of politics. Dante, on the other hand, calls this heresy: To her, the church is much more important than worldly things. When John suggests that, in that case, all of Ireland should denounce God, the enraged Dante leaves the table. The two men toast Parnell with tears in their eyes.

Stephen the Hero

Back at the boarding school, Stephen finds that two boys have run away from the school, apparently to avoid punishment. Wells claims that the two were being punished for stealing wine from the sacristy. Another boy, however, says that the two were caught kissing in the toilets. Fleming is worried that everyone will be punished because of the two boys. His fear proves justified during Latin class: Father Dolan smacks Fleming when he fails to answer a question correctly. Then he also calls out Stephen, who isn’t taking part in the lesson because his glasses are broken, and he has been officially released from writing. Father Dolan refuses to listen to Stephen’s explanation and smacks him as well.

“His childhood was dead or lost and with it his soul capable of simple joys and he was drifting amid life like the barren shell of the moon.”

After school, Stephen gathers all his courage and goes to the rector to complain about the unjust punishment. The rector listens to him and, while he tries to excuse Father Dolan, he agrees that Father Dolan was in the wrong. He promises Stephen that he will talk to him and make sure that he doesn’t smack Stephen again. When Stephen returns to his classmates and tells them about his victory, they celebrate him as a hero.

Summer Holidays

Stephen spends the summer at his family’s house in Blackrock. His uncle Charles takes him on long walks and to run errands. Another of his father’s friends, Mike Flynn, coaches him in running, but Stephen doesn’t really enjoy it and doesn’t think he will make it far in the sport. He spends the evenings reading The Count of Monte Cristo and imagining himself as the avenging hero, hopelessly in love with Mercedes. He starts a gang with one of the other boys, Aubrey Mills, and they and some other boys spend the days outdoors. After the summer holidays Stephen doesn’t have to go back to Clongowes Wood because his father is in financial difficulty. Aubrey is back at school, and the gang dissolves. Stephen starts withdrawing into his fantasy world again. Hearing the other children play makes him even more aware how different he is from them.

First Forays into Art

The family moves to Dublin, and Stephen begins to explore the city by himself, still looking for his imaginary Mercedes. One day, he is invited to a children’s party, where he deliberately takes on the role of the onlooker. He finds that he enjoys the loneliness. However, he keeps on catching glances from a girl called Emma. At the end of the party, they leave together and take a tram back. As they sit on the steps, Stephen has the opportunity to kiss her, but he doesn’t take it. She leaves, and when he is back home, he writes a tragic poem about the moment.

Back at School

Stephen’s days of freedom from school come to an end: His father has found a way to send him to another Jesuit college, Belvedere. One evening, he gets ready for a theater performance in which he plays the lead. Before getting his make-up done, he goes outside for a breath of fresh air. There he meets his classmate Heron and his companion Wallis, a dandyish young man. The two of them make fun of Stephen because they have seen his father on his way to the theater in the company of a young girl, who asked after Stephen. They think that she is Stephen’s girlfriend. Heron slaps him playfully with his riding whip, which reminds Stephen of another occasion when Heron hit him: At that time, they were arguing about whether Stephen’s literary hero Lord Byron was the best poet ever or not. Stephen goes back inside to get ready. The performance is a resounding success, but when Stephen comes to meet his family afterwards, he finds that the girl has already left. He runs off into the city to calm himself.

Visiting Cork

Together with his father, Stephen travels to Cork, his father’s hometown. On the train, Stephen’s father reminisces about the past, and Stephen soon gets bored. Once they arrive at Cork, they go to visit his father’s old college, but Stephen struggles to get excited about it. But in the anatomy classroom, Stephen reads the word “fetus” carved into one of the desks. Where his father’s tales have failed to conjure up any images of what life was like at the school, this one word does. Later, Stephen and his father wander around visiting numerous pubs, where Stephen watches his father getting drunk with old friends. His father’s friends try to see the similarities between Stephen and his father, but Stephen feels completely disconnected.

To Hell and Back

Stephen wins a prize for an essay he has written, but the prize money doesn’t last long. He spends it on delicacies, presents, the theater and redecorating his room. When he runs out, he returns to his normal school life. However, lust plagues him, and he wants to have sex. One evening, he wanders through the streets of Dublin on his own. A prostitute approaches him and invites him to her room. He follows willingly. Visiting the brothels now becomes a regular pastime.

“He wanted to sin with another of his kind, to force another being to sin with him and to exult with her in sin.”

Stephen sits in his math class and thinks of his sexual encounters and sin. He is torn between his sinful nights and the guilty conscience that plagues him during the day. The school plans a week of retreat in honor of its patron saint, Francis Xavier. As part of the retreat, Father Arnall, whom Stephen knows from his time at Clongowes Wood, teaches the boys about death, judgment, hell and heaven. He talks in great detail about the horrors of hell: He describes how terrible the pain will be, how unbearable the smell and how unimaginable eternity in damnation is. His talk causes Stephen almost physical agony. He believes that he is beyond redemption. He goes to his room, expecting God to strike him dead at any moment and to send him to hell. He lies down in his bed, closes his eyes and has terrible visions of the devil and hell.

In the evening, Stephen wanders through Dublin’s streets until he finds a small chapel, where he confesses his sins to an old priest. The priest is kind and asks him to repent. Stephen feels a huge sense of relief and decides to live a godly life from now on. A few days later he receives holy communion together with a number of his fellow pupils.

To Become a Priest – or Not

Stephen now lives the life of a repentant sinner. He prays several times a day and always carries a rosary in his pocket. He also severely disciplines his senses: he lowers his eyes whenever a woman approaches; he subjects himself to unpleasant smells and noise; he sits and sleeps uncomfortably to discipline his body. Yet despite all his efforts, he realizes that he can never fully escape sin, and he doubts whether he has truly been forgiven.

“He would create proudly out of the freedom and power of his soul, as the great artificer whose name he bore, a living thing, new and soaring and beautiful, impalpable, imperishable.”

After the holidays, the rector asks Stephen if he would consider becoming a priest. He feels that Stephen’s life has a calling and instructs him to go away and pray about it carefully as it isn’t a decision to take lightly. Stephen is initially euphoric – he has always dreamed of being a priest and likes the respect and veneration that he thinks will come with the role. However, he then starts considering the rules, regulations and the orderly life that determine the life of a priest. All of a sudden, the prospect no longer holds much appeal.

Off to University

Stephen is waiting impatiently at home for his father, who is about to find out whether Stephen has been accepted into university. His mother doesn’t want him to go. Stephen believes that going to university will help him escape his strict religious upbringing. As he wanders along the river, he sees some of his classmates playing in the water. They shout his name, which makes him think of the character of Dedalus from Greek mythology, who built himself wings to escape his prison and flew to freedom. Stephen wants to achieve the same. Excited about the future, he wanders along the beach. There he walks past a young woman paddling in the water. They exchange glances, and she appears to Stephen like an angel. He doesn’t stop to talk to her but continues on, walking further and further away from the city, and then lies down on the beach and falls asleep. When he wakes, it is evening.

Student Life

Stephen starts his classes at university. His family’s financial situation deteriorates; his mother is convinced that university is corrupting him, and his father thinks he is plain lazy. Stephen sets off for his lectures, but he is running late, and he even has to check what day it is as he passes a newsagent. Along the way he thinks about his friend Davin, the only one of his friends who calls him by his first name. At university, he runs into the dean of studies, who is trying to light a fire. They start talking about beauty and aesthetics, and the dean asks Stephen what he thinks beauty is. Soon, their conversation turns to how to make fire. The dean, who is from England originally, uses an English word, “funnel,” which Stephen doesn’t know. He considers that English will never be his language; it will always only be learned, and he feels that he will never be able to fully express his spirit in English.

“You are an artist, are you not, Mr. Dedalus? said the dean….”

Stephen finally makes it to a lecture. He sits with his friends, and there are a lot of jokes and banter. When the class finishes, the students file out of the lecture theater. Stephen walks out with his friend Cranly, who talks to him in Latin. On a table in the entrance hall, someone has put out a petition for national peace. Stephen refuses to sign it and gets into an argument with his friend MacCann, who accuses Stephen of selfishness and having no social conscience. Stephen leaves with Cranly and Temple, who admires Stephen for his individualism. They meet Davin, and Stephen starts teasing him about having signed the petition. Davin is an Irish nationalist, and he doesn’t understand how Stephen can just dismiss his Irish roots. For Davin, Ireland comes first. He tries to persuade Stephen to speak Gaelic, but he refuses. He doesn’t want to be hemmed in either by religion or nationalism. Disappointed, Davin walks off to join a game of handball.

Embracing Loneliness

Stephen walks on with another of his friends, Lynch. He starts explaining to him his aesthetic theory, which suggests that an artist is reflected in his work in the same way that God is reflected in creation. Stephen spots Emma, the girl from the tram, whom he has a crush on. He admires her from afar. During the night, he dreams of her and wakes so inspired that he writes a poem for her. He remembers that, ten years ago, he wrote another poem for her, and he wonders if she knows how he feels about her.

“This race and this country and this life produced me, he said. I shall express myself as I am.”

Stephen stands in front of the library and watches a flock of birds. He muses that human beings have lost the birds’ ability to follow intuition. Instead, they want to pick everything apart and analyze it. He meets Cranly and Temple, who are arguing about education. Emma walks past them as she leaves the library, but she only says hello to Cranly, not to Stephen. Stephen and Cranly walk off without Temple and start talking about an argument that Stephen has been having with his mother: She wants him to go to church at Easter, but he refuses because he has lost his faith and doesn’t want to have anything to do with church. Cranly tries to persuade Stephen to go to church – he argues that a mother’s love is much more valuable than religious conviction, and therefore should trump it. In response, Stephen tells him that he is planning to leave everything – his family, university and his friends – to dedicate himself fully to art. The concept of so much loneliness saddens Cranly.

Dear Diary

Stephen writes in his diary about an argument he has had with his mother. She thinks that he has read too much and that this has made him lose his faith. However, she also believes that he will repent eventually and return to church. Stephen can’t see this happening – he doesn’t feel any guilt. Another diary entry talks about how he met Emma one day on the street. She has found out that he writes poems and asks him about it. However, when he implies that he writes about her, she leaves, confused.

In his last diary entry, Stephen writes about his plan to leave Ireland and gain experience in the world.

About the Text

Structure and Style

Even though A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is not a first-person narrative, the text exclusively follows and portrays the perceptions and thoughts of the protagonist Stephen Dedalus. Joyce used the stream-of-consciousness technique, which intends to reflect human thought in its illogical, erratic and associative nature. This means that Stephen’s conversations and observations mix with his memories and daydreams, giving the reader the impression of being able to look into Stephen’s head. The style develops in line with the character: While, initially, the language is childish and naive, it changes to increasingly academic and intellectual the older Stephen gets. The last section is made up of diary entries, thereby removing the sense of immediacy of the earlier chapters. The novel also introduces the literary trope of Joyce’s self-titled “epiphany”: Normal daily events present as magical moments of insight that deeply influence the main character’s development.

Interpretation

  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is one of the best-known examples in the genre of the artist’s novel, a subcategory of the coming-of-age novel.
  • The novel is a modern version of the Greek myth of Dedalus, who made himself a pair of wings to escape from prison. His namesake, Stephen Dedalus, also has to find his wings to escape the prison of his upbringing, religion, politics and culture to become his own person.
  • Stephen is the prototype of the lone and otherworldly artist – even as a child, he finds little common ground with his peers.
  • Art and reality are often portrayed as at odds in the novel. Especially as a child, Stephen lives in a fantasy world that he realizes is impossible to recreate in reality.
  • Language has a physical aspect in the novel. For example, when Father Arnall talks about hell, Stephen experiences the torture almost physically.
  • Stephen has to overcome social conventions, in particular the deeply rooted hold of his religious upbringing, to develop his own thinking and become his own individual.
  • Women are mostly depicted as ambivalent or even negative characters. To a large extent, they are the canvas onto which Stephen projects his dreams and thoughts, and they never develop their own personalities.
  • The novel references other literary works throughout, from Dante’s Divine Comedy to numerous Greek myths.

Historical Background

Ireland’s Path to Independence

In 1882, the Irish politician Charles Stewart Parnell united the Irish nationalists in one party for the first time, the Irish Parliamentary Party. The party advocated in particular for the Irish Home Rule movement: an Ireland that was part of the United Kingdom but under an independent government. Parnell himself didn’t live to see the success of his campaign; it took four attempts and over thirty years before Britain ratified and signed the Home Rule Bill. The Catholics, who made up the majority of the population, pushed for a complete separation from the United Kingdom, whereas the Protestant minority in the north – mostly wealthy landowners and members of the upper class – felt a deep affinity with their English neighbors. Parliament ratified the third Home Rule Bill of 1914 but then failed to introduce it because of the start of the First World War, and in 1919 the Irish War of Independence broke out. It resulted in the division of the country in 1921 into Ireland and Northern Ireland.

This conflict between Irish patriotism and the influence of the English crown was also reflected in the Irish language. During a severe famine in the mid-19th century, millions of Irish people died or emigrated, and fewer and fewer people spoke the traditional Gaelic. In towns and cities, English soon became the main language and a requirement for finding work. Like many other Irish writers, Joyce developed a great linguistic sensitivity in light of this development, and the preservation of the “Irish soul” is a topic that occurs and re-occurs throughout his work.

Development

From 1900, James Joyce started collecting “epiphanies” – small, everyday and magical observations that held the possibility of discovering greater connections and insights. He wrote down about seventy of these observations and tried to turn them into a literary essay in 1904. The editor of Dana magazine struggled with its unconventional style and rejected it as incomprehensible. This didn’t discourage Joyce: He continued to work on the essay, ending up with the fragmented tale of Stephen Hero. The tale was a mixture of the short epiphanies and the traditional literary structure of the novel, but Joyce wasn’t happy with it. He decided to write the tale solely from the main character’s perspective, and in 1914 and 1915, he published the result under the title A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the London journal The Egoist. In 1916, the novel was published in book form. Some of the early epiphanies – for example, the meeting of two children on the tram – survived Joyce’s radical changes to the tale and appear in the final version of the novel. The novel’s protagonist and main character Stephen Dedalus also makes a reappearance in Joyce’s most famous novel of all, Ulysses.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a strongly autobiographical novel. Joyce himself was sent to the church schools of Clongowes and Belvedere. The big family argument during Christmas dinner and the visit to the red-light district are also likely based on real-life events.

Reviews and Legacy

Joyce’s contemporaries struggled with the open and detailed description of the highs and lows of the protagonist’s life: Bed-wetting children and visits to prostitutes hardly ever made an appearance in early-20th century literature, which meant that initial reviews of Joyce’s work were not exactly glowing. In contrast, intellectuals, writers and artists all agreed that Joyce’s novel was a masterpiece. Ezra Pound predicted that the novel would become an important and lasting part of British literary history, and H.G. Wells claimed that no other literary figure was as believable as Stephen Dedalus. The full extent of Joyce’s literary fame would only come with the publication of Ulysses, but the joy of experimentation and the innovation of style that characterize Ulysses have their origin in its predecessor, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The book was adapted for screen in 1977 and directed by Joseph Strick, with Bosco Hogan as Stephen. There is also a stage version, produced in 2012 by Léonie Scott-Matthews.

About the Author

James Joyce was born in Dublin on February 2, 1882, into a middle-class Catholic family, the eldest of ten children to survive infancy. He attended the Jesuit boarding school Clongowes Wood but had to leave in 1892 because his father could no longer afford the fees. He studied at home for some time, and then took a place at Belvedere College. In 1898, he went to study English, French and Italian at the newly established University College Dublin, where he joined various theatrical and literary circles. He started writing reviews and short articles as well as two plays, which have since been lost. His anti-Catholic attitude is apparent throughout his work and led to severe criticism from the conservative side. After graduating, he went to Paris to study medicine but soon abandoned his program. When his mother was diagnosed with cancer in 1902, he returned to Ireland. His mother died in the summer, and Joyce started to drink heavily and just managed to make a living by reviewing books, teaching and singing. In 1904, he met Nora Barnacle, and the couple moved to Trieste, where Joyce taught English. In 1906, their first child, George, was born, followed two years later by Lucia. In 1914, Joyce’s collection of short stories, Dubliner was published. One year later, Joyce moved to Zurich, where he first came into contact with Dadaism and Expressionism. In 1916, he published his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which established him as a serious writer. However, it wasn’t until the publication of Ulysses in 1922 that Joyce reached true literary fame. In the 1920s, Joyce moved with his family to Paris and, in 1939, published Finnegans Wake, his most surrealist work. When Nazi Germany invaded Paris, Joyce fled to Zurich. He suffered from a perforated duodenal ulcer, for which he had to undergo surgery. He fell into a coma shortly after the surgery and died on January 13, 1941, aged just 58.


This literary classic summary has been shared with you by getAbstract.

We find, rate and summarize relevant knowledge to help people make better decisions in business and in their private lives.

For yourself
Discover your next favorite book with getAbstract. See prices >>
For your company
Stay up-to-date with emerging trends in less time. Learn more >>
Students
We're committed to helping #nextgenleaders. See prices >>

Related Channels

Comment on this summary