Can you describe the characterization in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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One of the ways in which characterisation is presented in this groundbreaking classic is through the point of view. This novel differs so strongly from others of its ilk because Joyce deliberately chooses not to use a retrospective narration, with the central character looking back on his life with the benefit of his wiser and maturer years. Instead, the experiences, feelings and emotions of his protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, are described to the reader as he himself is experiencing them, creating an authentic and believable characterisation, as the reader sees Stephen as he goes through very different stages of his life and how he responds. Consider, for example, the following epiphany that is used to end the third chapter:

Corpus Domini nostri. Could it be? He knelt there sinless and timid: and he would hold upon his tongue the host and God would enter his purified body.—In vitam eternam. Amen. Another life! A life of grace and virtue and happiness! It was true. It was not a dream from which he would wake. The past was past.—Corpus Domini nostri. The ciborium had come to him.

The reader is able to share in Stephen's excitement as he realises that he will dedicate his life to religion. Note the use of the exclamatory phrase "Another life!" which conveys Stephen's excitement and hope for the future. Also note the short utterance of "The past was past." There is nothing in this quote to indicate that Stephen will eventually reject religion like art. The reader is therefore kept in the dark about the future of Stephen, just as Stephen at that moment was unaware of how his life would turn out. The characterisation of Stephen Dedalus is something therefore that is greatly supported by the point of view that allows the reader to experience what Stephen himself is experiencing as it happens. The reader sees him in the above quote to be a young man struck by religious fervour, and the excitement he feels is conveyed in the use of language.


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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Characterization in Joyce's most popular novel is done indirectly. We know that Stephen Dedalus has gotten older and is in different phases of his life because what he says and does is different, more mature and complex.

Indirect characterization is accomplished with (1) minimal description and by building a picture of the character through (2) what they say and do and through (3) how other characters react and relate to them. For instance, in the exposition of the story, we learn through indirect characterization that Stephen is a toddler because he is known to others as "baby tuckoo" and that he dances to his mother's piano playing and hides under the table when he needs to apologize.

When they were grown up he was going to marry Eileen. He hid under the table. His mother said:

—O, Stephen will apologize.

Often with indirect characterization, if a character is physically described in detail, it is a secondary character thus described, not a primary character. This is true of Joyce's novel. In the opening lines, we are given a description of Stephen's father, but not of Stephen: "his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face." One interesting note is that even descriptions of other characters is minimal and filtered through the developmental level of Stephen's mind at the time though given by the third-person narrator. For comparison, another example of a novel with indirect characterization is Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped. 


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