Published in 1916, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man established its then thirty-two-year-old author, James Joyce, as a leading figure in the international movement known as literary modernism. The title describes the book’s subject quite accurately. On one level, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man can be read as what the Germans call a Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel.
Set in Ireland in the late nineteenth century, Portrait is a semi-autobiographical novel about the education of a young Irishman, Stephen Dedalus, whose background has much in common with Joyce’s. Stephen’s education includes not only his formal schooling but also his moral, emotional, and intellectual development as he observes and reacts to the world around him. At the center of the story is Stephen’s rejection of his Roman Catholic upbringing and his growing confidence as a writer. But the book’s significance does not lie only in its portrayal of a sensitive and complex young man or in its use of autobiographical detail. More than this, Portrait is Joyce’s deliberate attempt to create a new kind of novel that does not rely on conventional narrative techniques.
Rather than telling a story with a coherent plot and a traditional beginning, middle, and end, Joyce presents selected decisive moments in the life of his hero without the kind of transitional material that marked most novels written up to that time. The “portrait” of the title is actually a series of portraits, each showing Stephen at a different stage of development. And, although this story is told in a third-person narrative, it is filtered through Stephen’s consciousness. Finally, the book can be read as Joyce’s artistic manifesto and a declaration of independence—independence from what Joyce considered the restrictive social background of Catholic Ireland and from the conventions that had previously governed the novel as a literary genre. More than eighty years after its publication, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man continues to be regarded as a central text of early twentiethcentury modernism.
As its title suggests, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a kind of self-portrait, a novel that traces the development of its central character, Stephen Dedalus, from infancy to young adulthood, as he finds himself drawn into and struggling with the social, religious, and political currents of late nineteenth-century Ireland. While Joyce clearly bases Stephen on his younger self, he maintains an ironic distance from his character, implying at the end of the novel that his youthful alter ego still has much to learn about both life and the art that he dreams of making.
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