Illustration of a man resembling James Joyce wearing a hat and glasses

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

by James Joyce

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Chapter 1 Summary

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The novel opens with scenes from Stephen Daedalus’s infancy and early childhood, as he recalls nursery rhymes and vague impressions from before his memory fully developed, including his mother’s scent and the feeling of his cold bed sheets.

The narrative then moves ahead several years, and a young Stephen is enrolled at Clongowes Wood College, a Jesuit boarding school for boys. Although he tries to fit in, Stephen’s small stature and penchant for daydreaming leave him socially isolated. He is also the victim of bullying, and, on one occasion, he falls ill after an older student pushes him into an outhouse drainage ditch. 

While visiting home during the winter holidays, Stephen is thrilled to be able to sit at the table with the adults. An argument breaks out regarding the recent death of Irish Nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell. Stephen’s father, Simon, and his friend John Casey mourn Parnell’s death and believe that the Catholic Church is responsible for inhibiting Parnell’s political cause of Irish self-governance. The church censured Parnell and turned public opinion against him at least in part due to his romantic involvement with a married woman. By contrast, Stephen’s nurse, Dante, defends the Catholic Church’s decision, believing it is their role to uphold morality. 

After the holiday, Stephen returns to school. One day, he accidentally breaks his glasses, and his teacher excuses him from lessons since he cannot see. However, Father Dolan, a prefect of studies, visits the classroom, looking to discipline students he perceives as “lazy.” He specifically targets Stephen, who attempts to explain that he broke his glasses and has been excused. Father Dolan accuses Stephen of deceiving his teacher regarding his poor eyesight, and he punishes Stephen by slapping his hands with a paddle. 

Stephen is confused and outraged by his unjust punishment, and his classmates encourage him to report the incident to the school’s rector. Stephen briefly considers the possible consequences of this action, but he ultimately decides to go through with it. To his shock, the rector responds empathetically and promises to clarify the situation with Father Dolan. Stephen emerges as a hero to his classmates.

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Chapter 2 Summary