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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

by James Joyce

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Chapter 5 Summary

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Stephen now attends university, much to his family’s ire. However, rather than finding it to be the paradise of intellectual and artistic freedom he once sought, he instead struggles with the same feelings of boredom, detachment, and alienation that have plagued him throughout his life. 

Stephen is devising a theory of aesthetics based on the works of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. He believes that art should possess a certain detachment from the everyday aspects of life, instead striving to evoke a more transcendent experience. For him, the artist is a sort of godlike figure who must adopt an attitude of indifference towards his work, allowing his creation to live a life of its own. He attempts to expand upon his ideas to the university dean and his friends, but none of them seem to truly understand Stephen’s ideas. 

Stephen’s desire for freedom also leads him to reject the social causes that many of his peers have taken up, such as Irish nationalism and universal peace. Stephen regards the “nets” of nationality, language, and religion as forms of confinement, and he instead turns to his own notions of aesthetics and the meaning of art to elevate him past such concerns. 

In his efforts to free himself, Stephen has also elected to remove religion from his life. However, this has put him into conflict with his mother, who expects him to attend Easter church service. Stephen asks his friend Cranly for advice, and Cranly encourages him to attend the service in order to appease his mother. He asks Stephen why he is so adamant about not attending, and Stephen explains his history with the church as well as his own disillusionment with Catholicism, his family, and even his home country of Ireland. 

Cranly further questions Stephen on a number of moral issues, asking about his love for his mother, his strained—but still present—relationship with the Christian god, and his willingness to forsake his country. Stephen states that he has no desire to serve any country or god. He has come to believe that he must leave the university—and Ireland itself—in order to pursue his artistic ambitions. 

The final section of the novel is composed of Stephen’s journal entries as he prepares to travel the European continent. He reflects on a conversation he had with his mother during which she accused him of becoming strange as a result of reading too much, and he expresses his complex feelings about leaving behind his friends and family. However, the final journal entry once again invokes the mythical Daedalus, from whom Stephen draws inspiration and optimism as he sets off to explore the “reality of experience” and pursue his artistic vocation.

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Chapter 4 Summary