A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce is possibly the greatest example in the English language of the bildungsroman, a novel tracing the physical, mental, and spiritual growth and education of a young person. Other examples of this genre range from Gustave Flaubert’s L’Éducation sentimentale (1869; A Sentimental Education, 1898) to D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913). Published in book form in 1916, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man stands stylistically between the fusion of highly condensed naturalism and Symbolism found in his Dubliners (1914) and the elaborate mythological structure, interior monologues, and stream-of-consciousness style of his Ulysses (1922). There is a consistent concern for entrapment, isolation, and rebellion from home, Church, and nation in all three of these works.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is autobiographical, but in the final analysis, the variants from, rather than the parallels with, Joyce’s own life are of the greater artistic significance. The events of Stephen Dedalus’s life are taken from the lives of Joyce, his brother, Stanislaus, and his friend, Byrne, covering the period between 1885 and 1902. The book begins with the earliest memories of his childhood, recounted in childlike language, and ends when Stephen is twenty-two years old with his decision to leave his native Dublin in search of artistic development to forge the conscience of his race. In the intervening years, like Joyce, Stephen attends the Jesuit Clongowes Wood School, which he must leave because of family financial difficulties; attends a day school in Dublin; has his first sexual experience; has his first religious crisis; and finally attends University College, where he decides on his vocation as a writer. The dedication to pure art involves for Stephen, and Joyce, a rejection of the claims on him of duty to family, to the Catholic Church, and to Irish nationalism, either of the political type or of the literary type espoused by the writers of the Irish Renaissance.
In his characterization of Stephen, however, Joyce eliminates much of himself: his sense of humor and love of sport, his graduation from the university before leaving Dublin, his desire to attend medical school in France, his deep concern for his mother’s health and affection for his father, and the lifelong liaison he established with Nora Barnacle, who left Ireland with Joyce in 1904. The effect of these omissions is to make a narrower, more isolated character of Stephen than Joyce himself.
On one level, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is an initiation story in which an innocent, idealistic youth with a sense of trust in his elders is brought slowly to the recognition that this is a flawed, imperfect world, characterized by injustice and disharmony. Stephen finds this fact at home, at school, at church, in relationships with women and friends, and in the past and present history of his nation. His pride, however, prevents him from seeing any shortcomings in himself. In the second portion of the novel, he becomes involved in the excesses of carnal lust; in the third portion, in the excesses of penitent piety, which also eventually disgust him. In the fourth section, in which he assumes Lucifer’s motto, I Will Not Serve—although he sees himself as a pagan worshiper of beauty—he becomes involved in excessive intellectual pride. In the final portion of the novel, Stephen develops his aesthetic theory of the epiphany—the sudden revelation of truth and beauty—through the artistic goals of “wholeness, harmony, and radiance.” Therefore, his final flight from his actual home—family, Church, nation—is still part of an almost adolescent rejection of the imperfections of this world and an attempt to replace it with the perfection of form, justice, and harmony of artistic creation.
Stephen Dedalus’s very name is chosen to underline his character. His first name links him to Saint Stephen, the first martyr to Christianity; Dedalus sees himself as a martyr, willing to give up all to the services of art. His last name is famous from classical antiquity. It was Daedalus, the Athenian exile, who designed the great caste for King Minos of Crete and later designed the famous labyrinth in which the monstrous Minotaur was kept captive. Later, longing to return to his own land but imprisoned in his labyrinth, Daedalus invented wings for himself and his son, Icarus, to fly from the labyrinth. Stephen, the artist, sees Dublin as the labyrinth from which he must fly to become the great artificer Daedalus was. It is important to remember, however, that Daedalus’s son, Icarus, ignored his father’s instructions on how to use the wings; because of pride and the desire to exceed, he flew too close to the sun, and his wings melted. He plunged into the ocean and drowned. It is only later, in Ulysses, that Stephen recognizes himself as “lap-winged Icarus” rather than as Daedalus.
Joyce’s technical skill is obvious in the series of interwoven recurrent symbols of the novel. The rose, for example, which is associated with women, chivalric love, and creativity, appears throughout the novel. In addition, water is found in almost every chapter of the novel: It can be the water that drowns and brings death; it can also be the water that gives life, symbolic of renewal as in baptism and the final choice of escape by sea.
The central themes of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—alienation, isolation, rejection, betrayal, the Fall, the search for the father—are developed with amazing virtuosity. This development is the second, following Dubliners, of the four major parts in Joyce’s cyclical treatment of the life of humans that moves, as the great medieval cyclical plays, from Fall to Redemption, from isolation and alienation to acceptance. Joyce’s analysis of the human condition and of the relationship of art to life is later developed in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake (1939).
Joyce has emphasized the importance of the word “young” in the title of this work, and his conclusion, in the form of Stephen’s diary illustrating Stephen’s own perceptions, words, and style, forces the reader to become more objective and detached in his or her judgment of Stephen. The reader realizes that all of Stephen’s previous epiphanies have failed and recognizes in these final pages the human complexity of Stephen’s important triumph in escaping from the nets of Ireland; the reader, however, also realizes that Stephen’s triumph is complicated by important losses and sacrifices.