A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

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Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1,087 words.)