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

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Joyce's Hero: Absurd or Serious

(Novels for Students)

James Joyce’s first published novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), recounts Stephen Dedalus’s struggle to understand and then break free of family, church, and country. The journey of this representative young artist is a growing apart or wrenching away from increasingly imprisoning influences, in Stephen’s case, from an economically impoverished home, a theologically impoverished Catholic Church, and the politically impoverished nationalism of Irish independence. Crucial here is that familial, religious, and national “railings” that first fascinate and guide the child increasingly become “bars” that imprison the adult. The task of the artist, then, is to break free of these constraints and from their bars forge new and better formations. The artist will create not only the guideposts and protective railings of the future, but in the process will likely have to sacrifice his well-being and perhaps a bit of his sanity as well. For Joyce, the image of the artist apart conjures up ambivalence, specifically, excitement alternating with dread.

At the beginning of A Portrait of the Artist, Stephen is not only a very young child, an “object” protected and guided, but an object in a story, a character (baby tuckoo) “written” in by his father’s narration. Stephen is the near-opposite of a man apart—he is the very young child whose story is being created by another. Stephen is at once both a child shaped by his parents and a character embedded in a story he didn’t create, a combination producing an object who is anything but apart. Later, at home and in Catholic school, Stephen is either speechless (at Christmas dinner) or victimized (knocked down by schoolmates and beaten on the palms by a prefect). Stephen’s only independence revolves around his sensitivities to words (“belt,” “iss,” “suck”) and stimuli, especially temperature, moisture, and smell.

By the end of Chapter One, however, Stephen commits his first real act of independence: he protests his palm-whipping. At the end of Chapter Two, the increasing apartness Stephen feels as the result of his family’s sudden poverty and his sensibilities— which separate him from his father and his surroundings—culminates in his “French kiss” with a prostitute, the prelude to a period of whoring that would seem to break his ties to Catholicism. The social apartness created by Stephen’s whoring is less a creative, artistic separation than a destructive, uncreative separation, a mere rebellion. Therefore, in Chapter Three, Stephen gradually regrets his falling away from the Church until, at the end, he not only confesses but readies himself for the Host. In this chapter, Joyce creates, after a gradual slope toward the heights of separation, a fall: this physically central chapter of the book is a loss of Stephen’s momentum toward apartness, a reversal, a device to create audience conflict and make final victory more sweet: the reader, cheering Stephen on toward separation, wonders, “Can he do it, can he really break free?”

Joyce keeps reader conflict alive as Stephen decides to mortify his flesh and devote himself to prayer. But Stephen’s movement toward separateness cannot, of course, be stopped: interior apartness is manifested when Stephen declines an offer to join the Jesuits; exterior apartness is forced on him when his family must move because they cannot pay the rent. Later, Stephen wanders alone on the beach meditating on his apartness from immature peers and staring at multiple figurings of his solitude: little islands of sand amidst the sea; the moon as a body detached from earth, solitary in the evening sky; a hawklike man confused for a god.

Chapter Five cuts once and for all Stephen’s ties to family, religion, and nation. Leaving the house, Stephen figuratively leaves behind the economic and spiritual poverty that make him feel apart. Then he asserts his interior solitude. Arriving at the Catholic university,...

(The entire section is 7,125 words.)