Young Stephen Dedalus goes away to school and suffers greatly from his shyness and poor eyesight. Christmas at home is unpleasant because of the political arguments which divide his father and aunt, as they do all Ireland. Back at school, Stephen earns acclaim from the other students for speaking out against his unjust punishment.
Winning a literary award, he shares the money with his family and then buys his first sexual experience, which turns out unsatisfactorily. While on a religious retreat, he begins to believe that the experience with the prostitute will damn him and he seeks out a confessional. Relieved of his guilt, Stephen turns to intense study, denying all forms of sensual experience. Although successful in his religious studies, as he grows older he begins to doubt.
Eventually he decides to become a writer and cuts himself off from family, friends, church, and country in order to cultivate his art. He decides that he must leave Ireland now that he has found his true vocation as a writer.
Joyce’s quasi-autobiographical novel has at its center the issue of sin and its impingement on the human soul. It expands the topic to cover all the ways the individual may be limited in his quest for fulfillment, by family, friends, and social and national institutions. The novel is particularly noteworthy both in its use of the interior monologue and in its presentation of life in Ireland at a time of unrest. Here, in contrast to the usual novel of adolescence, the primary emphasis is placed upon the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual development of the protagonist.
Booth, Wayne. “The Problem of Distance in A Portrait.” In The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961. Booth goes beyond the negative appraisal of Hugh Kenner (see below) and suggests that it is impossible to judge whether the portrayal of Stephen is ironical or not because of a failure in the narrative authority.
Brown, Richard. James Joyce and Sexuality. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985. An analysis of the political implications in Joyce’s works, especially in marriage and other intimate relationships.
Kenner, Hugh. Dublin’s Joyce. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1956. Kenner was the first to suggest that the portrayal of Stephen Dedalus was not directly autobiographical but deeply ironic. He continues to maintain this negative view of Stephen in his recent criticism.
McCabe, Colin. James Joyce and the Revolution of the Word. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979. A poststructuralist interpretation of the novel that points out the difficulties of establishing any secure critical reading of the book.
Scholes, Robert, and Richard M. Kain, eds. The Workshop of Dedalus: James Joyce and the Raw Materials for “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1965. The best source study available on the novel. Includes notebooks, fragments of the manuscript, and biographical information to help readers understand the contexts in which the novel was created.
Staley, Thomas F., and Bernard Benstock, eds. Approaches to Joyce’s “Portrait”: Ten Essays. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1976. A collection of some important essays that demonstrate various ways of reading Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Tindall, William York. A Reader’s Guide to James Joyce. New York: Noonday Press, 1959. A close reading of Joyce’s works that discovers symbol and image patterns within A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.