A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Analysis

James Joyce

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*University College

*University College. Roman Catholic university in Dublin, as opposed to Trinity College, which was reserved for the Protestant elite. This is the site where Stephen Dedalus and his friends have long, involved discussions and arguments about topics such as art, politics, and the Catholic Church.

As at his earlier schools, Stephen is at odds, intellectually, philosophically, and religiously, with most of his fellows; however, at University College he is much better able to articulate his positions. It is here that Stephen finally renounces his Catholic faith, with his statement that he will refuse to make his Easter duty as his ailing mother has asked. In the physics theater of University College, Stephen and an elderly Jesuit priest discuss the powerful differences in language—particularly differences between English and Gaelic—that are powerful impulses in Stephen’s aspirations and actions. During this conversation, Stephen realizes the great potency words have in his life and senses that the artist who can transform reality through words is equivalent to the priest who can transmute the bread and wine during mass.

Dedalus homes

Dedalus homes. The large family of Simon and May Dedalus occupy a variety of houses and apartments in Dublin during the course of the novel. The steady decline in the richness and quality of these residences charts the descent of the Dedalus family from relative affluence to harsh poverty. In the first home, an elaborate Christmas dinner presented by servants is the scene of a dramatic political argument between Stephen’s father Simon and his aunt, Dante Riordan, over Irish politics, especially the fate of the Nationalist leader, Charles Stewart Parnell. Successive homes and their meals are smaller and less satisfying, until the family is living in less-than-genteel poverty. The decline in material richness is juxtaposed to Stephen’s growing intellectual and artistic richness and resources.

*Clongowes College

*Clongowes College. Exclusive school, run by Jesuits in County Kildare. Simon Dedalus respects the Jesuits for their ability to help their students achieve material and professional success in life. Clongowes combines classrooms, dormitories, playgrounds, and chapel. There, Stephen first experiences his artistic impulses. It is also here that he is the victim of larger, more powerful boys who mock and bully him for his physical weakness and intellectual inclinations.

*Belvedere College

*Belvedere College. More modest Catholic school to which Stephen is sent as the family’s fortunes decline. At Belvedere, Stephen attends a retreat where a visiting priest summons up terrifying visions of the eternal damnation and suffering of the tortured souls in Hell. Following these services, and after a night filled with horrible dreams, Stephen hurries to confession and dedicates himself to the Church, to the point where he seriously wonders if he has a vocation for the priesthood.


Bridge. Structure spanning a tidal river on the coast near Dublin. While walking in this vicinity, Stephen watches a company of Christian Brothers, an order of the Catholic Church, march over the bridge. Immediately afterward, he beholds a lovely young girl, birdlike in her appearance, wading in the water. As is often the case in James Joyce’s work, water, especially the sea, symbolizes art and freedom. There, the choice clearly is between the Church and art, and Stephen’s decision to renounce the Church in favor of art is made the moment he responds to the beauty of the girl.


*Dublin. Capital of Ireland, although at the time of the novel the nation was not independent but part of the British Empire. Dublin forms a backdrop for much of Portrait of the Artist, especially in the scene where young Stephen wanders the streets seeking a prostitute, both to release his sexual longings and to “embrace life” in defiance of the Church and Irish morality.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Joyce’s Ireland: The Historical and Political Context
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is set in Ireland in the...

(The entire section is 1107 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The publication of Portrait in book form in 1916 coincided with one of the most important events in modern Irish history: the Easter...

(The entire section is 656 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Like many of the novels that precede it, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is written in the third person...

(The entire section is 1764 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The term "epiphany" looms large in Joyce's earlier work, providing a helpful point of entry into both Dubliners and Portrait....

(The entire section is 787 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

As a novel about a young man's development as he tries to realize an ideal vision of himself as an artist who stands aloof from the conflicts...

(The entire section is 307 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1880s-1910s: The entire island of Ireland is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Ireland does not have its own...

(The entire section is 345 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. How likeable is Stephen Dedalus? What are the positive and negative aspects of his character?

2. How does Stephen develop over...

(The entire section is 389 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. The first chapter of the novel coincides with the downfall and death of Charles Stewart Parnell, who is throughout that chapter an...

(The entire section is 384 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

The Order of Catholic priests that figures in Joyce’s novel, the Society of Jesus, is known historically for its schools and colleges....

(The entire section is 184 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

A fairly well received film version of Portrait was made in 1979 by Joseph Strick with Bosco Hogan playing the role of Stephen. The...

(The entire section is 302 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was adapted as a feature film by Judith Rascoe, directed by Joseph Strick, and starring Bosco...

(The entire section is 79 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Dubliners is James Joyce’s first published book of fiction. It is a collection of fifteen short stories about ordinary characters in...

(The entire section is 439 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Bolt, Sydney. A Preface to James Joyce. New York: Longman, 1981; revised edition, 1992. A good introduction to Joyce's life and work,...

(The entire section is 195 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Ford Madox Ford, “A Haughty and Proud Generation,” in YR, No. 9, 1922, p. 717.

Hugh Kenner, A...

(The entire section is 440 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.