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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

by James Joyce

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Describe the characterization in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

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One of the ways in which characterisation is presented in this groundbreaking classic is through the point of view. This novel differs so strongly from others of its ilk because Joyce deliberately chooses not to use a retrospective narration, with the central character looking back on his life with the benefit of his wiser and maturer years. Instead, the experiences, feelings and emotions of his protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, are described to the reader as he himself is experiencing them, creating an authentic and believable characterisation, as the reader sees Stephen as he goes through very different stages of his life and how he responds. Consider, for example, the following epiphany that is used to end the third chapter:

Corpus Domini nostri. Could it be? He knelt there sinless and timid: and he would hold upon his tongue the host and God would enter his purified body.—In vitam eternam. Amen. Another life! A life of grace and virtue and happiness! It was true. It was not a dream from which he would wake. The past was past.—Corpus Domini nostri. The ciborium had come to him.

The reader is able to share in Stephen's excitement as he realises that he will dedicate his life to religion. Note the use of the exclamatory phrase "Another life!" which conveys Stephen's excitement and hope for the future. Also note the short utterance of "The past was past." There is nothing in this quote to indicate that Stephen will eventually reject religion like art. The reader is therefore kept in the dark about the future of Stephen, just as Stephen at that moment was unaware of how his life would turn out. The characterisation of Stephen Dedalus is something therefore that is greatly supported by the point of view that allows the reader to experience what Stephen himself is experiencing as it happens. The reader sees him in the above quote to be a young man struck by religious fervour, and the excitement he feels is conveyed in the use of language.

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Characterization in Joyce's most popular novel is done indirectly. We know that Stephen Dedalus has gotten older and is in different phases of his life because what he says and does is different, more mature and complex.

Indirect characterization is accomplished with (1) minimal description and by building a picture of the character through (2) what they say and do and through (3) how other characters react and relate to them. For instance, in the exposition of the story, we learn through indirect characterization that Stephen is a toddler because he is known to others as "baby tuckoo" and that he dances to his mother's piano playing and hides under the table when he needs to apologize.

When they were grown up he was going to marry Eileen. He hid under the table. His mother said:

—O, Stephen will apologize.

Often with indirect characterization, if a character is physically described in detail, it is a secondary character thus described, not a primary character. This is true of Joyce's novel. In the opening lines, we are given a description of Stephen's father, but not of Stephen: "his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face." One interesting note is that even descriptions of other characters is minimal and filtered through the developmental level of Stephen's mind at the time though given by the third-person narrator. For comparison, another example of a novel with indirect characterization is Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped. 

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Give a critique of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

For being such a slim novel, James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is open to a wide variety of interpretations. I think it's helpful to approach it from a broad perspective to start with, and so I'll answer this question by considering how we're meant to interpret Stephen as an artist by the end of book, since Stephen's maturation as an artist is the focus of the story. In my view, Joyce wrote the novel not to present Stephen as an exemplary artist (as most people assume), but rather to give us a portrait of an overly ambitious youth who arrogantly assumes his artistic ability is greater than it is. 

This opinion might be surprising for many readers, as the book is about the growth of an artist. As such, the natural assumption would be that Joyce is showing us a radically talented young man who will "forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race" (253). Furthermore, if we look at the novel as an isolated entity, it seems as if Stephen is pretty successful: the book ends with him leaving home to pursue his art abroad, after all. 

However, once one reads Ulysses, it becomes increasingly difficult to see Stephen as a great artist. The novel starts with a disenchanted and penniless Stephen living back in Dublin. It becomes apparent that his attempts to become a great artist have failed, and so he's resigned himself to teach at a school in Dublin. Deeply in debt, Stephen is also beginning to develop something of an alcohol problem. With this fate in mind, it becomes increasingly difficult to read Portrait in a positive light. After reading Ulysses, Stephen's character in Portrait seems hopelessly arrogant, less of a genius artist and more of a self-important blowhard who's overly interesting in talking about himself and his supposedly great abilities. Within this context, Portrait becomes Joyce's critique of the idealism of youth, as he shows it to be misguided and out of touch with the harsh realities of the world. 

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