A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Author:                   James Joyce
Language:              English
Published in:         1916
Genre:                     Novel, Bildungsroman
I Read:                     A.I.T.B.S. Publishers
No. of Pages:          196

joyce copy.jpg

‘I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.’

~A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

                                                                        Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist of the novel, is an Irish young boy trying to find his way in life. He is influenced by certain occurrences at home and at his school run by Jesuits. He realizes that he is different from others as he observes everything and tries to find answers for all that he comes across. As his life moves on, he loses his spirituality and gradually drifts from family bonds and chooses a worldly path. But then again, a change occurs and he turns highly religious. Later, he loses faith in God and the political interest he had since childhood too subsides. He finally leaves his homeland when he understands that Church, Family, School and Politics are four institutions that prevent him from becoming what he want to be-an Artist; a man who is free to live and express life.


It is a German term signifying “novel of formation” or “novel of education”. The subject in these novels is the development of the protagonist’s mind and character in the passage from childhood through varied experiences-and often through a spiritual crisis-into maturity; this process usually involves recognition of one’s own identity and role in the world.

Stream of Consciousness technique:

A phrase used to describe the narrative method involving an unbroken flow of perceptions, memories, thoughts, and feelings in the waking mind.

Summary of  A Portrait:

The book is divided into five chapters. In the first, Stephen is a little boy attending the Clongowes Wood College run by Jesuit priests. He is a very intellectually gifted boy who suffers the ridicule of his classmates while Stephen tries to come in terms with the behavior of his schoolmates. On a Christmas dinner at home, he witnesses a discussion, on politics and religion, among his father and his relatives that turns into a quarrel. He couldn’t grasp the significance of the political, social and religious tensions in Ireland that they talked about but this incident left Stephen in a state of confusion. Later he goes through a situation when he is strapped by one of his instructors who believed that Stephen broke his spectacles intentionally to avoid studying, when actually the secs had broken accidentally. Stephen who never dared to do things, gathers up all his strength and courage to complain of it to the rector Father Conmoe who assures him that no such incident would happen again. This leaves Stephen with a sense of triumph and he understands that if he has courage, he could do anything.

In chapter 2, we meet a Stephen, aged around 15, trying to experience the world in the midst of family problems. His father gets into a debt and they leave to Dublin. He excels academically at Belvedere College and even gets appointed as the class monitor. Stephen wins a large sum of money as cash prize and he begins to spend it but later he begins to see prostitutes as his relationship with his drunken father begins to break.

In the third chapter, we find a Stephen who gets conscious of his worldly ways that he begins to undergo changes. His class is taken on a religious retreat and there he listens to sermons made by priests which were mostly on topics like sin, pride, guilt, punishment, hell, etc, which makes him overwhelmed about his sins. He confesses his sins and then experiences a spiritual awakening.

In the next chapter, Stephen is a highly religious person who spends too much time in prayer and contemplation. He even begins the practice of self mortification. Instead of turning good, he turns into a person angry even over trivial things like someone coughing or passing by him when he is in prayer. Seeing that he is a prayerful man, Jesuits invite him to priesthood. He begins reflecting on his life and realizes that prayer is doing him no good. Temptations of the world soon starts haunting him. He meets a girl Emma Clery for whom he develops feelings for. He is overcome by a desire to express her beauty to her through his writings.

In the last chapter, Stephen enters Dublin University College. He realizes that Church, School, Politics and Family are four social institutions that haunt him. In the midst of his family misfortunes, Stephen’s parents urge him to return to faith in God but he loses himself in a world of philosophy and in a quest for freedom. His theories are very complicated that neither his friends nor his family understands them. Stephen, who used to love his country Ireland as a kid, now finds Ireland too restricted a place for him. He breaks the hold that the four institutions had on him. He makes diary writings about his ties with the land but finally leaves Ireland to be free….to be a real artist!

What I think about this book:

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is the portrayal of a young man Stephen Dedalus as an artist trying to perfect his life through attaining freedom in thoughts and in his life. It is the first novel penned by James Joyce, a novel that won him the reputation for his literary talent as a novelist.Like most of the other masterpieces, A Portrait was the outcome of the hard work and efforts made by Joyce to overcome all the hindrances he had in becoming an artist. The novel is an autobiography of James in which he uses the stream of consciousness technique and describes the events of the story from the view of Stephen. The novel has a third person narrative style until last where it changes into first person narrative.

Like Stephen, Joyce did his education in Jesuit schools of Clongowes and Dublin. Like Stephen, the philosophies of Thomas Aquinas had a great impact on James all his life. And like Stephen, Joyce too left Ireland after his studies in the University of Dublin.

The novel is a bildungsroman and a story of artistic development. As I read the novel, I found that the complexity of it kept increasing. His philosophies and his thoughts became more and more complex as the pages rolled by. I also found that the dialogues made by Stephen too gradually increased. It’s no wonder because Stephen was on his way in finding the importance of his own voice in this world. Stephen’s or Joyce’s pursuit of beauty and the urge to fly out into the greatness of art makes him a perfect artist.

In 1998, the Modern Library named the novel third in the list of 100 Best English Novels of the 20th Century. What I liked the most about ths book is the way it provides the reader with a character having such depth and realism. The psychological analysis, the language, the beauty of describing people and things, everything makes this a remarkable novel.

My rating for the book:


How I got this book:

Having heard of this book in class, I ordered it via amazon.in as I wanted to read it.

Who would I recommend it to:

All literature lovers. But young readers might not completely understand the philosophical theories and the mental conflicts of the protagonist.





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