Ideas and Topics for Papers


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

2. How does Stephen develop over his years at Clongowes school? What traits do we see in Stephen that will develop as he grows older? What traits do we see that will diminish over time?

3. How would you describe Stephen’s relationship with his family? His father? His mother? His brothers and sisters?

4. In the beginning of the book, Stephen, wrongly punished by Father Dolan, overcomes his fear to speak with the rector of Clongowes, Father Conmee. What does he learn as a result of this episode? How does his encounter with these two men influence him later in life?

5. By the end of the novel, Stephen has resolved to leave Ireland. Why?

6. In his second-to-last journal entry, Stephen writes that his mother prays that he will “learn what the heart is and what it feels.” What does she mean? Do you think Stephen understands what she means?

7. Joyce could have had Stephen tell his own story, but instead we see him described by another narrator who knows his most intimate thoughts. Why might Joyce have chosen to tell the story in this way? Having done so, why does he end the novel differently, with a series of passages from Stephen’s diary?

8. Although this novel presents us with “a portrait of the artist,” the only art of Stephen’s we actually see is one poem, his villanelle, and few readers have been very impressed by that. Why don’t we see more of Stephen’s art? What does the poem tell us about the young artist?

9. Throughout the novel we catch glimpses of a young woman identified only as E.C. who inspires Stephen’s poetry but remains, at best, a vague and silent presence. In the earlier manuscript, later published as Stephen Hero, E.C. is Emma Clery, a far more tangible character whose relationships with both Stephen and Father Moran are more fully detailed. Why do you suppose Joyce chose to obscure this character in his revisions to the novel?

10. Biographies and autobiographies are usually written in a single, continuous narrative (first this happened, then this, and so on), but Joyce’s fictional autobiography is episodic in nature: each chapter contains a series of episodes separated by asterisks. What is the effect of this method of structuring the story?


1. The first chapter of the novel coincides with the downfall and death of Charles Stewart Parnell, who is throughout that chapter an important figure on the margins of the action. He is symbolized by Dante’s green brush; his death is one element in Stephen’s dream vision during his time in the infirmary; and talk of him disrupts the Joyces’ Christmas dinner. Investigate Parnell’s life, cause, and downfall and discuss his significance to Joyce’s novel.

2. Portrait is set and was published in the midst of the Irish Renaissance, a cultural movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (whose representatives included W.B. Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, J.M. Synge and others) that aimed to revive, disseminate and celebrate Irish stories and traditions in response to the predominance of British culture. Research the Irish Renaissance and consider how Joyce might be responding to it. Is he a participant in this movement or a critic of it?

3. Read Ovid’s account of the flight of Dedalus and Icarus in his Metamorphoses (Book 8) and consider Joyce’s reasons for choosing to name his young artist “Dedalus.” Alternatively, find the story of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and consider why that name is appropriate.

4. Compare Joyce’s use of the Dedalus/Icarus myth with that of W.H. Auden in his poem “Musee des Beaux Arts” or with that of William Carlos Williams in “The Fall of Icarus.”

5. Joyce devotes great care to the style and language of each episode, which reflects Stephen’s development at various stages. Make a detailed comparison of two sections, considering how in each case Joyce has attempted to fit the style and language to the particular stage in Stephen’s life.

6. Discuss some of the ways in which Joyce ironically distances himself from Stephen.

7. Portrait is autobiographical fiction that, in many ways, closely parallels the early life of its author. Choose a character or an episode from the novel and compare her/his/its portrayal in Joyce’s novel with the account given by Joyce’s biographer, Richard Ellmann, in his James Joyce. Topics might include Simon Dedalus (based on Joyce’s father, John Joyce), Mrs. Dedalus (Mary Joyce) Dante (Mrs. Hearn Conway), or Stephen’s years at Clongowes, Belvedere College, or University College, Dublin. Consider the changes has Joyce made and consider why he might have made them.

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