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About the Author

James Joyce was one of the most celebrated and influential English-language writers of the 20th century, and his later works of fiction, including Ulysses (1922) and Finnegan’s Wake (1939), are considered by many critics the most challenging (and, for many, rewarding) works of literature produced in any language. The title of his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, signals the author’s tendency to draw heavily upon the circumstances of his own life, particularly his early life in Dublin. Indeed, despite a self-imposed exile that lasted most of his adult life, Joyce’s fiction is always set in the city of his birth, whose sights, sounds, smells and tastes emanate powerfully from his pages, drawing generations of readers to the city to experience a place they have already, in a sense, come to know. Readers should be aware, though, that Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist of Portrait, is not James Joyce and the book is not the author’s autobiography; it is a life transformed into fiction, a verbal “portrait.”

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Setting and Overview

The publication of Portrait in book form in 1916 coincided with one of the most important events in modern Irish history: the Easter Rising (also called the Easter Rebellion), which initiated a bloody war of independence followed by several months of civil war in Ireland. By 1922, in the wake of these conflicts, Ireland had thrown off British rule and transformed itself into the Irish Free State-a body comprising all but the six counties of Ulster (the modern-day British province of Northern Ireland); in 1949 the Free State became Eire, the Republic of Ireland. The Rising began when a citizen army of around 1,000 people occupied Dublin’s General Post Office and several other key sites around the city, read aloud a proclamation of an Irish Republic, and raised republican flags. Britain’s response was swift, violent, and apparently effective: thousands of troops were brought into Dublin; a gunboat was deployed in the river Liffey; bullets, shells and incendiary bombs destroyed much of the city and resulted in approximately 1,500 casualties. Within five days, the rebels surrendered. In the weeks that followed, the leaders of the Rising were executed by a firing squad. These highly-publicized executions sent waves of revulsion across Ireland, made martyrs of the rebels, and solidified public opinion in Ireland against British rule. In the words of Joyce’s contemporary, the playwright Sean O’Casey, “1916 became the Year One in Irish history and Irish life.”

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Themes and Characters

Of all the characters in the novel, Stephen Dedalus is the only one whose portrait is fully realized. His most intimate thoughts, memories and sensations are revealed to us throughout; all the other characters exist for the reader only insofar as they matter to Stephen. Joyce’s self-portrait is a complex one, inviting us to sympathize with Stephen while also causing us to regard him more critically, and even laugh at him. The little boy wrongly punished by Father Dolan for failing to copy out his Latin themes or falling ill after being shouldered into the ditch by Wells is likely to have our sympathy. Less sympathetic is the saintly youth whose absurd devotions betray a high degree of egotism and whose abstract meditations on the nature of love have no positive bearing whatsoever on his relationships with others; or the pretentious university student propounding his aesthetic theories at great length to poor Lynch, an unwilling and barely interested auditor, who makes jokes throughout, which the pedantic and humorless Stephen ignores. Stephen tends to view his life in terms of a heroic struggle to free himself from the various confinements he feels his native city imposes upon him-the “nets” of politics, religion and family. Throughout, though, Stephen’s inflated sense of himself is subtly undercut by Joyce, who provides many reminders of the flaws and inadequacies in Stephen’s character that the young man himself fails to perceive. Stephen identifies with the classical hero whose name he bears, but he is more like the son Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and came crashing down into the sea, than the father Daedalus, whose cunning enabled him to forge the wings that permitted his escape from Minos’s prison.

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Literary Qualities

The term “epiphany” looms large in Joyce’s earlier work, providing a helpful point of entry into both Dubliners and Portrait. The term’s roots are Greek; it means, literally, a “showing forth.” In the Christian calendar, the feast of the Epiphany, celebrated on January 6, the “Twelfth Night” of Christmas, commemorates the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem to worship the newborn Christ-the “epiphany” is the showing forth of Christ to the three kings. Joyce adopted the term and broadened its sense to describe a series of very short prose pieces he wrote between 1900 and 1903, some of which later found their way into Portrait. In Stephen Hero (an earlier draft of Portrait, the surviving parts of which were published a few years after Joyce’s death), Stephen, who is planning a book of his epiphanies, offers this definition: “By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.” An epiphany, in other words, is a moment of revelation, when the very truth or essence of something is suddenly glimpsed. Art, as Stephen understands it, attempts to capture and preserve such fleeting moments. The planned collection of brief epiphanies in Stephen Hero is very similar to the approximately 40 early epiphanies written by Joyce that have survived. While neither of these collections looks like Portrait, something of Joyce’s own earlier epiphanies does remain in the novel. We might see the completed novel, with its fragmented structure, as an assemblage of Stephen’s important moments of insight, which, taken together, constitute the whole “portrait.”

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Social Sensitivity

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 of family, politics, and religion that divide his world, Portrait raises questions about the nature of art and artists and their relationship to the world in which they live: Is the artist an especially gifted being? What duty does an artist owe family, friends, country? Stephen imagines the artist as an indifferent god, paring his nails while his characters go about their business, but a similar indifference marks his relationships with those around him, and he often appears callous, cruel, consumed by various idealized visions of himself as the saintly penitent, for instance, or the heroic artist figure of the novel’s closing pages who grandly promises to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” The novel does not clearly disavow such romantic and heroic notions of the artist, but it does at the very least suggest the cost to others of such a degree of self-absorption, however creative. The nature of art itself is also at issue in the novel. What is it? What is it for? Stephen envisions an art that transcends his world and distills his experience to a pure essence untainted by everyday life; however, we see very little of Stephen’s art in the novel, and what we do see is not remarkable. Further, the book that Joyce has written is very different from the refined aesthetic ideal celebrated by Stephen Dedalus: while Stephen all but refines his beloved E.C. out of existence in his villanelle, Joyce takes pains to remind us that Stephen walks upon the ground. Portrait is not the kind of book that Stephen Dedalus would write, at least, not the Stephen we see at this point.

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Ideas and Topics for Papers

VII TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION

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

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Related Titles and Adaptations

A fairly well-received film version of Portrait was made in 1979 by Joseph Strick with Bosco Hogan playing the role of Stephen. The novel’s “sequel,” Ulysses, was also filmed by Strick in 1967 with considerably less success. There are at least two unabridged recordings of the novel, by David Case (Books On Tape, 1992) and Frederick Davidson (Blackstone Audio Books, 1995). In addition, there are a few abridged recordings, including ones by Jim Norton (Naxos Audio Books, 1995) and John Lynch (Durkin Hayes Audio, 1993).

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Comments Off

About the Author

James Joyce was one of the most celebrated and influential English-language writers of the 20th century, and his later works of fiction, including Ulysses (1922) and Finnegan’s Wake (1939), are considered by many critics the most challenging (and, for many, rewarding) works of literature produced in any language. The title of his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, signals the author’s tendency to draw heavily upon the circumstances of his own life, particularly his early life in Dublin. Indeed, despite a self-imposed exile that lasted most of his adult life, Joyce’s fiction is always set in the city of his birth, whose sights, sounds, smells and tastes emanate powerfully from his pages, drawing generations of readers to the city to experience a place they have already, in a sense, come to know. Readers should be aware, though, that Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist of Portrait, is not James Joyce and the book is not the author’s autobiography; it is a life transformed into fiction, a verbal “portrait.”

Read the rest of this entry »

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Overview

As its title suggests, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a kind of self-portrait, a novel that traces the development of its central character, Stephen Dedalus, from infancy to young adulthood, as he finds himself drawn into and struggling with the social, religious, and political currents of late 19th-century Ireland. While Joyce clearly bases Stephen on his younger self, he maintains an ironic distance from his character, implying at the end of the novel that his youthful alter ego still has much to learn about both life and the art that he dreams of making.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Comments Off

Setting

The publication of Portrait in book form in 1916 coincided with one of the most important events in modern Irish history: the Easter Rising (also called the Easter Rebellion), which initiated a bloody war of independence followed by several months of civil war in Ireland. By 1922, in the wake of these conflicts, Ireland had thrown off British rule and transformed itself into the Irish Free State-a body comprising all but the six counties of Ulster (the modern-day British province of Northern Ireland); in 1949 the Free State became Eire, the Republic of Ireland. The Rising began when a citizen army of around 1,000 people occupied Dublin’s General Post Office and several other key sites around the city, read aloud a proclamation of an Irish Republic, and raised republican flags. Britain’s response was swift, violent, and apparently effective: thousands of troops were brought into Dublin; a gunboat was deployed in the river Liffey; bullets, shells and incendiary bombs destroyed much of the city and resulted in approximately 1,500 casualties. Within five days, the rebels surrendered. In the weeks that followed, the leaders of the Rising were executed by a firing squad. These highly-publicized executions sent waves of revulsion across Ireland, made martyrs of the rebels, and solidified public opinion in Ireland against British rule. In the words of Joyce’s contemporary, the playwright Sean O’Casey, “1916 became the Year One in Irish history and Irish life.”

Read the rest of this entry »

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