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.