A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce: Book Summary and Analysis

‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ is written by James Joyce, and was first published in 1916.

It is a difficult book to read. And, definitely, the narrative with long sentences, the one that delves into the deeper consciousness of the protagonist does not seem to help much.

‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ is assumed to be the autobiography of James Joyce and the central character of Stephen Dedalus, his alter ego.

The story is set in Ireland and one has to understand the narrative against the backdrop of religious and political changes that were happening during the turn of the century. Joyce puts the remark, “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow” and that sums up his view about Ireland at that point in time.    

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo …” 

To begin with, this opening line of the book is deemed as ‘iconic’.

We meet the young Stephan Dedalus. His father is telling him this story. The baby tuckoo aka Stephen sang and danced to the stories told by his father and to the songs sung by his mother. Apart from his father, mother, siblings, there is Governess Dante and Uncle Charles in the family. On one occasion, Stephen mentions his wish to marry a girl living in their neighbourhood, a Protestant; to which the family expresses extreme shock and reprimands him. This sets the tone for the book, drawing hugely on religious connotations.

Then, the story proceeds to Clonglowes, a strict disciplinarian residential school where Stephen is sent. There is some level of bullying due to Stephen’s poor economic background. He is pushed into a ditch and falls sick but does not reveal the name of the boy, as his father had said, ‘…never to peach on a fellow.’ This is the beginning of sorts for the spiritual awakening in Stephen. He contemplates his home address and tries to relate his school, city, county, country to the Universe. Stephen aspires to be well-read in politics and poetry, and he knows that it is a long way ahead.

Stephen returns home for the Christmas break. There is a commentary on the religious faiths of the Protestants and Catholics. The death of Charles Parnell, a leader of the Irish Nationalist movement, is the topic of household argument. Dante cannot believe the support that the Dedalus family provides to this leader.

Back in Clonglowes, Stephen learns about the wrongdoings of certain boys who indulged in stealing wine from the school’s sacristy and engaging in some sort of homosexual play. Stephen is presented as a sensitive boy, but with the courage to speak with the rector for himself.

Stephen looks at a poem from which he has to learn to spell, but he would much rather appreciate the poetry. He finds recourse in reading adventure books and reenacting those with his friend when he is in Blackrock town, spending the summer. But, the family has to move to a shabby house in Dublin. Stephen realizes that the change in his life has been on account of his father’s deteriorating financial conditions. Here, he likes a girl in the neighbourhood, but has no courage to go up to her and ends up writing poetry for her. 

Finally, Stephen is sent to Belvedere College, a Jesuit School. There is a jump in time and as a teenager, Stephen has excelled in this institution. He is a leader, an essayist, and a stage actor.  

There is a discussion between Stephen and his friends on the greatest poet of all time. According to his friends, it is Tennyson. But Stephen bursts out that Tennyson is ‘only a rhymester’. For Stephen, it is Bryon. The argument leads to physical attack but Stephen refuses to budge.

Stephen’s relationship with his father is a strained one; he is unhappy with his father’s drinking habits and telling of old tales about his friends. It becomes apparent during their visit together to Cork to sell some property after the death of Uncle Charles. Also, Stephen cannot evoke memories of his childhood. It is the picture of ‘foetus’ carved on a desk at the medical college that brings the revelation on how childhood memories fade and make one a different person. 

Back in Dublin, Stephen wins a literary prize for an essay. The money is spent unwisely and this also marks Stephen visiting the prostitutes. It is during the celebration on Saint Francis Xavier’s day that a sermon on sins evokes repentance in Stephen. There is an entire section dedicated to religious sermons like ‘the fire of earth versus the fire of hell’ to invoke spiritual awakening in Stephen.

This changes Stephen into a strict, religious person. The qualities could make him a ‘Priest’ as the director of the institution suggests. But, Stephen realizes that he is an artist instead. 

You are an artist, are you not, Mr.Dedalus? said the dean, glancing up and blinking his pale eyes. The object of the artist is the creation of the beautiful. What the beautiful is is another question.”

Years pass by, and Stephen is in University. There are intense discussions on Plato and Aristotle. The pages show us his views as an artist with increased aesthetic sense, of interpreting a sculpture on how the vulptuous female body as the symbol of her reproductive strength.

A very important passage is the one where Stephen uses the word ‘tundish’ and the dean says it is a funnel. There is so much to understand about someone who has acquired a language and is better at it, yet he knows that he would never be treated as an equal.

“It is called a tundish in Lower Drumcondra, said Stephen, laughing, where they speak the best English.” 

Damn the dean of studies and his funnel!

The book now turns to journal entries made by Stephen. So, one gets the first-person impressions of Stephen, about his dreams and philosophy.  

Read what I wrote last night. Vague words for a vague emotion.”

You may also like Dubliners by James Joyce

3 thoughts on “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce: Book Summary and Analysis

  1. Pingback: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce: A Letter to the Book Cover #A2Z Challenge – Bookishloom

  2. Pingback: Leap Year Book Tag – Bookishloom

  3. Pingback: The Intimidating Longest Books on my TBR – Bookishloom

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