A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man


Published in 1916 and set in Ireland in the late. Nineteenth A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man established James Joyce as a leading figure in e international movement known as literary modernism. The title describes the book’s subject quite accurately. On one level, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man can be read as what the Germans call a Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel.

Chronicling the life of Stephen Dedalus from early childhood to young adulthood and his life-changing decision to leave Ireland, the novel is profoundly autobiographical. Like Stephen, Joyce had early experiences with prostitutes during his teenage years and struggled with questions of faith. Like Stephen, Joyce was the son of a religious mother and a financially inept father, Like Stephen, Joyce was the eldest of ten children and received his education at Jesuit schools, Like Stephen, and Joyce left Ireland to pursue the life of a poet and writer. Stephen’s education includes not only his formal schooling but also his moral, emotional, and intellectual development as he observes and reacts to the world around him. At the center of the story is Stephen’s rejection of his Roman Catholic upbringing and his growing confidence as a writer. But the book’s significance does not lie only in its portrayal of a sensitive and complex young man or in its use of autobiographical details. More than this, A Portrait is

Joyce’s deliberate attempt to create a new kind of novel that does not rely on conventional narrative techniques. Rather than telling a story with a coherent plot and a traditional beginning, middle, and end, Joyce presents selected decisive moments in the life of his hero without the kind of transitional material that marked most novels written up to that time. The “portrait” of the title is actually a series of portraits, each showing Stephen at a different stage of development. And, although this story told in a third-person narrative, it is filtered through Stephen’s consciousness. Finally, the book can be read as Joyce’s artistic manifesto and a declaration of independence—independence from what Joyce considered the restrictive social background of Catholic Ireland and from the conventions that had previously governed the novel as a literary genre. More than eighty years after its publication, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man continues to be regarded as a central text of early twentieth-century modernism.


The name Stephen Dedalus was chosen by James Joyce to link his hero with the mythical Greek hero, Daedalus. The Latin epigraph is from the Roman poet Ovid’s version of the story.

In Greek myth, Daedalus was an architect, inventor, and craftsman whose name is often translated as “cunning (skillful artificer.” By the request of king Minos, Daedalus built a labyrinth—a maze— on Crete to contain a monster called the Minotaur, half bull and half man. Later, for displeasing the king, Daedalus and his son Icarus were both confined in this labyrinth, which was so complex that even its creator couldn’t find his way out.

Instead, Daedalus fashioned wings of wax and feathers so that he and his son could escape. But when Icarus flew too high—too near the sun—in spite of his father’s warnings, his wings melted, and he fell into the sea and drowned. His more cautious father flew to safety. Joyce had always been drawn to myths—ancient legends and tales that, despite their cultural origins, relate universal themes like the conflict between father and son or the role of the creative artist. The legend of

Daedalus and his headstrong son particularly interested him. He found in it parallels to his own predicament as an artist caught in the maze of his own constricted life, with his own father-son conflict. Like Daedalus, he needed skills and courage to fly away and escape. Joyce signed the name Stephen Daedalus to some of his early stories. Later, when he decided to use the name for the hero of Portrait of the Artist, he changed the spelling to Dedalus to make it seem a more Irish last name. The Daedalus myth gives a basic structure to Portrait of the Artist. At first, Stephen doesn’t understand the significance of his unusual name. He comes to realize, by the fourth chapter, that like Daedalus he is caught in a maze. If he wants to be free, he must fly high above his hazardous existence. At the end of Chapter Five, he is poised to fry his wings. Novel echoes the myth on several levels. Stephen seeks a way out of the restraints of family, country, and religion. Like Daedalus, he will fashion his own wings—of poetry, not of wax—as a creative (“cunning”) artist. But there are also times when Stephen feels like Icarus, the son who will not heed his father’s advice and who died for his stubborn pride. At the end of Portrait of the Artist, he seems to be calling on a substitute, spiritual parent for support, when he refers to Daedalus as “old father, old artificer.”

The myth’s pattern of flight and fall also gives shape to the novel. Some readers see each chapter ending as an attempted flight followed by partial failure — a fall — at the beginning of the next chapter. The last chapter ends with the most ambitious attempt, to fly away from home, religion, and a nation to a self-imposed artistic exile. If we identify Joyce with Stephen Dedalus, the last flight will appear to have been a success. As a purely fictional matter, however, it is not certain whether Stephen will soar like Daedalus or drown like Icarus


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