A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Critical Context
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.
Mythical Context: Daedalus Myth
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
Political Context: Ireland
The most troubling issue in the history of Ireland was its difficult relations with England. England, which from the twelfth century had controlled portions of Ireland, gained near-complete dominance of the island in the sixteenth century. Irish resentment towards the conquerors was strong, especially when under King Henry VIII the English monarchy became Protestant, while Ireland clung to Roman Catholicism. Irish Catholics became victims of religious persecution in their own country. Unjust agricultural policies also contributed to the difficulties. Most Irish land was owned by absentee landlords and leased to tenant farmers. It was an inefficient system that was in part responsible for a series of Irish famines, the most terrible of which occurred after the failure of the potato crop in 1848. Over a million people died during this famine. From time to time, revolutionary heroes—like the eighteenth-century patriots
Wolfe Tone and Hamilton Rowan admired by young Stephen—aroused Irish hopes for independence, only to be crushed. In Joyce’s youth, confrontation was once again in the air. The Land League, led by Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell, had campaigned ‘ successfully for agricultural reforms. Other groups campaigned for Irish cultural independence by promoting the use of Gaelic, Ireland’s native tongue, rather than the English brought by Ireland’s conquerors. Perhaps most important was the campaign for Irish Home Rule, self-government through an independent Irish parliament. The Home Rule campaign was led by Charles Stewart Parnell. Parnell’s leadership in the British Parliament had succeeded in winning over his colleagues to Home Rule.
Before the bill was passed, however, Parnell’s enemies exposed his personal relationship with the married Katherine (Kitty) O’Shea, with whom he had been living secretly for many years.
The Parnell affair divided Ireland. Parnell’s own party deposed him, the Catholic Church denounced him, and his British backers withdrew their support. Parnell died of pneumonia shortly afterwards, in 1891, when Joyce was nine. (In the scene in Chapter One, the feverish Stephen dreams of his hero’s funeral procession.) Irish politics remained hopelessly tangled after Parnell’s downfall. Some groups still wanted to work for independence by peaceful means. Others believed that violence was necessary. Irish nationalists, like Stephen’s friend Davin, joined a group called Sinn Fein, whose military arm was called
The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Remnants of the IRB later became The Irish Republican Army, known as the IRA. The Sinn Fein’s armed Easter Sunday Rebellion of 1916 against the British was unsuccessful in its attempt to seize Dublin and proclaim a republic. The British outlawed the group in 1918 and sent in troops (“Black and Tans”) to round up remaining guerrilla fighters.
Nevertheless, the Irish Free State (now the Republic Of Ireland) was established four years later; it included most, but not all, of Ireland. The six counties of the northern region of Ulster remained, as they are now, a part of Britain—but violently divided over religious issues. Thus, the long tradition of Anglo-Irish conflict continues to this day. The influences of Ireland on Stephen appear to him as a part of the labyrinth in which he is entangled; he feels that he must escape it. The country is the very opposite of Stephen’s ideal, because the Irish have allowed themselves to be shaped by alien forces and cultures. They are, in this view, victims of two empires, the British, which controls them politically, and the Roman Catholic, which rules them spiritually from Rome. That this is foreign to Ireland’s true nature is made very clear when Stephen, now a Student at University College, enters a house owned by the Jesuits. He senses the history of the place and asks himself, “(Was the Jesuit house extraterritorial and was he walking among aliens? The Ireland of Tone and of Parnell seemed to have receded in space”. Tone and Parnell were Irish nationalists; Stephen will also soon find out that the Dean of Studies is an Englishman. So the Jesuit house is “extraterritorial”; not really part of Ireland at all.
Part of Stephen’s quest is to break through this Irish net of foreign-dominated cultural history and create an art that is free. He has been aware, from a very young age, of the conflict in Ireland because the fierce quarrel that erupts at the family Christmas dinner makes a deep impact on him. It shows the divisions between the Irish regarding their own history and destiny. Dante Riordan supports the Church, which opposed Charles Parnell, the Irish nationalist who nearly brought Home Rule to Ireland. The Church in general opposed Irish nationalism. Opposing Dante are Stephen’s father and Mr. Casey, who argue that Ireland is a “priest-ridden” country; the Church is a harmful influence. As Stephen matures, he does not take sides; he transcends the debate. He will not side with the nationalists because he sees no hope in that path, based on the way the Irish people have treated their own leaders. He tells his friend Davin that “No honorable and sincere man.
has given up to you his life and his youth and his affections from the days of Tone to those of Parnell but you sold him to the enemy or failed him in need or reviled him and left him for another”. Nor does Stephen have any interest in following the Roman Catholic Church, which would merely be to follow a system and a doctrine laid out by an authority external to himself. Stephen does want to do something for his country, but he wants to free it through art, not politics. Or religion. This is clear from his penultimate diary entry, when he goes to “encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”