59 pages 1 hour read

James Joyce

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1916

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Summary and Study Guide


A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is the 1916 debut novel by Irish author James Joyce. The novel tells the story of Stephen Dedalus, a thinly-veiled alter ego for Joyce, who embarks on a journey of artistic awakening. As a landmark novel in the history of literary modernism, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has been hailed as one of the most important works of the 20th century and helped to establish Joyce as a literary figure. The novel has been adapted as a film and a play. This guide uses the 1996 Penguin Popular Classics edition.

Plot Summary

Stephen Dedalus grows up in Ireland in the final years of the 19th century. As a young boy, he attends Clongowes Wood College. The school is run by strict Jesuit priests who have a stern set of rules. Stephen is mocked by his classmates, and feels isolated and homesick. He is an intelligent boy, but he struggles to get to grips with the school’s behavior code. Though he struggles with his faith and his loneliness, he eventually begins to make friends.

Even though he is just a young boy, and the political ramifications are beyond him, Stephen is struck by the political and religious debates surrounding the politician Charles Stewart Parnell. Many of the adults in Stephen’s life, such as his family, are divided over Parnell’s policies. After Parnell dies, tensions increase in Stephen’s family. When Stephen’s family gathers to celebrate Christmas, a huge argument erupts over dinner about Parnell and his politics. When Stephen returns to school, the priests institute a regime of increased corporal punishment after several boys are caught engaging in gay activities. Stephen complains when he is beaten and accused of lying in class, and when his complaint is accepted by Father Conmee, Stephen feels victorious.

Simon Dedalus, Stephen’s father, struggles to support his family. As the family sinks further into debt, Stephen is sent to spend the summer with his Uncle Charles. After the summer, Stephen does not return to Clongowes as his family can no longer afford the school fees. Instead, the entire Dedalus family moves to the Irish capital city, Dublin. There, Stephen attends Belvedere, a prestigious school where he gains an interest in writing and acting. Stephen is involved in the student theater group, and he begins to write stories that are praised by other people.

While living in Dublin, Stephen also experiences a sexual awakening. He meets a sex worker and loses his virginity, only to be overwhelmed by the guilt and the shame of his actions. He does not understand how to square his sexual desires with the morals taught to him by the Jesuit priests. At first, Stephen rejects his code of religious morals. He sins with reckless abandon, visiting more sex workers and indulging his sexual appetite as he sees fit. When he embarks on a religious retreat, however, he hears three sermons that teach him about sin and hell. The sermons have a profound effect on Stephen, and, fearing eternal damnation, he redoubles his efforts at religious practices.

Stephen begins to lead a religious life. He abandons his debauched hobbies and feels delighted to rekindle his belief in God. Gradually, however, his penitent acts lose their meaning. He settles into a routine of religious practice, but his mind wanders to less religious matters. Despite this, his penitent behavior attracts the attention of the local Jesuits. They suggest to Stephen that he might be interested in becoming a priest. Stephen considers their suggestion, but he experiences a sudden crisis of faith. He does not know how to resolve the tension between his religious beliefs and his ambitions as an artist. He rejects the idea of becoming a priest and turns toward academia as a new solution.

Stephen learns that his family’s continued misfortune means that they will move again, so he waits to hear whether his university application has been accepted. While walking along the bay in Dublin, he sees a woman wading in the sea. In that moment, he is struck by the woman’s beauty. He is so overwhelmed that he wants to express this beauty through his writing.

Stephen is enrolled at University College, Dublin. The more he studies, however, the more skeptical he becomes about the institutions in his life. He loses his trust in the church, the political system, the educational system, and even his family. His loss of faith in his family is exacerbated by his father’s continued financial misfortune. His father shouts at Stephen, while his mother wishes that he would return to his religious practices. Stephen withdraws into himself, losing his humor and his love of life. He speaks to his friends about his increasing alienation and shares a theory about art and aesthetics that is important to him, which they struggle to accept.

Stephen comes to believe that Ireland is restricting his artistic development. He believes that he must leave if he is to realize his dreams as an artist. Stephen reiterates his love of his country and his people, but he sees no other option than to find a way out of Ireland. In his diary, he calls out to his namesake, the mythical Daedalus, to watch over him.