Joyce’s tone is consistently lyrical and teeters on the edge of poetic throughout the book. His exuberant prose is what makes this novel such a joy to read – seriously, even if you’re not so into poetry, it’s hard to ignore the incredible craftsmanship of this book. Joyce was very aware of his talents, and you better believe that he’s playing them up here. This project is certainly not a modest enterprise – after all, Joyce is presuming to create a character who is more of a real person than a mere character – and apparently he didn’t think it was the time for modest prose, either. We’re glad he came to that conclusion.
While the novel contains moments of humor, particularly in Chapter Five’s extensive dialogue scenes, it is very serious for the most part. Joyce doesn’t insert a strongly opinionated narrative voice to interfere or judge Stephen, and the narration acts as though it is in sympathy with him at all times. What Joyce does do masterfully, however, is allow readers to see the irony that lies just beneath the surface. By playing the straight man, the narration slyly highlights the occasional ridiculousness of Stephen’s story.
This book is a truly classic and often-cited example of the Coming of Age novel. The whole deal with this genre is that it shows us the development of a character or set of characters through their experiences and thoughts. If you want to get all fancy schmancy and German, you could call it a Bildungsroman, which is just a highfalutin’ literary term for "Coming of Age Novel." However, it is actually useful to go into the German terminology, since they have an even more specific word for what Portrait of the Artist is – Künstlerroman. This term represents a specific subgenre of Bildungsroman, in which we see the development of an artist, not just any garden-variety young person. Anyway, enough of the German; Portrait also falls under Literary Fiction, mostly because Joyce was really up on himself and just knew that his books were very special and brilliant (he was infamous for making comments along these lines, particularly when it came to Ulysses).
Finally, it’s quite well known for being one of the first real Modernist novels. Joyce, along with Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, among others, was known for really getting the whole Modernism ball rolling, in response to the Realist style prevalent in the 19th century. In (very) short, the Modernist movement was concerned with creating works of art relevant to a rapidly changing world, in which institutions like religion, capitalism, and social order were thrown into question by new and confusing ideas (Evolution! Marxism! Revolution!), technologies, and world events like World War I (or in this case, the Irish nationalist cause). Here, we see Joyce take on this challenge by creating a character who has to maneuver past the hang-ups of his family, church, and country by forging ahead on his own.
This title works on a few levels. First of all, it is quite simply a portrait of an artist. Second, it is a not-so-subtly-hidden of the artist, James Joyce himself. Third, the title places the book in a certain tradition of self-portraits. Many famous painters and sculptors created "Portrait(s) of the Artist(s);" in calling his book by this title, Joyce compares writing to the fine arts – after all, there’s a reason it’s not called something like Biography of the Writer as a Young Man, which really isn’t so catchy.
This is going to sound cheesy, but it’s a heartfelt cheesiness, so just bear with us here. The end of Portrait of the Artist is not an end at all – rather, it’s a beginning. The book culminates in Stephen’s self-imposed exile from Ireland, his family, the Church, and his past. This mirrors Joyce’s decision to leave home for Paris and Italy. The idea is that Stephen isn’t able to truly commit to his artistic calling until he has thrown off the ties of his past and really experiences life as an independent person. We end the book confident that he will find his artistic voice somewhere out there in the course of his wanderings. His closing lines, "Welcome, O life! I go 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… Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead," speak volumes about what he hopes to accomplish. Stephen will attempt to express the "conscience of [his] race" – but ironically, he has to leave his country to do so. Stephen believes that he can only really gain a clear understanding of Ireland by looking at it objectively from afar. Finally, the novel draws to a close by invoking Daedalus, our Greek friend from the Epigraph, bidding him to keep an eye out for his namesake as he leaves his homeland and ventures out into the world.
Dublin is necessary to this book. It’s inextricably tied to Stephen’s discontentment and to his sins; immersion in a bustling, often squalid urban space heightens Stephen’s (and our) awareness of his physical sense. The dirtiness of the city contrasts the spirit of possibility that surrounds the few natural spaces we encounter (such as Stephen’s summer idyll at Blackrock and the open, outward-looking expanse of the sea). Notably, the character most untouched by the darkness, sensuality, and cynicism of the city is Davin, whose country roots keep him at a distance from urban dangers.
The political climate of turn of the century Ireland is also particularly important; there’s a perpetual undercurrent of sadness and anger at the lack of Irish independence that runs through the entire text. The argument between Mr. Casey and Aunt Dante at the beginning of the novel lays out some of the sources of political tension. The brief recap is that many Irish people felt like Charles Stewart Parnell was their best chance to gain "Home Rule," that is, autonomy from England. In contemporary terms, he was "a uniter, not a divider." But then Parnell made one little mistake: he had an affair with Kitty O’Shea, a woman who had already separated from her husband. This issue split the nationalist cause, with pious moralists (like Dante) on one side ("Think of the CHILDREN!") and pragmatic reformers on the other side ("Hey, what’s the big deal?"). The pragmatists, like Mr. Casey, were especially ticked off at the Church, which played a particularly vocal role in condemning Parnell. Some people even thought the Church was in cahoots with the British.
Overall, Stephen has mixed feelings about his hometown. He often seems to think that Dublin is hopelessly mired in the past and unable to modernize like the great cosmopolitan cities of Europe. He thinks its citizens are paralyzed by nostalgia and inaction – like his father, Simon Dedalus. On the other hand, he often finds beauty even in the dinginess of the red-light district, his cluttered home, or the seaweed he sees from the shore of the beach.
Et ignotas animum dimittit in artes
– Ovid, Metamorphoses, VIII, 18
This line from Ovid’s (a big shot Roman poet from the 1st century CE) Latin poem translates to, "And he applied his spirit to obscure arts." This "he" is Daedalus, a master craftsman who appears in Greek and Roman mythology. He’s famous for creating the Labyrinth (a giant maze/prison) to house the Minotaur and for building wax wings to escape from that Labyrinth. Unfortunately, the escape plan didn’t work out so well for the builder’s son, Icarus – more on that later. For now, just bear in mind that Daedalus is a stand-in for the ultimate, ideal Artist. If that sounds religious, it’s for a reason – after Stephen’s break with the Catholic Church (in which the ultimate Artist is God himself), the figure of Daedalus takes on elements of mystical divinity. In the context of Joyce’s book, the "he" of Ovid’s line also applies to Stephen Dedalus, the book’s (only) main character. Get used to these two guys being lumped together, because it happens throughout the book… after all, it doesn’t take a genius to see that Daedalus = Dedalus.
"Free indirect discourse" may sound all fancy, but it’s really just another way of saying that the narrative voice transfers between characters’ minds and the outside world of the novel with ease. Free indirect discourse is a narrative style that combines traditional third-person narrative with insights into a character’s mind that resemble the first person. For example, we often "hear" Stephen’s thoughts mediated by the narrator, and one instance can be found immediately following Stephen’s confession in Chapter Three. Instead of having markers of interiority and exteriority ("Stephen thought," "he wondered," etc.), we often slide smoothly from a moment of external description and action into Stephen’s thoughts, with no alerts from our narrator:
"The muddy streets were gay. He strode homeward, conscious of an invisible grace pervading and making light his limbs. In spite of all he had done it. He had confessed and God had pardoned him. His soul was made fair and holy once more, holy and happy. It would be beautiful to die if God so willed. It was beautiful to live in grace a life of peace and virtue and forbearance with others" (3.2.108).
It’s this style that allows Joyce to retain some distance from his character while also revealing his innermost workings to us. Instead of totally being immersed in Stephen’s personal experience, we have the privilege of moving between his inner thoughts and the narrator’s exterior, removed voice; this allows the author to toss in a little irony to shake things up occasionally. Even if Stephen is often humorless, it doesn’t mean that Joyce has to be.
The association of flight with Stephen’s experience stems from his affiliation with Daedalus. As we mentioned elsewhere, Daedalus was known for creating wings of feather and wax; this is the source of the "hawklike man" image that pops up now and again. Stephen envisions his soul flying on metaphorical wings of his own construction; like Daedalus, he must fly to escape what he perceives to be his prison (Ireland), and the "nets" it casts to entrap him (religion, language, nationality). The bird association also stretches to the Egyptian god Thoth, mentioned once in Chapter Five by Stephen. Thoth, a bird-headed deity, was the god of scribes – and by extension, writers.
Bird flight represents the freedom Stephen longs for, and whenever it shows up in the book, you can be sure that he’s feeling particularly antsy. For example, when Stephen watches the birds wheeling above in Chapter Five and asks, "What birds were they?" Joyce clearly ties his protagonist’s unrest to the erratic patterns the birds weave in the sky. Birds are a sign of the mysterious, distant future he sees for himself – in the ancient world, divination by observing the flight of birds (augury) was a common practice, and Stephen makes reference to it, seeking meaning in the birds he observes.
Water imagery is present everywhere in this book. From the bog-like pool into which Wells (double whammy!) pushes Stephen at Clongowes, to the open sea that bears witness to his epiphany: water just always seems to be around. One might argue that it’s a symbol for the state of Stephen’s soul at any given time. For example, in the Clongowes instance, Stephen can’t get the feeling of the cold, slimy, filthy water out of his mind; it’s also the moment where he’s getting sick and feels scared. Likewise, when the Dedalus clan packs up and moves to Dublin, one of the first things he notices about the city is its squalid harbor water, covered in yellow scum, reflecting his unhappiness at their move from the clean, open country. In Stephen’s holier-than-thou religious period, he imagines temptation as a flood that moves slowly towards him; he uses his willpower to escape from it unscathed (undampened, actually). Finally, the water scene to end all water scenes is at the close of Chapter Four, when Stephen has an artistic epiphany at the beach. For once, the water here is clean and natural, richly colored and alive with vibrant seaweed. Stephen’s soul, too, is cleansed and full of wild new life.
From the very first page, music is constantly in the background. It’s not Stephen’s primary artistic passion, so it never really steps to the foreground, but it’s always a lingering presence. Stephen is a singer; we don’t know how talented he is (he is asked to perform several times, which indicates that he must be pretty good), but it’s never a central part of his identity, as far as we’re concerned. However, his "sensitive nature" is very receptive to musical cues, and he often thinks of language in terms of its musicality and rhythmic nature. He refers to phrases making up "chords" with words, an idea that combines the concept of musical harmony with poetic beauty.
Music appears at several key points. For example, when he is about to leave the Director’s office in Chapter Four (on the brink of deciding whether or not to join the Jesuits), the priest’s "mirthless" response to a sudden burst of music from the street shocks Stephen, making him realize that he could never become a priest himself. Later in the chapter, Stephen imagines an "elfin prelude" that expresses his excitement at the prospect of going to university. For Stephen (as for many people), music is tied to a level of non-verbal, almost primal experience of emotion. It relates to his more intellectual poetic activities, but also to his spontaneity and his immediate reaction to the outside world. Joyce himself was really interested in trying to represent music in words; we see him do this both in Finnegan’s Wake and in a truly monumental episode in Ulysses (if you’re interested, it’s Episode 11, "Sirens").
The image of the skull is very present in Stephen’s interactions with his Jesuit teachers, emphasizing the deathly and passionless character he eventually comes to recognize as a sign of the priesthood. The skull is a commonly used Christian symbol; it represents Golgotha, the supposed location of Christ’s death. A skull also pops up in the graveyard scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a play whose title character greatly resembles Stephen (they both think way too much about things). As early as Chapter One, Stephen notes a skull present in the Rector’s office at Clongowes. Later, he emphasizes the prominent curves of the skull of the Director of Belvedere. After his falling out with Cranly at the end of the novel, he comments on the "death mask"-like quality of his friend’s face, which reminds him of the severed head of St. John the Baptist (in his first description of Cranly much earlier, he also calls it a "priestlike face"). Finally, Lynch is also described in terms of a mask; however, his face is a "devil’s mask."
Color plays a substantial role in Chapter One – the colors green and maroon are associated with Parnell and Michael Davitt, two leaders of the Irish nationalist movement. Though the two colors seem to be in harmony at first, Stephen remembers Aunt Dante cutting the green velvet off and telling him that Parnell is a bad man. This confusing episode, and the arguments between Dante and Stephen’s father that follow, represent "politics" to him at this stage of childhood. To Stephen, the two colors represent conflict and, when Fleming colors a world map with green and maroon (a coincidence), Stephen wonders "which was right, to be for the green or for the maroon." We also see the red and white teams in the Wars of the Roses-themed math competition. Again, color represents conflict and opposition. Though it’s a symbol that doesn’t come up as obviously in the rest of the text, it highlights the idea of visually representing an ideological conflict, which is very important to Stephen as a child because of his limited understanding of those abstract differences.
The narrative voice of Portrait of the Artist is one of its most spectacular features. Joyce was a pioneer of the stream of consciousness technique, which is a style of writing in which the narrator relates everything that happens in the main character’s mind as it occurs. We see this most clearly in Chapter One, where we’re basically inside young Stephen’s head, and we go with him from moment to moment. In the following chapters, the narrative voice is still intimately connected to Stephen’s thoughts and memories, but it skips around in time a little more, sometimes even skipping years over a paragraph break. Throughout the book, though, the important thing to note is the proximity of the narrator to Stephen – this is a majorly limited "omniscient" narrator. We never get to see inside other characters’ heads; instead, we see them the way Stephen does. The voice knows what Stephen’s thinking and feeling, but it isn’t identifiable as Stephen.
That is, until the Great Narrative Shift of Chapter Five. All of a sudden, we actually do get a glimpse of Stephen as related by Stephen. The final section of the book, which is composed of Stephen’s diary entries, is narrated in the first person by you-know-who. This is super important; through this shift in narration, we see Stephen finally stepping up to take control of his life (and his story) after his decision to leave home.
Stephen’s difference and alienation become impossible to ignore. This is where we see him actually deviate from the normal(ish) adolescent track he was on up to this point. The play and its aftermath show Stephen’s warring desires to participate in society and stand apart from it; his excitement on stage, then the comedown of post-performance disappointment literally send him running into the Dublin streets, searching for some kind of meaning.
After dallying with some sinful seductresses, Stephen takes a metaphorical journey through the actual underworld via Father Arnall’s sermon. He then immerses himself in a kind of rigorously structured personal hell, that of his intense and hyperbolic period of religiosity. This period of tensions ends when Stephen calls upon Daedalus, who serves as a model and guiding spirit.
These verbal jousting matches are a series of final tests Stephen has to go through before he can leave. He attempts to justify his beliefs and actions to his three questioners, and to his readers. The completion of this stage proves that Stephen is ready to leave Ireland and take on the world.
Instead of attaining "kingdom, Princess, and everlasting treasure," Stephen ultimately triumphs by leaving these things (embodied in Ireland, Emma, and religion) behind him. His real goal is to gain the freedom to express himself artistically. As he sees it, the possibility of freedom can only lie on the path of exile. We see him as he is about to embark on that path, and his last victorious lines proclaim his independence.
We meet Stephen as a very small child, barely capable of putting together a coherent stream of thought. Chapter One is mostly disjointed and somewhat difficult to really follow; it’s Joyce’s way of introducing us to character, setting, and premise without ever overtly doing anything. AND IT’S GENIUS. Seriously – very, very little happens in this entire chapter, yet when it’s over, we feel entirely integrated into Stephen’s little world. Furthermore, we feel like we’re already on board with Joyce’s artistic mission of submerging his readers in Stephen’s life, not with a simple show-and-tell exposition, but as a complete, multi-sensory experience. This is the 3-D IMAX version of most opening chapters.
Stephen’s early period of discontent reaches its peak here. His embarrassment about his father, the frustration over the family’s financial situation, and his increasing feeling of alienation all combust. The pathetically nostalgic tone of his father’s reminiscing strikes a note of discord in Stephen, and throughout this section, he feels increasingly alienated and hopeless, as though "he could respond to no earthly or human appeal."
In his current hopeless state, Stephen feels as though he has nothing to lose. He gives in to his physical lusts and goes to the red light district. The awkward scene with the prostitute demonstrates both willingness and reluctance (he doesn’t want to kiss her). This shows us Stephen at his most confused and aimless, where his romantic visions and poetic aspirations are nowhere in sight.
Chapter Three is like one giant pot of "yuck" that simmers and simmers until it finally explodes at the end. Father Arnall’s sermon prepares us for the emotional climax of Stephen’s religious renewal by constantly building upon his (and our) anxieties. Stephen’s confession of his sins is both a moment of catharsis and a kind of breaking point – he divorces himself from his old life, and we are filled with a profound anxiety about what his new life will be like.
So, this doesn’t exactly line up with the common conception of "Suspense," but it at least approximates it. Chapter Four, in which we witness the aforementioned new life that Stephen finds in the church, is just a long period of a kind of uncomfortable limbo. If Stephen’s goal is, as we think it is, to become an artist, this period of self-denial and mortification is not helping him get there. If anything, it appears to have totally derailed his plans. We are uncertain as to whether or not Stephen will return to his old self, or if he’s just going to be ridiculously, alarmingly, and somewhat comically pious for the rest of his lonely life.
The moment of Stephen’s epiphany is also the moment in which we know that things will come out right. If one were to take the name of this stage literally, one might say that the tangled knot of Stephen’s religious anxieties unravels, but we think that ties things up a little too neatly (oh, aren’t we so punny). No, we aren’t sure that absolutely everything in Stephen’s life will be resolved by his special moment at the seaside; after all, it’s just a first step in the process of heading out and discovering his own individual beliefs and goals. However, that being said, it’s a pretty huge step. If this were a Shakespeare play, people would be getting married left and right. Actually, that’s an interesting way to think of it – you could stay that Stephen decides to marry his soul to art and dedicate his life to it.
Finally, we see Stephen himself take over the narration – and thus take control of his life. Sure, he’s still immature and retains some of his earlier pomposity, but at least we can see that he’s trying to deal with his emotions in more of an honest, less manipulative way. His decision to leave Ireland, his family, and his past signals the true beginning of his life as an artist. We don’t know what’s going to happen to him (well, actually, if we just follow through with the Joyce parallel, we sort of do – he’ll move to Paris, write some awesome books, including this one, and become one of the all-powerful rulers of the literary world. MWAH HAH HAH HAH!). Anyway, we don’t know for sure what’s going to happen to him, but we are caught up in his excitement. By the time he gets to those last few lines – sigh, this ending gets us every time – we’re almost as excited for Stephen’s departure as he is. Here, we see him at his most optimistic, and perhaps even most youthful, freed from the anxieties of his childhood, looking towards the future with wide, hopeful eyes.
Act I wraps up as Stephen leaves the Whitsuntide play in a tizzy (Chapter Two), thus ending the first period of his childhood, and launching his restless quest for identity.
Father Arnall’s brutal series of tirades about hell and Stephen’s consequent religious crisis (Chapters Three and Four) mark the end of Act II, as he begins his super-pious (and markedly unartistic) period.
With Stephen’s epiphany at the seaside at the end of Chapter Four, we see him finally find an answer to his questions of identity and self-knowledge, thus setting him on the path to… his ultimate destiny.