Study Guide

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Identity

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Chapter 1

He turned to the flyleaf of the geography and read what he had written there: himself, his name and where he was.

Stephen Dedalus

Class of Elements

Clongowes Wood College


County Kildare



The World

The Universe

A slightly older Stephen attempts to identify his place in the world by his geographic position. We will see him repeat this grounding strategy in Chapter Two.

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…
His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.
He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt. (1.1.1-3)

Stephen can only identify himself through his father’s words. This is Joyce’s attempt to mimic the disorganized interior voice of a child who can’t necessarily locate himself in society yet.

Chapter 2

– I am Stephen Dedalus. I am walking beside my father whose name is Simon Dedalus. We are in Cork, in Ireland. Cork is a city. Our room is in the Victoria Hotel. Victoria and Stephen and Simon. Simon and Stephen and Victoria. Names. (2.4.16)

As in the list written on the flyleaf of his geography book, Stephen tries to ground himself via his geographic location; this time after the nightmarish realization of his sinfulness. However, like the last time, simply knowing names is not enough – without comprehension or significance, names mean nothing.

– No, said Heron, Dedalus is a model youth. He doesn't smoke and he doesn't go to bazaars and he doesn't flirt and he doesn't damn anything or damn all. (2.3.11)

We’re finally allowed a glimpse of how Stephen appears to the outside world. The disjuncture between the "model" outside and his sensitive, discontented interior is jarring, but not exactly surprising – we can’t imagine Stephen going around blabbing about his personal life.

he had heard about him the constant voices of his father and of his masters, urging him to be a gentleman above all things and urging him to be a good catholic above all things […] When the gymnasium had been opened he had heard another voice urging him to be strong and manly and healthy and when the movement towards national revival had begun to be felt in the college yet another voice had bidden him be true to his country and help to raise up her language and tradition. In the profane world […] a worldly voice would bid him raise up his father's fallen state by his labours and, meanwhile, the voice of his school comrades urged him to be a decent fellow, to shield others from blame or to beg them off and to do his best to get free days for the school. (2.3.42)

Stephen’s response to all of these voices is that he prefers his own company, and he tries to ignore these nagging requests that sound so "hollow" and meaningless to him. However, at this point, Stephen still doesn’t know what he should pursue, and what his true identity is.

Chapter 3

Could it be that he, Stephen Dedalus, had done those things? His conscience sighed in answer. Yes, he had done them, secretly, filthily, time after time, and, hardened in sinful impenitence, he had dared to wear the mask of holiness before the tabernacle itself while his soul within was a living mass of corruption. How came it that God had not struck him dead? The leprous company of his sins closed about him, breathing upon him, bending over him from all sides. (3.2.67)

Stephen feels as though he can’t identify with his sinful self. His identity throughout this section has been interestingly fractured, as though the sinning nighttime Stephen was a different being from his conscientious daytime Stephen – now, however, he is forced to admit that they are one and the same.

Chapter 4

How often had he seen himself as a priest wielding calmly and humbly the awful power of which angels and saints stood in reverence! His soul had loved to muse in secret on this desire. He had seen himself, a young and silent-mannered priest, entering a confessional swiftly, ascending the altarsteps, incensing, genuflecting, accomplishing the vague acts of the priesthood which pleased him by reason of their semblance of reality and of their distance from it. In that dim life which he had lived through in his musings he had assumed the voices and gestures which he had noted with various priests. (4.2.15)

Stephen toys with the idea of being a priest the same way a little boy might fantasize about being Batman – he imagines himself in the costume and creates situations in which he might act. We know very well, however, that this fairy tale doesn’t have anything to do with the reality of the choice Stephen faces here.

He was destined to learn his own wisdom apart from others or to learn the wisdom of others himself wandering among the snares of the world. (4.2.22)

Stephen, en route to his epiphany, reaffirms his otherness. The use of the word "destined" emphasizes the idea that Stephen feels that he is meant for greatness – how much of this attitude are we supposed to take at face value, and how much is Joyce’s irony?

Now, at the name of the fabulous artificer, he seemed to hear the noise of dim waves and to see a winged form flying above the waves and slowly climbing the air. What did it mean? Was it a quaint device opening a page of some medieval book of prophecies and symbols, a hawk-like man flying sunward above the sea, a prophecy of the end he had been born to serve and had been following through the mists of childhood and boyhood, a symbol of the artist forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being? (4.3.16)

The invocation of Daedalus signals a change in Stephen’s life. The imagery he uses underscores again the fact that he is destined for a different life. Here, the implication is that the name "Dedalus" has marked Stephen from the beginning – but then why isn’t the rest of his family also marked for something different? Does he think his family exists just to produce him?

Chapter 5
Stephen’s friends

I can't understand you, said Davin. One time I hear you talk against English literature. Now you talk against the Irish informers. What with your name and your ideas - Are you Irish at all? (5.1.110)

Stephen himself is grappling with this question. He feels the weight of English oppression but can’t connect to the Irish nationalist cause – the reality of his Irishness is impossible to avoid, but confusing nonetheless.

– Look here, Cranly, he said. You have asked me what I would do and what I would not do. I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning. (5.3.112)

Here, finally, Stephen demonstrates a clear and precise understanding of who he is at that exact moment. He is defined by his artistic goals and by his idealistic ambition to be true to his beliefs. However, do we, like Cranly, think he’s being too coldly idealistic?

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