Study Guide

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Transformation

By James Joyce

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Chapter 1

There was cold sunlight outside the window. He wondered if he would die. You could die just the same on a sunny day. He might die before his mother came. Then he would have a dead mass in the chapel like the way the fellows had told him it was when Little had died. All the fellows would be at the mass, dressed in black, all with sad faces. Wells too would be there but no fellow would look at him. The rector would be there in a cope of black and gold and there would be tall yellow candles on the altar and round the catafalque. And they would carry the coffin out of the chapel slowly and he would be buried in the little graveyard of the community off the main avenue of limes. And Wells would be sorry then for what he had done. And the bell would toll slowly. (1.2.80)

The first transformation that Stephen begins to understand his death. This vision of his own death is lacking in spiritual awareness; he doesn’t seem to comprehend the concept of death fully yet, which is understandable.

Chapter 2

He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld. […] They would meet quietly as if they had known each other and had made their tryst, perhaps at one of the gates or in some more secret place. They would be alone, surrounded by darkness and silence: and in that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured. He would fade into something impalpable under her eyes and then in a moment he would be transfigured. Weakness and timidity and inexperience would fall from him in that magic moment. (2.1.12)

Sexual awakening is definitely an important transformative experience. Here, Stephen only understands sexual desire in an abstract, idealized way.

How foolish his aim had been! He had tried to build a break-water of order and elegance against the sordid tide of life without him and to dam up, by rules of conduct and active interest and new filial relations, the powerful recurrence of the tides within him. Useless. From without as from within the waters had flowed over his barriers: their tides began once more to jostle fiercely above the crumbled mole. (2.5.6)

This interesting quote indicates that Stephen cannot assert control over the internal "tides" that shape his life – what are these forces? Are they simply his own desires, or are they something outside of him? This is also another use of water as a symbol for Stephen’s interiority.

Chapter 3

A cold lucid indifference reigned in his soul. At his first violent sin he had felt a wave of vitality pass out of him and had feared to find his body or his soul maimed by the excess. Instead the vital wave had carried him on its bosom out of himself and back again when it receded: and no part of body or soul had been maimed but a dark peace had been established between them. (3.1.5)

Stephen is astounded to find that succumbing to sin hasn’t damaged his soul or body – as far as he can tell. But you get the sense that the "dark peace" between his body and soul is only a temporary truce.

He hoped there would be stew for dinner, turnips and carrots and bruised potatoes and fat mutton pieces to be ladled out in thick peppered flour-fattened sauce. Stuff it into you, his belly counselled him. (3.1.1)

In the midst of Stephen’s brief "I’m an Unrepentant Sinner!" phase, his soul is mired in sensuality. He’s reduced to a bestial state, and his thoughts are dominated by his body’s primal desires for sex and food.

Chapter 4

But he could no longer disbelieve in the reality of love, since God Himself had loved his individual soul with divine love from all eternity. Gradually, as his soul was enriched with spiritual knowledge, he saw the whole world forming one vast symmetrical expression of God's power and love. (4.1.9)

Stephen’s immersion in Catholicism coaxes his cynical soul out of its doubt. He believes fully in the notion that the whole world is a simple and "symmetrical" forum for God’s love. This is all very nice, but it also seems suspect – where is the skeptical Stephen we’re used to?

His throat ached with a desire to cry aloud, the cry of a hawk or eagle on high, to cry piercingly of his deliverance to the winds. This was the call of life to his soul not the dull gross voice of the world of duties and despair, not the inhuman voice that had called him to the pale service of the altar. An instant of wild flight had delivered him and the cry of triumph which his lips withheld cleft his brain. (4.3.18)

The spiritual transformation that Stephen undergoes is tied here to a visceral sense of physical transformation as well – we have a brief and dazzling sensation that Stephen is turning into the wild, winged man of his imagination.

Chapter 5
Stephen J. Dedalus

It is a curious thing, do you know, Cranly said dispassionately, how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve. Did you believe in it when you were at school? I bet you did.

I did, Stephen answered.

And were you happier then? Cranly asked softly, happier than you are now, for instance?

Often happy Stephen said, and often unhappy. I was someone else then.

How someone else? What do you mean by that statement?

I mean, said Stephen, that I was not myself as I am now, as I had to become. (5.3.86)

The declaration that Stephen’s transformation was necessary indicates that perhaps the person he is now is who he was somehow destined to be all along.

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