Study Guide

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Youth

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Chapter 2

The causes of his embitterment were many, remote and near. He was angry with himself for being young and the prey of restless foolish impulses, angry also with the change of fortune which was reshaping the world about him into a vision of squalor and insincerity. Yet his anger lent nothing to the vision. He chronicled with patience what he saw, detaching himself from it and tasting its mortifying flavour in secret. (2.2.4)

Here, the powerlessness of youth angers Stephen, even though, of course, there’s nothing he can do about it. There is nothing exciting about childhood here; in this new setting (Dublin), Stephen has lost the carefree spirit we saw at times in Blackrock.

Trudging along the road or standing in some grimy wayside public house his elders spoke constantly of the subjects nearer their hearts, of Irish politics, of Munster and of the legends of their own family, to all of which Stephen lent an avid ear. Words which he did not understand he said over and over to himself till he had learnt them by heart: and through them he had glimpses of the real world about them. The hour when he too would take part in the life of that world seemed drawing near and in secret he began to make ready for the great part which he felt awaited him the nature of which he only dimly apprehended. (2.1.6)

In the company of his father and Uncle Charles, Stephen feels his own youth and lack of understanding acutely. He struggles to follow their conversations, learn their vocabulary, and absorb the "real world" they discuss, waiting for the moment of his own adulthood, but as far as we can tell, he has no understanding of what that grown-up life entails. Also, we notice that Stephen already has a sense of some "great part" that he’ll play in the world – do we think this tendency towards grandiosity is just part of his nature?

No life or youth stirred in him as it had stirred in [his father and his friends]. He had known neither the pleasure of companionship with others nor the vigour of rude male health nor filial piety. Nothing stirred within his soul but a cold and cruel and loveless lust. His childhood was dead or lost and with it his soul capable of simple joys and he was drifting amid life like the barren shell of the moon. (2.4.21)

After the realization that the world, like his imagination, is full of corrupt and sinful things, Stephen feels a cold alienation and brutal lust. This is the point at which he feels his childhood innocence leave him; from this point in the chapter, it’s inevitable that he must succumb to his lustful thoughts.

Another nature seemed to have been lent him: the infection of the excitement and youth about him entered into and transformed his moody mistrustfulness. For one rare moment he seemed to be clothed in the real apparel of boyhood… (2.3.45)

For once, Stephen actually feels young again (this sounds awfully curmudgeonly, especially when said about a teenage boy, but hey, that’s Stephen for you). We wonder what he would be like if he could sustain this feeling of youthful camaraderie.

Chapter 4

A dim antagonism gathered force within him and darkened his mind as a cloud against her disloyalty and when it passed, cloud-like, leaving his mind serene and dutiful towards her again, he was made aware dimly and without regret of a first noiseless sundering of their lives. (4.3.4)

Stephen’s childhood actually starts to crumble and fall away here. Even though he feels like he already left it behind in his sinning period, there were still vestiges of his childlike self in his relationships to his family and to religion. Now, though, he even begins to break away from his mother’s expectations.

His soul had arisen from the grave of boyhood, spurning her grave-clothes. Yes! Yes! Yes! He would create proudly out of the freedom and power of his soul, as the great artificer whose name he bore, a living thing, new and soaring and beautiful, impalpable, imperishable. (4.3.20)

We get the Christ-like image of the new Stephen rising from the grave of boy Stephen, finally certain of his fate. Will Stephen become his own savior?

He was alone. He was unheeded, happy and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and wilful and wildhearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the sea-harvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight and gayclad lightclad figures of children and girls and voices childish and girlish in the air. (4.3.26)

Well, this doesn’t answer the question we just posed in the previous thought, but it does complicate it. Stephen asserts his youth and wildness, which we can contrast with the staid strictness of his mysterious "boyhood." The difference between these two terms is important but ambiguous. Perhaps during his boyhood, Stephen wasn’t actually young, despite his age…

Where was his boyhood now? Where was the soul that had hung back from her destiny, to brood alone upon the shame of her wounds and in her house of squalor and subterfuge to queen it in faded cerements and in wreaths that withered at the touch? Or where was he? (4.3.25)

Stephen’s "boyhood" is gone; those years of self-denial and guilt seem like a waste of time now. It’s interesting that he should associate these things with his boyhood – we wonder what his new incarnation is. Does this mean that he’s a man?

Chapter 5
Mary Dedalus

– Ah, it's a scandalous shame for you, Stephen, said his mother, and you'll live to rue the day you set your foot in that place. I know how it has changed you. (5.1.7)

Mrs. Dedalus is under the false impression that university life has changed Stephen; while she’s undoubtedly right in some respects, we know that Stephen’s sense of purpose and newfound identity is what have really alienated him further from his home and family.

His father's whistle, his mother's mutterings, the screech of an unseen maniac were to him now so many voices offending and threatening to humble the pride of his youth.

Again we see Stephen’s rediscovered appreciation of his youth. While as a child he had always wanted to be an adult, now he is proud of being young and rebellious.

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