Study Guide

Stephen J. Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

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Stephen J. Dedalus

Have you ever tried to describe a sibling, or a parent, or that best friend you’ve known since you were both two and a half, but just not been able to come up with words that really do the trick? You know so much about this person that you can’t possibly sum it all up in a quick and convenient sound bite, so instead you end up with some half-witted and nonsensical comment, like "He/she’s… um… nice." The same is true of Stephen Dedalus. Our knowledge of him is so comprehensive – it can be difficult to weed out what we know about Stephen from this book, since Stephen basically is the book. Sure, we know that he’s a young Irish kid, and that he’s artistically inclined. We know that he’s Catholic, then all of a sudden not Catholic anymore. We know that he’s super sensitive and really very, very special. We know all of this stuff, but it doesn’t really capture the essence of Stephen. So what does? To answer this question, we’ll try and break Stephen’s character down into four categories:

Firstly (and most importantly)… Stephen the Young Man

There are times (many, many times for some of us) in which we just want to throw up our hands in disgust and say, "Stephen, you’re hopeless." This is not because of his hyperbolic gestures towards the sublime or the base, nor is it because of his cranky, misanthropic tendencies. It’s not his failure to even begin to comprehend the female sex, and it’s not the pompous know-it-all attitude he exhibits from time to time. No, what really gets us about Stephen is simply how unbelievably inexplicable his logic sometimes seems. Not only is his mode of thought incredibly self-centered, it also takes daring leaps that would make Ferris Bueller proud. Sometimes we’re willing to go with him, and sometimes it takes a minute for us to sigh and say, "Well, okay, I – I guess." Sometimes we regret it, and so does he. But every time we get really frustrated with him, we just can’t stay mad – because he’s just so gosh darn cute.

Just kidding. We don’t actually know anything about Stephen’s cuteness or lack thereof, nor is it relevant (actually, it sort of is – after all, how often is it that you get a picture of a character that comes entirely from inside his head?). What makes us stay on Stephen’s team, aside from the fact that it’s the only option we have in this book, is that we’re reminded again and again of the fact that he is young. Even when he thinks he’s an adult, we know very well that he’s still the young man of the title. We can all remember our own moments of inexplicability from high school or college – or, who are we kidding, last weekend – and bring our own experiences and memories to bear in our personal relationships with Stephen. Even Stephen himself recognizes the folly of his own youth at times, and we get the feeling that Joyce knows exactly how to tread that fine line between perceptive precociousness and whiny self-righteousness that we all learn to walk in adolescence. Stephen’s little flaws and irritating traits are what make him recognizable and ultimately real.

Stephen the Would-be Sinner

The war between Stephen’s physicality and his intellect is central to this text. As a child, like most children, he fixates on physical sensation, and throughout the rest of the book, he continues to be particularly affected by the five senses. A prime example is his state of unrest after the Whitsuntide play – note that he calms himself down by focusing on the street smells of "horse piss and rotted straw." The problem with Stephen and his body is that he has trouble finding a middle ground – the way he sees it, you either give in to physical desire or totally deny it. This explains why we see him at such extremes, either indulging in all of his lusts (at the end of Chapter Two) or going out of his way to make his life physically uncomfortable (Chapter Four). When his chronic dissatisfaction with life in general leads him to indulge in bodily pleasures (SEX!) for a time, he becomes completely fixated on the idea of his sins. One trend that emerges is Stephen’s tendency toward obsessive behavior; once he picks up a hobby or interest, he devotes himself completely to it. He throws himself into his nocturnal sin-fests with the same obsessive energy that kids today might devote to sports, or SAT prep, or Facebook.

Stephen the Would-be Saint

Stephen’s obsessive-compulsive tendencies show up even more prominently during his super Catholic phase. The rigor with which he follows his precise religious schedule is rather amazing; if he’d been in our class in high school, he would have been that kid with a PalmPilot and five different color-coded planners. This period also shows us Stephen’s fundamental insecurity. Even when he’s praying to about a billion different saints a billion times a day, and when he’s working to not only ignore his senses, but to punish them, he still wonders if he’s doing enough.

Stephen the Would-be Artist

After the end of Chapter Four, though, Stephen is able to put at least some of these troubles behind him. In Stephen’s incarnation as a budding artist, we see some of the traits that have been developing all along (attention to language, feeling of specialness, love of beauty) finally emerge full-fledged. However, this isn’t to say that everything’s peachy keen. Some of these things contribute to what an uncharitable critic might call an eensy-weensy Messiah complex (after all, he seems pretty darn confident in his ability to sum up the soul of the entire Irish people – the words "delusions of grandeur" come to mind). Now that Stephen knows that it’s his "destiny" to create art, he takes it extremely seriously. Like, painfully, infuriatingly seriously. However, irritating bits and all, we still cheer for Stephen as he goes forth on his journey of artistic discovery, and we hope that he gets wherever he wants to go.

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