James Joyce

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Summary

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Irish writer James Joyce’s first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), a coming of age novel, is the origin of many of the post-modern techniques he refined in later works such as Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses. Joyce began work on A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in 1903 or 1904 as an autobiographical work called Stephen Hero. However, in 1905 Joyce abandoned work on Stephen Hero, making significant changes to the manuscript and retooling it as the new work.

Stephen Daedalus is the main character of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The story begins when Daedalus is a child, using simplified vocabulary to suggest his young age. In a series of disjointed episodes, Daedalus begins to form a personal philosophy of the world. After developing a crush on a Protestant girl, Eileen Vance, Daedalus tells his parents that he intends to marry her when he grows up. When his Catholic parents react with shock and horror, Daedalus crawls under the table in embarrassment.

Daedalus goes to boarding school where he tries to do well at his studies, but he is prone to daydreaming. The other boys at the school are antagonistic towards him, and he soon becomes the target of bullies. Several boys at the school are caught stealing wine that was intended to be used in Communion, and Daedalus is horrified at the offense against God. The other students complain because they will be punished for the wrongdoing of two people.

Later, in class, one of the teachers notices that Daedalus is not working. Daedalus explains he has broken his glasses so he cannot study, but the teacher punishes him with a paddling anyway. Encouraged by the other boys, Daedalus complains to the rector of the school who promises him that he will not be punished again. This leaves Daedalus with a feeling of triumph and control.

Meanwhile, Daedalus’s father goes into debt. His family is forced to leave their comfortable home for a smaller residence in Dublin. Daedalus has to leave school, but one of his teachers secures him a scholarship to attend Belvedere College. Working hard at his new school, Daedalus becomes a class leader. He wins a large cash prize from an academic contest but squanders the money on drinking and prostitutes.

Daedalus starts staying away from home as much as possible. He does not get along well with his alcoholic father and finds his religious mother to be stifling and at odds with the way he wants to live his life.

Though he throws himself into sensual living and begins frequenting prostitutes, Daedalus feels guilty about the way he is living his life. He frequently thinks of his childhood crush, Eileen Vance, and wonders if he is dishonoring her memory. Remembering Vance as the ideal of purity and modesty, Daedalus feels that he has tarnished her innocence. Though he at first thinks there is no way for him to give up his sinful ways, Daedalus then imagines the Virgin Mary reaching down to help him. In his fantasy, Mary joins Daedalus and Vance in marriage.

Daedalus has become paralyzed by the fear that he will go to Hell. Desiring forgiveness, he rejoins the Catholic Church with newfound religious fervor. Daedalus devotes himself to acts of generosity and aesthetic repentance, which comfort him for a while. However, these acts soon become routine and his mind begins to wander again. Though he once considered joining the priesthood, Daedalus has another crisis of faith when he realizes that he is bored by religious devotion.

While out walking one day, Daedalus sees a beautiful young woman wading in the creek. He is overcome with the urge to capture her beauty and share it with the world, which leads him to pursue writing. He has an epiphany that he can use the written word to express beauty and truth to others.

Once he begins writing, Daedalus finds himself alienated from all other aspects of his life. His family and teachers urge him to return to the Church, while his friends do not understand why he has become so withdrawn. As for Daedalus, his personality changes significantly. He becomes much more serious and humorless. When he tries to explain his artistic theories to people, they do not understand and cannot accept them.

Finally, Daedalus decides that the culture in Ireland is too conservative and restrictive for his writing to flourish. He decides to leave home to find a more welcoming climate and people who will support him. The novel ends with Daedalus declaring his intention to leave Ireland, but not without re-establishing his ties to the country and the people in it.