Man Ray Joyce

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

[Dubliners|A Portrait|Ulysses|Finnegans Wake]

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man


Modern Library, 1996, ISBN 0-679-60232-1; Hardcover $16.95. [Browse/Purchase]

“I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself 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 defense the only arms I allow myself to use, silence, exile, and cunning.”

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published in 1916, is the semi-autobiographical story of Stephen Dedalus, a young Irish writer and literary stand-in for James Joyce himself. Divided into five chapters, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man follows Stephen’s life from childhood through adolescence to the first flush of manhood. As Stephen matures through various family conflicts and periods of study at Jesuit schools, he begins to rebel against his family, his religion, and his nation. Finally, in order to establish himself as an individual and to find his identity as an artist, he seeks self-imposed exile in Paris.
What particularly sets Portrait apart from other “coming of age” books is Joyce’s manipulation of the narrative itself – the language and syntax used at each point in the book reflect the age and intellectual development of Stephen at that time. In Portrait, we are essentially given a window into Stephen’s consciousness, and the whole world is unveiled to us through that single aperture. The narrative prose follows and reflects the stages of Stephen’s intellectual development, whether imitating the childlike simplicity of his earliest memories or the thrilling awareness of his artistic awakening. It swoops when Stephen is high; it crashes when he is brought low. It congeals in the murky muddle of a Jesuit lecture, and it skips and stutters and swirls when chasing the thoughts of an awakening poet. Like Stephen, it can be beautiful and bombastic, witty and self-pitying.
While all this makes for a very exciting reading experience, it also has another effect, a deeper impact that is not felt until one is well into the book. In most novels, the prose style remains essentially consistent. This allows the reader to generate a subtle image of the author, a ghostly persona haunting the spaces between the text and our comprehension of the text. (In literary theory, this is known as the “implied author.”) But in Portrait, Joyce begins the process of removing himself from his work. As Stephen remarks, “the artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” The narrative of Portrait attempts to banish the authorial personality: it is never expository, never judgmental, and never willing to assist the reader – it exists only for Stephen. We are given no clues how to feel or react; we have no privileged position outside of the narrative – Stephen’s environment is just Stephen’s environment, Stephen’s thoughts are just Stephen’s thoughts. This direct exposure to a character’s interior world takes some getting used to; and may even require a little effort on our part to assimilate – but once sampled, once understood and enjoyed, it sets a new standard for what literary writing can actually accomplish.

Advice for the First-Time Reader
In Dubliners, Joyce first began incorporating countless references to the “real” world around his characters. In Portrait, Joyce increases the stakes: religious allusions, political figures, actual locations, popular songs, advertisements, and contemporary events are hopped into the narrative malt to form a brew which can be, at times, quite heady and a bit disorienting. A good annotated guide can help bring some sense to it all; but this is only a suggestion – Portrait can be read without assistance, especially if you don’t need every foreign phrase translated or every historical character explained. I would still advise, however, that you gain a simple understanding of both Irish politics and the Roman Catholic church, particularly Charles Stewart Parnell and the Jesuits. While “going in cold” is possible, like all Joyce, the book rewards a prepared and careful reading.

Suggested Guides
A more complete listing of guides to Portrait may be found on the Brazen Head’s Criticism page. I find the Gifford annotations to be the most useful for the beginning reader:

Joyce* Annotated

Don Gifford
University of California Press, 1982, ISBN 0-520-04610-2, Paperback $21.95. [

Annotations for Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, this useful volume starts with an introductory section on life in Dublin at the turn of the century, including education, history, commerce, and social customs. The book then lists thousands of annotations, including explanations of slang and foreign languages used, relevant song lyrics, literary references, historical notations, and explanations of places and institutions mentioned in the text. Maps are sprinkled throughout the book, and it ends with a reprinting of “The Sisters,” by “Stephen Daedalus,” as it appeared in the Irish Homestead on August 13, 1904. Overall, a very thorough job that illuminates both works quite nicely.

Selected Web Links
A few more links to Portrait related material may be found on the Brazen Head’s Links page. Here are a few of the more general resources:

Brandon Kershner’s Portrait Page – A wonderful site devoted to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, R. B. Kershner has compiled a resource that summarizes some of the information available in his Bedford Books edition of Joyce’s novel, including a biography, criticism, and annotations to the text.

SparkNotes to Portrait – The SparkNotes online student guide to Portrait contains reading notes, character sketches, commentary, and more.

Portrait Student Resources – Charles Cave’s collection of student resources for Portrait, with lots of useful commentary by Bob Williams.

Other US Editions
There are numerous in-print editions of Portrait in addition to the Modern Library edition that heads this page. Here are a few readily available ones:

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

New American Library, 1991, ISBN 0451525442; Paperback $4.95. Introduction by Hugh Kenner. [Browse/Purchase]

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Knopf “Everyman’s Library” edition, 1991, ISBN 0-679-40575-5; Hardcover $17.00. [Browse/Purchase]

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Bantam 1992, ISBN 0-55321-404-7; Paperback $4.95. [Browse/Purchase]

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Penguin “Twentieth-Century Classics” edition, 1993, ISBN 0-14-018683-2; Paperback $8.95. Edited by Seamus Deane. [Browse/Purchase]

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Vintage, 1993, ISBN 0-679-73989-0; Paperback $10.00. [Browse/Purchase]

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

"Viking Critical Library” edition, 1977, ISBN 0-14-015503-1; Paperback $15.95. Edited by Chester Anderson. With critical notes and essays. [Browse/Purchase]

The “Joyceworks” Pages

Book through eternity junction – Back to the “Joyceworks” main page. There you will find the standard Brazen Head menu.

The Artfull Eye – “Why read James Joyce?” A somewhat fanatical essay on Joyce, his works, his importance, and why people write somewhat fanatical essays about him.

Quailigans Quake – A small essay on Joyce’s narrative technique, and a few general words of advice on how to first approach to his work.

The Essential Canon – Joyce’s major works:

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Finnegans Wake

The Minor Arcana – A listing of Joyce’s “lesser” works, including his poetry, Stephen Hero, Giocomo Joyce, and Exiles.

Minbad the Mailer and Hinbad the Hailer and Rinbad the Railer and Dinbad the Kailer and Vinbad the Quailer – Send email to the Great Quail – comments, suggestions, corrections, criticisms, submissions . . . all are welcome!

Spiral-Bound – Click here for information about Spiral-Bound, The Modern Word’s monthly electronic newsletter. From this page you can read about Spiral-Bound, browse archived past editions, sign up for the Spiral-Bound e-group, and subscribe to the newsletter itself.

–Allen B. Ruch
22 June 2003