According to Virginia Woolf human character may have changed “on or about December, 1910”, but in James Joyce's manuscripts this change took place a few years earlier. In Joyce's writings, the literary transition from realism to modernism happened between 1905 and 1907. His later novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914), is now regarded as a prototype of a modernist novel, though in its composition it started as something completely different.
On 7 January 1904, Joyce completed an essay entitled “A Portrait of the Artist” for the Irish magazine Dana. The editors John Eglinton and Frederick Ryan had commissioned the text but when they received Joyce's essay, they declined it. The piece cannot be categorized under a particular genre. It is a combination of fiction and philosophy, describing the artistic development of a young man. Some of the themes of what would later become the novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (especially chapters four and five) are already hinted at in this short prose sketch.
After the rejection by Dana, Joyce decided to elaborate the aesthetic views of the sketch in a novel, initially entitled Stephen Hero. The unnamed young man of “A Portrait of the Artist” was called Stephen Daedalus and the evolution of his artistic ambitions preoccupied Joyce for almost a year and a half. The work was conceived as a naturalistic novel, following all the stages of the artist's life in sequential order. Apparently Joyce gradually realized that this format was too rigid to express what he had in mind, partly because, in the meantime, he had already been writing some of the more innovative stories of Dubliners. In June 1905, therefore, he suddenly abandoned his work on Stephen Hero.
Nonetheless, the content of the novel was still at the back of Joyce's mind and after completing the last story of Dubliners (“The Dead”), he took up the novel again in 1907. But he did not simply continue where he left-off in 1905. He tried out a more experimental, episodic format which became paradigmatic of literary modernism. Instead of following all the stages of the artist's life, Joyce now focused on the young man's consciousness, and because the action is presented as a collection of separate fragments or episodes from Stephen's life, the narrative is characterized by constant interruption.
In five chapters Joyce describes how his protagonist gradually becomes disillusioned with the three pillars on which his environment is built: family, the Irish nationalist movement, and the Catholic Church. From the very beginning, Joyce makes clear that perspectives have changed. The young man's feelings and associations are expressed through the so-called stream-of-consciousness technique. The reader is invited to follow Stephen's artistic development, expressed in the way he experiences it. Special attention is paid to moments of sudden understanding, which Joyce referred to as “epiphanies”. In Stephen Hero he had already defined these from a theoretical perspective; in A Portrait he brought them into practice.
The first chapter opens with fragmented lines from a fairy tale, told by Stephen's father, intertwined with his young son's sensations. The transition from a naturalistic to a modernist novel is symbolized by a change of focalisation through the monocle of Stephen's father on the very first page of the novel. What is being perceived through the “glass” is not what the father sees, but what Stephen sees, i.e. his father's hairy face. The visual instrument does not serve as an adult's tool to look at the child's world; instead Stephen's own perceptions are central. The penultimate episode of this first chapter brings up the three issues of family, nationalism and Catholicism during a Christmas dinner, which ends in a fierce argument over Charles Stuart Parnell (the Irish nationalists' hero who came close to obtaining Home Rule for Ireland, but was thwarted partly by the Catholic Church and its condemnation of his love affair with a married woman named Kitty O'Shea). During his first dinner with the adults Stephen immediately feels how explosive the combination of these institutions can be. His experiences at school (Clogowes Wood College) make clear that he is not quite like other children. In the last episode of the chapter Stephen is undeservedly punished by the prefect, Father Dolan. His classmates encourage him to go to the rector and report the unjust punishment. The rector turns out to be a kind and understanding man. When Stephen returns, he is treated by his classmates as a 'Stephen Hero', and the triumphant feeling this produces momentarily restores his trust in the institutional order.
This euphoria contrasts sharply with the tone in the second chapter. In a short period of time, Stephen's family moves to the suburb of Blackrock and then again to Dublin. It soon becomes clear that Stephen's father, Simon Dedalus, has financial problems and that Stephen will not be returning to Clongowes after the summer. Thanks to Father Conmee, however, Stephen gets a scholarship to go to the Dublin Jesuit school Belvedere College. Here Stephen stands out as a model student and, at the age of fourteen, the artist as a young man feels somewhat distanced from his environment. Understandably, this alienation is interpreted by his schoolmates as a form of arrogance. In the meantime, his father's financial situation does not improve. Stephen goes to Cork with his father to sell their last property and he tries to help his family with the prize money he has won with an essay at school. When he realizes that this is just a drop in the ocean, he goes out at night and has his first sexual experience with a prostitute in Dublin's brothel district.
Again this worldly initiation is confronted abruptly with a contrasting experience. The main event in the third chapter is a religious retreat. The sermons about Hell by Farther Arnall, the retreat master, are again presented the way Stephen perceives them. They have maximum effect, especially because they follow so shortly after the experience with the prostitute. Stephen feels guilty, vomits in agony, goes out, and finds a chapel in Church Street where he can confess his sins. With a feeling of relief he resolves to start a less sinful life.
Stephen's new pious life – attending early mass, saying rosaries, mortifying the flesh to undo his sins – does not go by unnoticed. The director at Belvedere suggests the possibility of becoming a Jesuit. When Stephen, considering a clerical career, comes home, he learns that his family has to move again because of his father's debts. The combination of these circumstances precipitates his decision to free himself from the confines of both family life and religious constraint. He walks to the seaside and experiences an epiphany when he sees a girl standing in the water with her skirts tucked up, returning his gaze. This image of the so-called Birdgirl on Dollymount Strand reveals to Stephen that he can appreciate beauty without having to feel ashamed of his desires. This experience confirms to him that his vocation will not be religious but artistic. From now on he will “recreate life out of life”.
In the fifth chapter Stephen's alienation from nationalism, Catholicism and family is systematically illustrated through conversations. To his friend Davin he explains that he pities the “sorrowful legend of Ireland” and the whole atmosphere of betrayal that surrounds Irish nationalism. In a pedantic way, Stephen outlines his aesthetic theories to a classmate at University College called Vincent Lynch. Referring to Aristotle, he explains the difference between so-called static and kinetic art, preferring the former because its aim is not emotional response. To another classmate named Cranly, Stephen confides that he refuses to make his Easter duty, i.e. go to confession and communion as a good Catholic, as his mother urges him to do. In his rather pompous manner, he explicitly states: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church.” In the last section of the novel, Joyce switches to the most conspicuous formal expression of his new novelistic approach: as Stephen prepares to leave his home country, his experiences and feelings are presented in the form of diary entries. Excited by the prospect of going to Paris, he writes down the famous lines: “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
In the last diary entry Stephen Dedalus asks the “old artificer” Daedalus to assist him on his flight from the labyrinth. Significantly, Joyce has dropped an “a” from the young artist's surname after his rejection of the Stephen Hero approach. In the new version of the novel, the reference to Daedalus, the mythic architect of the Minotaur's labyrinth, is therefore marked by a loss. This feeling of loss, combined with a focus on consciousness, an emphasis on interruption, and a correspondence of form and content, is typical of many modernist texts. Stephen may have adopted art as a new faith, but it will always be marked by the loss of a unifying principle. In his overconfidence he is in great danger of meeting the same fate as Icarus by flying too close to the sun. This comparison is suggested by Stephen's calling Daedalus his old father, which is Joyce's masterstroke: with high-flown ambitions Stephen not only flees Ireland, but also this book, which implies that A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is the literary equivalent of the mythic labyrinth, and Joyce its ingenious architect. More than that, in this and subsequent novels Joyce proved to be one of the major architects of literary modernism.
Citation: Van Hulle, Dirk. "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 25 October 2002 [https://staging.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=2606, accessed 29 November 2021.]