Analysis: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Log 5 – James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

A Portrait of the Student as a Chronic Procrastinator


Jame Joyce calls his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and the thing to note is the word “portrait;” a portrait specifically of the artist. It is not a story or a journey necessarily, but an image that captures the essence of this young artist. This is reflected in the use of stream-of-consciousness in general, because the long winding thought threads Joyce takes us on often leave little room for actual plot or characterization beyond physical appearance. He is constantly painting us a portrait of Stephen at the time, capturing both his observations of the physical world and his own mind. It is a series of different portraits, and within the change between each one lies the actual story, but the emphasis is placed on the portrait aspect of all this. At one point, Stephen is even talking about true beauty and art with Lynch, and defines true “proper” art as something which evokes “static emotions”, as opposed to “kinetic” ones from emotions and bodily responses. His definition of true art requires that the reaction transcend the physical flesh and bring an almost incomprehensible(to everyone Stephen explains his aesthetic theory to at least) and spiritual quality to the expression and experience of beauty.

Thus, on some level he equates his pursuit of capturing beauty in his writing with his pursuit of faith. His great epiphany about faith and final rejection of priesthood comes when a beautiful girl on the beach, in all her bird-like glory, spares him a glance and her image is “passed into his soul for ever.” He shrouds this small, most likely insignificant(to the girl) moment in an air of drama, as he does many other times in the book, with grand diction involving angels and holy ecstasy. It’s a description rivaling that of the religious speech Stephen is inspired and terrified by. These two sections mark the beginning and end of Stephen’s explicitly pious religious devotion, which further emphasizes the close relationship between Stephen’s art and spirituality. Stephen’s aesthetic theory emphasizes that an intellectual reaction is what’s really required: somehow first “arresting” one’s mind as one comprehends the whole object and and the rhythm in the convoluted interactions between its parts and surroundings, and then that instant, and only that instant, when beauty is comprehended. And of course, also understanding what it means to comprehend beauty in the first place.

Stephen also mentions that art is expressed “from sound and shape and colour which are the prison gates of our soul,”  a phrase reminiscent of the common sensual mortification practiced by the pious, including Stephen himself, which again furthers the connection between the artist and faith. It also reflects Joyce’s novel itself, as this is an experience in delving into his, or Stephen’s soul, through the limited constraints of human expression. Whoever’s soul it is, the events are based on Joyce’s real life, as the original draft of the book was much more autobiographical.

Born in 1882, James Joyce was part of a very large, Irish, Catholic family, though he and his brother were not very religious themselves, even refusing to take communion at their dying mother’s request. Like Stephen, Joyce was not well off financially and grew up with a very pious mother. During his upbringing, there was great political and religious tension between Ireland and England, with Ireland resenting indoctrination of English language and culture, as well as the Protestant religion, the faith of majority of England, while most of the Irish was staunchly Catholic. Also like Stephen, Joyce was an excellent student, attending Clongowes College, Belvedere College, and University College, and leaving the country after graduating. Soon after, in 1901 Joyce began writing the first draft of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, then titled Stephen Hero, in a realistic style. Some of Joyce’s earlier works during that time were also signed “Stephen Daedalus.” Throughout World War I, Joyce and his wife and children lived in poverty in Zurich, where he made multiple revisions and rewritings to the story, and published it in 1916.

Now written with a much tighter structure, Joyce’s novel also employs a some stream-of-consciousness elements and was changed to a third person perspective. He embarks on long yarns when certain scenes evoke memories and images, and includes vivid imagery even as a brief description. For example an encounter with Heron reminds him of another incident with Heron and his lackeys in the past, while a glance at his father’s initials carved into his old college desk leads to a vision of a mustachioed student carving his own name during Simon Dedalus’s time in college. He might feel the “embers” of contempt for his fellow students, or notice the bump of bouncing balls become “”drops of water in a fountain falling softly in the brimming bowl.” This stylistic choice remains throughout the novel, and is often very specific, like the drops of water in the “brimming bowl,” though it is more prevalent and in-depth as Stephen matures mentally and develops more definitely into an artist.

Joyce also uses a lot of repetition, going from one passage to the next repeating the keywords from the previous subject Stephen was thinking about. When Stephen muses on the condition of an artist, he has a vision of a hawk-like man soaring through the air, “a symbol of the artist forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being.” It sends his soul “soaring in an air beyond” as he has a fit of joy and realizes his true calling. Later, he reaffirms this with a proclamation with the same wording: “soaring and beautiful, impalpable, imperishable.” On one hand, it provides a bit of unity and flow, making the transitions from an imaginative image to his internal monologue (for example) smoother. The same thing may also reflect the fluid nature of thought in general, which is also emphasized by the fact that our thoughts are often subject to our inner voice, which ends up latching onto certain words, phrases, and images. They might reoccur without our knowledge as we process our world, and so Stephen may be finely tuned to notice details like the colors yellow and grey, or tend toward describing something using certain phrases, such as yellow or grey, or in terms of wave and bird imagery.

Another concept Stephen dwells on more explicitly throughout is people’s souls. Many instances of his strong emotion are couched in terms of what his soul or heart feels. For example, his revelation of his calling to aestheticism comes with the image of the girl “passing into his soul,” and right before he has sex with a prostitute, he thinks of it as appeasing “the fierce longings of his heart.” From very early on, he also observes that he sometimes feels ambition “stir in the darkness of his soul.” Interestingly, it seems that Stephen’s aesthetic theory has close parallels with his own experience, as this moment of ecstasy is also marked with a “holy silence” and he later observes the “calm processes of the heavenly bodies.” His idea of spirituality is calmness, and looking at his diction throughout the book, it makes sense. Though Stephen goes through great extremes of emotion, the use of imagery, fanciful and luxurious descriptions and metaphors creates some distance between his experience and the reader, or at the very least evokes a different kind of emotion than a more understated style might be. Enlightened feelings came as a feeling of “the vast cyclic movement of the earth and her watchers;” anger at the unfair perfect punishing him came as “scalding tears falling out of his eyes and down his flaming cheeks.” There is little room left to fill in the blanks yourself. We are presented with Stephen’s entire experience and more preoccupied with the richness and expansiveness of his emotion than a more primal feeling, such as one felt when Joyce chooses to have Stephen have a moment of pure, simple excitement, with a simple “Yes!Yes! Yes!” in the presence of the wading girl. Moments of exclamation or questioning like this draw us closer to his person, rather than just his thoughts. The phrase contrasts with the imagery that follows, as it is a different, simpler expression more similar to Stephen’s idea of the bodily response evoked by things that aren’t “true art.” Joyce rarely uses these moments of simplicity and the general tone of his novel is intellectual, with more insight into his thoughts than emotions as a way to portray more of that “true art” that Stephen defines. Even in the emotions, his imagery and comparisons make it seem more like a contemplation on his emotions, than expression of the emotions themselves.

Further enforcing this intellectualism is a type of wording that is often used: Stephen “letting” something happen, or feeling an external force govern his emotions. He might let a tinge of annoyance “carry” him to hate, as he does in his physics class at university, feel lust “spring up” from him in his encounter with the prostitute, or feel an “unknown and timid pressure” and a “swoon of sin.” The same goes for visions that just take him. These physical reactions to stimuli are disembodied and act independently, controlling him at time, which may reflect his later aesthetic theory, where the apprehension of true beauty cannot come from such lowly, uncontrollable sources. Stephen’s nature predisposes him to be an artist, one who is less easily absorbed in physical thing, so they more easily express the beauty they see, because it’s easier for them to see the beauty in the first place. It’s not until the end, with the diary entries, that Stephen decidedly says “I disapprove” of something, but that is more of an intellectual judgement than an emotional one.

One result of all this rich description and imagery, of physical places and events unfolding before Stephen, his memories, and his musings, is a kind of chaos, as it becomes hard to tell which is which. It isn’t so much the style of flowing smoothly from one to another as it is simply having all of them described the same way. This strengthens the connection we have with Stephen however, because there is chaos in life, when a sudden image or memory strikes us. We are not outside observers of Stephen’s reveries, so when he snaps out of them, we do too. It’s immersive in terms of seeing how

Returning to the diary entries at the end, I would say that they provide a shift in the story, because suddenly we know what Stephen’s actual monologue is. Throughout, the dialogue alone  and Stephen’s observable external responses rarely show his emotions, but his thoughts in this diary finally are a direct expression of those things. My eyes accidentally brushed over this analysis somewhere, Sparknotes I think, that said this could reflect him finally finding his own voice, and it brought me to this idea that he is also finally expressing emotion and feeling more intensely and directly. There’s a “Houp-la!” and a couple “O life!”’s thrown in there, along with a simplistic inner exchange about his writing: “Would she like it?” “I think so.” However there are still twinges of that fluid diction and imagery, such as in the April 10 passage–“Faintly under the heavy night, through the silence of the city which has turned from dreams to dreamless sleep…” he writes, a completely different tone from “they blush better. Houp-la!” And I think it signifies Stephen getting better at handling these two modes of thinking, as well as emphasize the control he has over his thoughts now, which are no longer expressed–controlled you could even say–by an outside, detached narrator. He’s matured in many ways and here he seems more human and less placated and absorbed in his thoughts.

And that may also be the reason for constant descriptions of buildings and atmosphere as “dull,” “grey,” or god forbid “dull grey.” Stephen imagines “a small boy in a greybelted suit” in one vision, observes sunlight upon a “grey sheet of water” that is surrounded by a “timeless air,” as well as “ a crude grey light” and “raw grey sky” (on the same page) over Lynch’s and Stephen’s heads as Stephen discusses his aesthetic theory. In addition to continued portrayals of “timeless” atmospheres, all these things are a constant reminder of Stephen’s calm, almost noncommittal state of mind, between his episodes of revelation. It’s like he hasn’t quite found himself or his calling yet and his outlook on the world is, well, grey, despite his vivid processing of surroundings. Yellow is also a prominent color, but I can’t quite pin its reason down as well. “Yellow lamps” light up in the first brothel he visits. We have a “yellow glow” from the sky when he talks to the priest who urges him to be accept priesthood. “Uncouth faces” pass him as he walks along bridge, contemplating that offer, and they are “stained yellow or red or livid by the sea.” Granted, I looked at a digital copy and found that green, blue, and red were mentioned almost as often, so this is more a color thing in general. It highlights Stephen’s preoccupation with the senses, which he take note of so often, it sometimes seems even more important than the plot (which it probably is). Grey however, is used far more than any of these other colors. In addition to sight, Stephen notes the odours, the coldness of things, light and dark creeping on him both figuratively and literally(both in his head and in real life as well), touch (such as softness of the hands of a perfect punishing him or girl he likes) and sounds, sometimes even combining them as he notes a “soft grey silence” or a “cold infrahuman odour” from the sea. Again it’s a reflection of Stephen’s thinking, characterizing his artistic thinking. Joyce seems to mimic Stephen’s aesthetic theory, as bathing us in so much sensory information has the effect of numbing us, so that any single description or sense doesn’t evoke intense feelings and we are left to enjoy  imagery without distraction from bodily reactions. There is no direction to our feeling; if one is being simultaneously pulled in all directions, and then we’re still static.

In general, language is very important to Stephen as a writer so it’s no surprise that his most notable maturation early on, is his language. We move from talking about “moocows” to stilted, simplistic descriptions and random observations of detail, as a child might see the world (there’s even one passage where he “shivered” then thought about being “warm” then “shivered” again at least five times). Once Stephen matures, he remains preoccupied with certain words, like “gloom” and “darkness” for example, but his language is much more fluid, which does make one wonder how meta he’s being when he thinks of how fluid the air around him, or his thoughts, or a vision is. His thinking and observation matures but as he develops into a writer, it makes sense that he would think a lot, even on a subconscious level, about the instruments he needs to express beauty.

At some point, one does have to admire how the stream-of-consciousness elements Joyce uses in his style blur the lines between him, Stephen, and the characters around Stephen, a fact highlighted by the fact that in a log about James Joyce, Joyce himself is mentioned far less than Stephen.

Stephen’s story is told in disjointed sections, despite the smooth flow within those sections. There are also many moments of sudden insights, such as his decision of repent his sin after the sermon on the religious retreat, the moment of bliss he feels after he speaks up against the perfect who unfairly punished him, or his decision to attend university to pursue his writing instead of becoming a priest the moment he sees a girl wading on a beach. In a way, it is like a human memory, where only a few instances are recalled very vividly. It is interesting however, that the reader progresses through Stephen’s thoughts in memory form, but do so as the memory is created in the first place. At one point Stephen only vaguely recalls childhood events that the reader just vividly experienced a few dozen pages ago. It’s almost like a memory of trying to remember something.

* * *

It’s fitting, with his name being Dedalus, that Stephen’s thoughts and observations would always bring him to elements associated with Daedalus, such as the the sun, sky, sea, and birds (yes let’s get back to that). There is a bit of diction about water, as there multiple instances where he describes a wave of something flowing through him, speaks of the fluidity of something, or just makes a comparison with something related to water. Even the repetition of words and phrases in close proximity, as well as Stephen’s emphasis on rhythm in his aesthetic theory, recall the rhythm of the ceaseless ebb and flow of tides. And of course there’s no small amount of flying imagery, especially in the section where he sees the wading girl: “his soul was soaring in an air beyond the world,” his body “purified in a breath and delivered of incertitude and made radiant.” He enjoys the ecstasy of flight” which “made radiant his eyes and wild his breath and tremulous and wild and radiant his windswept limbs,” where the repetition of “radiant” also exemplifies the type of rhythm described earlier. Stephen’s revelation of his true calling essentially comes from him seeing a girl, but the fact that her beauty appears to him through a birdlike image ties the beauty Stephen pursues to the winged contraptions Daedalus modeled after birds and used to escape from the Labyrinth. It is at once the mystical instrument that will carry him away from the confusing maze of Catholicism and Irish nationalism, but also leave him alone. Of course Daedalus does not leave knowing that he will end up alone, unlike Stephen, but that may be that Stephen embodies both Daedalus and Icarus. Stephen’s security and family are not in a person (Icarus) as it is for Daedalus, but in his surroundings. His family, friends, and faith are both his Icarus and his labyrinth, which makes Stephen’s struggle even greater than the metaphor it alludes to.

At one point, Stephen’s friend Davin calls him a “true” Irishman at heart, and though Stephen disagrees, his actions and thoughts don’t. His pursuit of aesthetics is reminiscent of the Catholicism of the Irish and his defiance in thought and action of the culture around him, whether it be at Clongowes or Belvedere or the university, is similar to the Irish independence. Davin’s image of the Irishman possesses these traits, and regardless of what the person believes on the surface, these core values make them distinctly Irish.

Getting on the subject of Irish identity, there is an exchange between Stephen and a dean a University College about art that still impacts Stephen later. He realizes “tundish” must be an Irish word, realizing that “the language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine…His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words.” And what’s more, his “soul frets in the shadow of his[the Dean’s] language.” Stephen’s soul, the root of his artistry that needs freedom for him to reach is potential, is suddenly hindered by the very tools it uses to reach that potential. Indeed it’s at once familiar and foreign. And despite dropping out of Irish class, and basically avoiding any celebration of Irish heritage, nationalist, religious or otherwise, he cannot escape his Irish identity, especially when that identity is so obvious in one of the things Stephen, as a writer, values most: words. But eventually he decides to bend the language to his will and do something rather patriotic: “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” Yet he still resolves to leave the country: better to have just the foreign, rather than both familiar and foreign pulling him equally in two directions. Throughout, Stephen has had many voices calling to him, but if he can escape all but one of those voices, then at least he has more freedom than before.

Stephen struggles with his Irish nationality and Catholic faith throughout the first four chapters, but by the time he’s developing his aesthetic theory in university, he does still encounter strong voices calling him to his religion, periodically thinking of his sin or engaging with his friends urging him to join the nationalist movement, but he is much less affected and doesn’t have the same internal internal battles within about how he should react. It seems as though he’s been able to embrace his calling as an artist because he’s severed these ties to his country and religion. When talking to Cranly, he says that “when the soul of a man is born in this country, there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.” Again, there’s the flying and ocean references to Daedalus, and Stephen sees himself in a similar position to Daedalus in the myth.  It could be that commitment to faith or his nationality, or both, represents a community for him, one that requires great commitment to remain within, and as an artist, he refuses to sacrifice his freedom for that.

Stephen is an artist, not an “artificer,” though he longs to be one, and Daedalus is rarely described as an artist. Thus the Daedalus metaphor applies more to the general idea of brilliance than artistry and craftsmanship. Another tangent, real quick: it seems that Joyce is only concerned with one story from Daedalus’s life, the Labyrinth one, as opposed to the pushing his student off a cliff or solving the string through the sea shell riddle. It’s one isolated incident in Daedalus’s life, but it works with the story Joyce is trying to tell, which is specifically that of a young man. Whatever Stephen embarks on afterwards is of no concern–we aren’t even given much hints to what happens after he leaves Ireland–just as Joyce is not concerned with Daedalus after this particular journey is over.

Back on intelligence, in general, everyone around Stephen is rarely affected in the same way and to the same extent Stephen is, from the damning sermon to his musings on aesthetics and religion. And Stephen often makes special note of their very physical appearances, such a long contemplation of Cranly’s weird priestly features. Stephen is the only one who does any deep thinking, and it puts him in the position of a priest almost; one who is entrusted to do what others cannot and bring this abstract concept to the common people–for a priest it’s a certain level of devotion to God and for Stephen it becomes the capture and expression of beauty through art. Although there is a kind of arrogance to his theory, because even as he strives to capture and express beauty, by his definitions, very few will be able to experience the beauty he is expressing in the first place, as they must “arrest their mind” and understand the “apprehension” of beauty in the particular ways his theory specifies, before they can come even close to true aesthetic pleasure, which even then, is by his definition.

* * *

January 20 2:00 AM: Thought for the umpteenth time that perhaps I shouldn’t have procrastinated on this. It’s been the hardest book for me to understand so far. Some fault seems to lie in the stream of consciousness style, but a significant portion also attributable to the whole idea of being an Irish Catholic. Experienced many internal eye rolls at the mention at sin(mostly just that) and had to search up many terms, as a person who understands nothing of Great Britain’s culture and has actually made conscious efforts to avoid dealing with Christianity, in literature at least. Oddly enough, most relatable subject broached was the aesthetic theory, in all its convoluted glory.

January 20 3:00 AM: Went to get some food. Contemplated my recent decisions. Decided to drop it because the house was already dark and more gloom was not needed. Went back to thinking on this concept more. Realized that these are probably common problems with any modern reader and it diminishes the effect of Joyce’s style. Couldn’t read it all through in one sitting, which seemed more like the ideal way to consume such a novel.

January 20 4:00 AM: Went for second food trip. Saw my portrait painting of a deer head sitting on the counter. Joyce probably never intended it, but the title A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is indeed a portrait, not the portrait. The artist Joyce refers to does not change through time, as he is expressed in the same way in the text no matter who reads the book, but the portrait viewed by the reader is different for everyone, and can be very greatly so for people in different cultures and time periods. For every reader, this is simply one portrait among many that exist in the collection of everyone who’s ever read the book.

January 20 4:30 AM: Decided that I couldn’t put together a coherent thought after 4 AM on Friday. Will do all the polishing up and tying up of random thoughts for the weekend.

January 22 1:30 PM: Darkness, brightness, and water take turns falling from the sky. I should use that in a poem. Then again, maybe not. On the log: unfortunately I am still unable to express everything that I feel is just beneath the surface of my thoughts. Perhaps I should just give up? But no, I can’t. I want to love this book so badly, yet it refuses to let me do so.

January 22 12:30 AM: It is done! It was a good run, but mostly likely I plan to revisit it in the future in hopes of finding the deeper compelling meaning that I believe awaits me in its pages.


Works Cited

Jouse, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987. Print.

“A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Context.” SparkNotes. SparkNotes, n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.

“A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.


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