A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Summary and Analysis: James Joyce

Read our complete notes on the novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. Our notes cover A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man summary, characters, themes, and analysis.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Introduction:

The novel is all about the life of a young man called Stephen Dedalus. The book starts with Stephen’s memories about his childhood. Stephen wants to be an artist from an early age. But there are many obstacles in his life. His family has financial problems. Also there are the limitations of his religion, his culture and his family. Stephen tries to be a good religious person for a short time but then he fails. After a long time he realizes that he wants to be free of all limitations. In the end he decides to follow his dreams and leaves his country to be a successful artist but not a priest.

Actually the novel is the mirror to James Joyce own life. Joyce attended the school with the same name in the novel. (Clongowes Wood College) The novel’s main character – Stephen’s family has financial problems because of his father. Joyce’s family had financial problems and the reason was his father. Joyce took the events from his real life. Joyce’s family had to move to other cities several times. In the novel we can see that it happens to Stephan’s family. Also Joyce left Ireland for a new life. So does Stephen in the novel.

James Joyce perfected his style stream-of-consciousness with the novel. He was doubtless one of the best writers of his time. His novel is the autobiographical one. He had hard times in his life and he actually wrote about his life butunder a different name. The novel can be classified as both a Kunstlerroman (German, meaning a novel about an artist) and Bildungsroman (German, meaning a novel of development or education). We need to understand these two terms before starting to read the novel itself.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Summary:

The main character of the novel is Stephen Dedalus. He grows up in the Ireland at the end of the 19thcentury.  He is the oldest of the ten children in the family. Stephen decides to leave behind his social, familial and religious limits. It is because he wants to be an artist. But his Catholic faith and Irish nationality influence him very much.

Stephen attends Clongowes Wood College. It is a strict religious boarding school. In the beginning he feels lonely because he does not have any friends. But soon he makes some friends. He enjoys visiting his family. His family usually talks about the Irish political leader. His name is Charles Steward Parnell. One day they even argue when they are having a Christmas dinner because Charles Steward dies.

Stephen’s father’s name is Simon. He has financial problems. Because of him his family sinks into debt. Stephen’s uncle’s name is Charles. He lives with Stephen’s family until his death. Stephan spends his summer in his uncle’s company. After summer he cannot go back to his school. The reason is his family’s financial problems. His family decides to move to Dublin.

In Dublin Stephen starts attending Belvedere school. There he improves his writing and acting skills. He makes love with a Dublin woman. She is a young prostitute. After his first sexual experience, he starts feeling guilty and ashamed. The reason of this feeling is his Catholic religion.

For a while he ignores his religion and his family. He starts going to prostitutes very often. Also he commits some sins such as masturbation, gluttony and etc. Then one day he hears sermons about sin, judgement and hell. Stephen gets shocked and scared. The sermons strongly influence him. For that reason he decides to devote his life to his religion.

Now Stephen begins attending Mass every day. He becomes a model of Catholic piety. Soon the director of his school wants him to become a priest. Stephen thinks about the offer for a while. Then he realizes that he cannot be a priest. The reason is because he has love for sensual beauty.

Again his family decides to move because of a financial problem. Stephen is waiting for his acceptance to the university. He decides to go for a walk. He walks on the beach and sees a young lady there. He watches her carefully and is struck by her beauty. Now Stephen thinks that love and desire of beauty should not be a source of shame. Then he decides to live his life without his familial, national and religious limits.

Soon Stephen moves on to the university. There he develops some strong friendships. Cranly becomes his close friend. He needs his friends as listeners but he does not want to be dependant. He becomes determined to free himself from all limitations and pressures. That is why he decides to leave Ireland. He hopes to be successful in his life. Stephen Dedalus is determined to achieve a life as an artist.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Themes:

The Development of Individual Consciousness:

Perhaps the novel “A portrait of an artist as a young man” is mostly famous for its stream of consciousness style. This style makes the novel a story of the development of Stephen’s mind. It means that the author directly writes the thoughts and sensations that go through a character’s mind.

In the first chapter the young Stephen can describe his world only with simple words. Later, when he becomes a teenager, he is able to think in more adult manner. In the novel the thoughts progress logically. Stephen is more mature now and is aware of his surroundings. But he still trusts the church. Stephen feels ashamed and guilty for his sins.

He seems truly rational only when he is in the university. That happens in the final chapter. By the end of the novel we can see that Stephen achieves emotional, intellectual and artistic adulthood. The development of Stephen’s consciousness in the novel is really interesting because Stephen is a portrait of James Joyce himself.

Role of the Artist:

The novel explores what it means to become an artist. It is not easy to become an artist. Stephen decides to leave his family, friends and country to become an artist. It happens at the end of the novel. Here we can see that Joyce suggests the artist be isolated figure. Stephen turns his back on his community, religion, family and family. It is because he does not want any limitations and strongly wishes to become an artist.

He leaves his community for his goal.  But his goal is to give a voice to the very community. Soon Stephen realizes that his community will be always a part of him. It is because his community created and shaped his identity.

Beauty, Sensitivity, and Imagination:

Stephen greatly values beauty and art. He has a desire for beauty and art. Even as a child, young Stephen is so imaginative and sensitive. These feelings grow with him. He thinks about beauty and power of art carefully. Then he decides to leave the country. It is because he realizes that he cannot live without art. He decides to pursue the life as an artist.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Characters:

Stephen Dedalus:

The main character of the novel. He strongly values art and beauty. That is why he wants to become an artist. But because of his religion, culture and family Stephen cannot live his life to the fullest. He gets confused between religion and art. He tries to be religious man. But it does not last for a long time. Soon he chooses art and leaves his country for a new life.

Simon Dedalus:

Stephen’s father. He has strong sense of Irish patriotism. The family sinks into debt because of him. He is tragic figure. He has a deep pride in tradition.

Mary Dedalus:

Stephen’s mother and Simon Dedalus’s wife. She is a religious woman. She argues with his son about his attending religious services.

Uncle Charles:

Stephen’s great uncle. He lives with Stephen’s family until his death. Stephen spends a lot of time with his uncle during the summer. Stephen and his uncle take long walks together. They usually discuss the history of Ireland and the Dedalus family.

Dante Riordan:

Stephen’s governess. She is extremely pious Catholic woman. Her real name is Mrs. Riordan. She argues with Mr. Casey about the fate of Parnell during Christmas dinner. She values “God and religion before everything!”

The Dealus Children:

They do not play a major role in the novel. But Stephen has several brothers and sisters. They are Maurice, Katey, Maggie and Boody.


An Irish political leader. His death strongly influences the Dedalus family. Parnell is not fictional. He existed indeed. He was powerful leader of the Irish National Party.

Father Arnall:

Stephen’s Latin teacher at Clongowes. He delivers some lectures on death and hell. His speech greatly influences Stephen.

Father Dolan:

The cruel prefect at Clongowes. He unjustly punishes young Stephen and Stephen complains about him to Father Conmee.

Mr. John Casey:

Simon Dedalus’s friend. He is an Irish nationalist. In the novel Mr. Casey argues with Dante over the death of Charles Parnell.


Stephen’s love interest. When he is a boy, Stephen writes his first poem to her. Ten years later, he starts having feelings towards her again. Stephen does not know her very well. But he thinks that Emma is an ideal of femininity.


Stephen’s best friend at the university. Stephen shares his thoughts and feelings with him. He acts as a kind of nonreligious confessor for Stephen. In late-night talks, Stephen usually tells Cranly everything. Cranly is a good friend for Stephen. But even he cannot understand Stephen’s need for absolute freedom.

Eileen Vance:

Stephen’s neighbour when he is a young boy. She is a Protestant. Once as a young boy Stephen tells Dante that he wants to marry Eileen. Dante gets angry because Stephen is Catholic and Eileen is a Protestant.


The bully at Clongowes. He treats Stephen very badly.

Father Conmee:

The rector at Clongowes Wood College. Stephen attends this school as a young boy.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Analysis:

Chapter I:

When the novel opens, we are in the mind of a child. Joyce takes us inside the mind of a child to show us how a child sees and records the world around him. The child is only three years old and he uses simple words and phrases. His name is Stephen.

As a young child Stephen begins to identify himself with the physical world and with his family. He remembers his father’s hairy face, his mother’s sweet smell and uncomfortable experience of wetting the bed. It was a good time, he says because he feels safe and secure from harm.

His next memory is about his days at Clongowes Wood College. It starts about three years later. Stephen is small and weak and suffers from poor vision. He misses his family and his home very much. He has miserable days there. He feels himself lonely. Stephen is a sensitive young boy at that time.

His first crisis starts when Wells pushes him into the square ditch. Wells is Stephen’s bullying classmate. Because of him they take Stephen to the school infirmary(=a small hospital) to recover from a fever. There Stephen meets Athy. This boy tells Stephen that he too has an unusual name.
Stephen feels depressed because of his illness. He comforts himself by imagining his own burial ceremony and Well’s feeling sorry for him. Then he falls into sleep. He remembers Brother Micheal’s words about the death of Charles Stewart Parnell. Parnell is an Irish hero.

One day Stephen returns home to celebrate Christmas. On that day his parents, his old nurse and his father’s friend Casey start talking about Parnell. They are at the Christmas dinner at that time. Stephen gets very excited because for the first time he is sitting at the table with the adults.

But then they start aruing. They argue about the Catholic Church’s role in politics and its attitude toward Parnell’s followers. Casey is Parnell’s loyal supporter. He defends Parnell. He believes that the Church was the reason of Parnell’s death.

The next scene opens Stephen’s back at Clongowes. He is at Father Anell’s Latin lesson. Father Dolan, the prefect of studies notices that Fleming and Stephen are not doing their lessons. He comes near to Stephen. Stephen explains his condition. He cannot do his lessons because broke his glasses.
But Dolan doesnot want to believe him. He thinks that Stephen broke his glasses on purpose. Sadistic Dolan punishes Stephen. After that Stephen feels humiliated. He gets angry beacuse of Dolan’s unjust cruelty. His classmates are angry, too. They believe that Stephen should tell about Dolan’s injuctice to the rector.

The rector, Father Conmee is a kind man. He believes ‘s Stephen’s words. The rector promises Stephen that he will resolve the situation. Stephen feels like a hero and a leader. His classmates get happy and lift him. Stephen is happy too because he feels free of fear.

Chapter II:

The second chapter opens with Stephen at home. He is spending the summer with his family. Stephen enjoys being with his father and his Uncle Charles. They go for walks in the mornings together. They talk about their family and country.

At the end of the summer Stephen cannot return his school beacuse his family has financial problems. After some time they move to Dublin. Stephen wants to escape his unhappiness. He deeply starts thinking about love and romance. He writes a short poem about his beloved. After some time Stephen starts attending Belvedere College. It is also a Jesuit school.

The next scene opens about two and half years later. Stephen is probably fourteen years old. He he developed his writing and acting skills. Now he is a confident young man. He is still at Belvedere College. He is preparing to go onstage in the school play.

Suddenly he starts remembering his first terrible year at Belvedere. He felt insecure in those days. One day his English teacher discussed one of Stephen’s essays and said that it contained heresy. His some classmates were jealous of him and some even beat him. He remembers his days half-blinded by tears.

Stephen does not forget those days but he is not angry with his classmates and teachers. Now he is in love with a young girl. She is his adolescent love. The girl came to see him in the play. She admires Stephen.

We next see Stephen travelling with his father on a train. They are going to Cork. There his father Simon plans to sell the rest of his property. Simon tells him about old times and lost friends. Stephen gets bored and starts observing his father.

Simon does not about his son’s sorrow. He continues talking about his old friends. He tells Stephen to always behave like a gentleman. Stephen feels isolated and angry because his father does not really know how to be a father.

In the next scene Stephen gets the prize money for his winning essay. He gets excited and spends his money for dinners, gifts and some redecoration of his home. But soon he starts feeling scared.

He keeps himself separate from his family each evening. Now he is walking alone in the dark street. He feels very lonely. There Stephen meets a young Dublin girl. She is a prostitute. She invites Stephen to her room. There he experiences his first sexual relationship.

Chapter III:

After his first sexual experience he starts feeling ashamed. Joyce refers to it as “Stephen’s first violent sin”. Sometimes he feels unable to pray. He knows that he is in danger of “eternal damnation but he does not regret and pray.

The next scene is in the chapel. Father Arnall begins his sermon on the “death, judgement, hell and heaven”. Stephen gets scared after listening to Father Arnall’s sermon. He feels like Arnall is speaking personally to him.

Stephen feels terrible when he hears the descriptions of Hell. They are extremely painful for Stephen. He imagines the darkness of Hell. Stephen gets frustrated by retreat master’s words. He also feels guilty and ashamed.

After some time Stephen’s legs shaking. Feeling guilty and horrified he leaves the chapel. He knows that he must make confession immediately. Stephen believes that his shame is great. That is why he asks God to forgive his not wanting to confess in the college chapel.

He returns him room soon. Then he starts calculating his sins. Stephen imagines Hell and cruel creatures in it. After that he goes to a chapel on Church Street and talks with an old cleric. The cleric tells Stephen to ask Blessed Virgin for help.

The next morning he takes Holy Communion during Mass. There he vows to begin a new life of purity. Stephen becomes a religious person after that. But it does not last for a long time.

Chapter IV:

The chapter opens with Stephen’s dedicating his life to his religion. Every day he attends an early Mass. Now he has a new harsh discipline for his new life. Soon the director of the school invites him to his office. The director wants him to be a priest. Stephen shakes the director’s hand.

He thinks carefully about the lifestyle of a priest. He wants God to forgive him for his sins but he realizes that he cannot be a priest because he has his own weaknesses and trouble. Also he does not want to live a life of a priest.

He goes home and there learns that they are moving again. The young children start singing and Stephen joins them. At that moment he realizes that he strongly wants be free of his religion and his family’s poverty.

Now he is optimistic about his life. He is sure that he can have a better life. He wants to attend the university. But he is still worried for his future because he has no direction for his life. He starts thinking about his freedom.

He goes to the beach. While walking on the beach he sees a girl there. The young girl is watching the sea. When Stephen sees the girl’s face he is struck by her beauty. He cries out “Heavenly God!” Stephen realizes the importance of beauty. Now he does not feel shame because of his desire for her.
The chapter finishes as Stephen pauses to rest for a while. He is on the beach. He falls asleep and gets up much later. It is dark everywhere now.

Chapter V:

This is the final and longest chapter of the novel. Stephen’s mother is afraid of university education. It is because she thinks that it will change Stephen. His father curses him for his laziness. Then she warns Stephen about the time. He has to go to the university. He says goodbye to them and goes to the university.

In the next scene we see that Stephen is not a model scholar. He gets bored in the lessons easily. But in this chapter he interacts with his friends and university teachers. When we compare him with other characters, we can see how he is intelligent and talented.

There is another boy. His name is Davin. Stephen and Davin become friends. Stephen is fond of him. He values Davin’s passion. Here we can see a contrast between Stephen’s thoughts and Davins’.

As Stephen goes toward the lecture hall, he meets the Dean of Studies. They talk for a while. The Dean’s understanding of Stephen is limited. For that reason Stephen starts thinking that the Dean has a job but he has does not have knowledge about his job.

After that Stephen takes part in a spirited discussion. It is among a group of his fellow students. Later he meets Cranly and Temple. Soon, Lynch and Davin join them. Stephen explains his aesthetic theory to Lynch there.

Then rain begins to fall. Stephen and Lynch return to the library. Lynch continues talking but Stephen is not listening to his friend. He is watching Emma Clery. Stephen is attracted to her for a long time. H’s mind is full of questions: “How does Emma spend her days? What is she thinking?
Next morning, Stephen awakens refreshed because of his dream about Emma. She inspires him very much. He writes a villanelle (pastoral or lyrical poem of nineteen lines, with only two rhymes throughout and some lines repeated) in her honour.

In the next scene, Stephen is again on the library steps. He is watching birds flying overhead. He counts the birds. He hears their cries. Cranly, Dixon, Temple and other’s vioces interrupt his thoughts. Temple and Cranly have a battle of insult. They dislike each other because of their jealousy over Stephen’s attention.

Suddenly, Emma passes by. Stephen is in love with her. Emma seems to invite Stephen to leave his life at the university. Then Stephen wants to talk with Cranly in private. He asks for some advice from Cranly about his “Easter duty”(Confession and communion).

Cranly advices Stephen to do his Easter duty and please his mother. He says that Stephen does not need to believe in the sacredness of the Church rituals. Stephen confesses that he prefers to leave his family, religion and country behind.

He feels a deep need to declare his artistic, spiritual and national independence. But he is sad because he and Cranly have no longer the same opinions about this topic. Stephen says that he will not serve something in which he no longer believes.

In the end Stephen prepares to leave Ireland. He wants to live his life free of any kind of limitations. In his diary he asks his mythical namesick, Daedalus to help him in his new life. He leaves Ireland for a new life of an artist.

A note about the era and its effects on the Novel:

A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man was published in 1916. During the years while James Joyce was writing the novel, he had hard times. His mother died in 1903. Also he had financial problems. During those years The World war II started and it may have some influence on the novel. There was one more thing – his religion. Like Stephen in his novel, James Joyce was under the religious pressure.

He started writing a naturalistic novel in 1904. That is a year after his mother’s death. Joyce wrote Stephen Hero first but then thought that it lacked artistic control. That is why he rewrote it in five chapters under a title – A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. It was his first novel. The novel was based on the events of his own life. We can see Joyce himself in his character – Stephen Dedalus.