Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Character & Epiphany

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  • 3:26 Part I: Childhood
  • 4:57 Part II: Sexual Awakening
  • 5:52 Part III: Religious Torment
  • 6:47 Part IV: Discipline
  • 10:00 Part V: University
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Monagan

Erin has been writing and editing for several years and has a master's degree in fiction writing.

This lesson outlines the plot of Joyce's novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, while focusing on the development of protagonist Stephen Dedalus according to the expectations of the Bildungsroman genre. Additionally, we'll take a look at stylistic elements such as voice and epiphany.

Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is James Joyce's first novel. It was published serially in a magazine called 'The Egoist' between 1914 and 1915. It was published as a book in 1916.

It has a long and tortured process of composition. It starts out as an essay, then it turns into a book called Stephen Hero, which was going to cover the development of our hero, Stephen (makes sense) Dedalus from infancy to adulthood. He wanted it to be super realistic, kind of hyper-realistic.

Joyce eventually abandons the project. He really doesn't like it and kind of chucks it out. He then finishes a short story collection, Dubliners. Then, he starts to work on it again and revises into this book, into A Portrait of the Artist.

Kind of the main difference between Stephen Hero and Portrait is length. Stephen Hero is really long while Portrait is not.

The other thing is that he really starts to abandon this idea that he needs to be strictly realistic. He starts to get a little more interested in representing Stephen's consciousness as he develops from infancy to adulthood more than adhering to any standards of strict realism. So it becomes a way different book. But it kind of has the same goal as the original, which is to fully represent this development of the artist as a young man, tracing his development into the artist that he wants to be.

So what does this form look like? Now that we've abandoned realism, what does it turn into? And who is Stephen? And what does Joyce do to make this all so unique? These are all things we're going to talk about.

One of the hints of what makes it so unique has to do with something called epiphany. This is a really key concept for Joyce. We'll go into it a little bit later. But have that on the back burner in your head.

Basically, Stephen, the character, is kind of an alter-ego of young Joyce. He goes to the same school that Joyce went to. He follows the same developmental trajectory. There's a nice German word for books like this that follow developmental trajectories and that is Bildungsroman. This literally means 'formation novel.' Die Bildung is education or formation and der Roman is 'novel.'

The idea of the coming of age story has infiltrated all kinds of movies. You've got 'Dirty Dancing,' 'American Pie,' 'Sixteen Candles' and even 'The Lion King' or 'Legally Blonde.' They involve someone figuring themself out and becoming someone new.

So there's a long and storied tradition of this and Portrait fits right in. It's specifically something that's called a Künstlerroman. That's a sub-genre about artists because Künstler means artist in German. Now you know some German, so that's exciting.

We follow Stephen through stages of childhood and young adulthood as comes into his artistness. It's arranged into five parts.

Part I: Childhood

Part I is basically his childhood. We start out when he's teeny tiny. In a really striking nod to what I was mentioning earlier about Joyce trying to represent consciousness, this very young child stage is represented in language. How it goes is:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.

You can see that this is in Stephen's language as a little kid. If it were all like that, it would get pretty annoying. Joyce abandons it pretty quickly as Stephen gets older. We don't have to read much more about moocows.

But it's interesting that he can get across what it's like to be Stephen. It's not in first person. But he can get across what it's like to be Stephen just in the language that he chooses. But don't worry, he gets older within the first few pages.

We see him at Christmas. His family has a big fight. Unlike our families that might fight about football, they fight about Catholicism and a guy named Charles Parnell, a politician associated with Irish Home Rule, like they're trying to get independent from Britain.

He goes back to school and wins a small victory. There's a mean teacher that is beating kids that shouldn't be beaten. He goes to the headmaster and he gets the teacher punished. This is how Part I ends, on a note of triumph for little boy Stephen.

Part II: Sexual Awakening

Part II is his sexual awakening. We see him back home when he's a little older. He's kind of attracted to this girl. We also see him at a new school, not the boarding school. He's in a play.

Then, in an important scene, he goes and hangs out with his dad. He visits his dad's old school. He sees that someone has carved the word 'fetus' on a desk. You've probably encountered obscene graffiti. That's kind of what Stephen's finding here. But it's 'fetus,' so it has a little bit of a sexual connotation.

The chapter culminates with him having his first sexual experience with a prostitute. Hooray! That's exciting.

Part III: Religious Torment

You can see already that these chapters end on notes of triumph for Stephen. But then they start in places of not triumph. Part III starts and he's worried. He's worried about his lustfulness. He's worried about this bad habit he's gotten of going to prostitutes all of the time. He didn't just do it once; he got really into it and kept doing it.

He and his other schoolmates go on a retreat in honor of St. Francis Xavier's Day. The centerpiece of the chapter is him listening to this long, really descriptive sermon about hell, delivered by a guy named Father Arnall. You, as the reader, might read this sermon and think, 'Oh man, I might be going there.' That's kind of the point. Stephen realizes that hell is a really awful place and that he might go there because he has not been a good guy.

This chapter ends with Stephen going in for a confession. He seems to be on a path towards becoming a little more religious. That's the triumph of chapter three.

Part IV: Discipline

In Part IV, he's trying to be super disciplined. He has this idea that he's going to 'mortify' his senses, which means do really bad things to them. For example, he's going to mortify his sense of smell by smelling really gross things. He's not going to indulge in pleasures at all. That's kind of his goal with this.

About halfway through, his school director asks him if he wants to be a priest. He doesn't want to be a priest. He kind of figures this out. He thinks he's destined to learn in the realm of the flesh instead of the realm of God. He's not going to go back to visiting prostitutes (except maybe every once in a while), but he's not a man of God, as he realizes throughout this chapter.

Remember that I mentioned before that epiphanies are a big deal in Joyce. All of these ends of chapters could be characterized maybe as epiphanies. But the really famous, big deal epiphany from A Portrait of the Artist happens right now.

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