A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man Analysis


James Joyce in his work A Portrait of the Artist As a Young uses the technique called Künstlerroman. The term Künstlerroman is a Greek term that means artist novel (an artist‘s Bildungsroman).

Thus while Bildungsroman refers to a special type of novel that focuses on the moral and psychological growth of the protagonist or hero, Künstlerroman refers to a type of novel that focuses on the moral and psychological growth of an artist.

Künstlerroman is a modern technique used by one of the most influential modern writers, James Joyce in the novel Portrait of the Artist As a Youngman that attracted debates among the critics. The novel is semi-autobiographical as the nature and thinking of the protagonist Stephen is quite similar to that of Joyce.

In the novel, we come across the various stages of Stephen’s life from his early youth to an artist. However, he is not a matured artist and lacks understanding. According to Cordell Yee,

Stephen’s lack of this understanding shows that by the end of A Portrait he is not an artist in a fundamental way. He is immature: The world would-be artist is also a would-be theorist.

He further argues that Joyce deliberately misapplies Aquinas’s teachings when he places them in Stephen’s mouth. Yee, further quotes,

As a child, Stephen has a questioning mind: he wonders about the world and shows a philosophic bent. He does not take things for granted and seems to recognize a distinction between nature and convention. He often thinks about language, asking why certain words are used, why they mean what they mean.


The development of Stephen from a child to an artist can be explained as follows:

Stephen as a Young Boy

In the first chapter, we meet Stephen Dedalus as a young boy full of thoughts and feelings and one easily realizes the fears and bewilderment of Stephen in relation to the culture. The artistic qualities can be seen at the very beginning of his life. He appreciates the sounds of language rather than the language itself.

He uses baby words like moocow andtuckoo Once while being insulted by Dante he turns his threats into a song, “Apologise, pull out his eyes, pull out his eyes, apologise” We also find him imagining that cricket bats are saying, “pick, pack, pock, puck”

Similarly, while in academic competition at Clongowes, Stephen goes into deep imaginations on seeing the white and the red rose to say that “those were beautiful colors to think of”. The interest of Stephen in imaginations and wordplay is one of the main developments in the English Language used by Joyce.

His artistic imagination can also be found when a boy namely Wells pushes Stephen into a cesspool. He gets ill starts dreaming what will happen after he dies.

However, he does not reveal to anyone about the incident. He is once beaten by Father Dolan at school for no reason. He becomes quite angry and complains to the rector’s office. There he meets Father Conmee who expresses his will to support him.

Thus the first stage of Stephen is full of confusion, quest, desire. He keeps dreaming and understanding the world. Initially he bears all the violence but in the end, we find in his resistance and he finally speaks up.

Stephen as Sinner

During the second stage of Stephens’ life (his adolescence) financial crisis arises in his family and they shift to Dublin. There he finds a girl very beautiful and desires to kiss her but his artistic imaginations do not allow him to do so. Later on, tries to write a poem about her.

He wins a hefty sum in an essay competition. Instead of saving the money he spends it on his family to create a feeling of elegance and affluence, but soon he realizes that they are as poor as ever. His attempt to make his family happy gets failed.

Once he finds a prostitute in the street and follows her to the room. At first, he is reluctant. However, he soon performs sex with her. After the incidents, he often visits prostitutes and ultimately enters a period of chaos and spiritual paralysis.

Francis Xavier’s Feast Day arrived and Stephen imagines hellfire and punishment for his deadly sins. One night he has terrible nightmares about the hell and hellfire. He rushes to Church and makes all confessions. After coming out of the Church the world seems to be new to him.

His Sainthood Stage

Stephen enters the Catholic phase. He becomes religious, pious and devote himself to prayers and also accomplishes Catholic doctrines. In order to attain spirituality, he often punishes his five senses. However, this state of saintly life becomes irritating to him. Seeing his stern devotion, the director of the school offers him to enter the priesthood.

However, he rejects the offer. In the evening he thinks of Dedalus; the great Greek myth’s artificer who created a pair of wings that helped him to escape from the prison. While walking on the beach he comes across a beautiful girl. Her site makes him leave the religion at all and instead enjoy the worldly pleasures. He decides to escape to Ireland to avoid being trapped among the Catholics.

Escape for Art; Journey to Become An Artist

He decides to leave his country. While going to the library he sees Emma (his crush). He is angry at her as he thinks that she flirted with a saint and mocked him behind his back. However, he still respects her. He sits on the library stairs and watches birds flying in the sky.

It can represent the concept of freedom. In the end, he resolves “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” Thus he ultimately gets the chance to become an artist.