A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

By James Joyce

Journal 2

As Stephen gets older, he realizes his sins and tries to purge them. He’s afraid of going to hell, and spending eternity there, and he does everything he can to make that not a possibility. He starts going to mass everyday, he starts carrying rosary beads, and he starts praying ardently. After his first sin with the prostitute, he fears it will set of a chain reaction, and start committing other sins.

At a three-day retreat that the church organized, Stephen attends, not knowing what to expect. When the priest starts talking, he gets so scared because he thinks the priest is talking directly to him. The father talks about a lost soul, and immediately Stephen think about himself and his lost soul. Life has not gotten any easier for Stephen. His father’s financial status keeps worsening, and they are forced to move again. Stephen still feels emotionally detached, and cannot grasp onto anything to hold on to. There’s nothing he feels he can rely on, and he truly is a lost soul. He needs to find himself and find where he stands in comparison to the rest of the world. Even at the beginning of the book, Stephen writes in his notebook, “Stephen Dedalus/ Class of Elements/ Clongowes Wood College/ Sallins/ County Kildare/ Ireland/ Europe/ The World/ The Universe.” From this, the reader can infer that Stephen feels inferior to the immensity of everything about him. He feels so small in comparison to the rest. As he gets older, his feelings don’t change, he still feels small, but the difference is that now he doesn’t care.

After the retreat, he confesses to the priest all the wrongdoing he has done and all the sins he has committed. Then he vows to become pious and devote much of his time to religion and God. The priest, then impressed invites him to become a priest and be part of the clergy. At first Stephen is honored and thinks about all the power he will gain, and is very excited about this ordeal. Then the more he thinks about it, he realizes he can’t give up all that he wants from life. He can’t give up the non-religious feelings he has, and his inclination to sin. Therefore he decides that priesthood is definitely not for him.

In search for a new life, because he realizes he needs to do something worth while, he goes to college. There at school, Stephen becomes an artist again with words. He never stopped but it was suppressed, he felt that here, he could let it go and show his feelings by finally letting it out.

At the end of chapter four, Stephen is at the beach and sees a girl whom he describes as very beautiful. I don’t understand whether this girl was a real person, or if she was an oasis that he hoped to reach? I think she was just a figure that stood in his future, luring him forward, because it said, “gently stirring the water with her foot hither and thither.” A couple of lines down, Stephen says, “Heavenly God!” in “an outburst of heavenly joy.” I think at the point of the book, he realizes what life is all about. “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.” I remember you saying that the climax of the book is when the main character has a change of mind, therefore I believe this is the climax. For once in his life, Stephen is happy. He starts describing things as “glimmering,” “full crimson,” and “soft flushes.”

Chapter five, the last chapter, Stephen finally leaves for college. He’s not the model student there like he was at Belvedere. Here, he feels most of his classes are boring and not worth attending. But also at the university, Stephen finds aesthetic beauty in all that is around him especially language, something that he had always had an interest in. He has finally found his place in the world.

There is much controversy about whether the novel A Portrait of the artist as a Young Man was really written as an autobiography or not. I believe the accounts in the book, were taken from the first twenty years of Joyce’s own life. When he was six years old, he was sent to Clongowes and there, he was ridiculed and wasn’t exactly the most popular student. Later, the Christmas dinner scene was also taken from his real life. It happened exactly the way that the book represents it. Then he was sent to Belvedere after his father suffered from financial problems, and falling into poverty. He also had a governess named Dante. It seems as if the characters and the events were taken from real life, but there are still historians who do not believe this. They feel that he took certain events from his life, but that the book was not necessarily an autobiography. The only thing that I have to say to that, is it that when Joyce first started writing, he used the pseudonym Stephen Dedalus.

I can honestly say that this was the most difficult book I have ever read. I would not have gotten through it alive without the help of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Voices of the Text by Marguerite Harkness, Twentieth Century Interpretations of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man edited by William M. Schutte, and Cliffs Notes on Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.