A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man | Study Guide

James Joyce

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Chapter 1

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 1 of James Joyce's novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man | Chapter 1 | Summary



The novel is told from Stephen's perspective. When readers first meet Stephen, he is a baby, forming thoughts and noticing details as a baby might. The family has a conversation, and Stephen hides under the table. The opening passage is a hodgepodge of different impressions and images: seeing a cow, wetting the bed, hearing the sound of a hornpipe and an Irish dance. Stephen's mother says, "Stephen will apologize," indicating the relationship between Stephen and his parents is somewhat punitive and Stephen is held accountable for his actions by his mother. The novel then moves forward in time.

At School: Clongowes

Stephen is at Clongowes, a Catholic boys' school, and is suffering the accompanying torments. Readers watch him half-heartedly playing rugby with his classmates, then weathering some teasing about kissing his mother before bedtime, then drifting through his classwork—struggling to figure out, amidst the daily noise about him, who he is—and then placing himself as a member of the cosmos by giving "The Universe" as part of his home address. Later in the section he has a feverish dream, and it turns out that he is sick—seemingly a result of getting pushed into a drainage ditch by a classmate. At the end of the section he has a dreamlike memory of the death of Irish political leader Parnell. The memory is partly a mockery of the self-dramatization of his sickness, partly an indicator of his family's interest in politics.

Christmas Dinner

Christmas dinner is taken up with an argument about the scandal over Parnell's affair, and how the Catholic Church used the affair to derail Parnell's power in Irish politics, specifically Ireland's separation from British rule. The two opposing sides are those who support Parnell, an early fighter for Irish independence, and those who support dominance by the English government; beyond this opposition lies the opposition of those who disapprove of the Catholic priests using the pulpit as a way to direct political decisions, and those who believe that Catholicism is intrinsically linked with Irish politics.

As Stephen listens, readers learn he has political interests and opinions even at his young age. He expresses sympathy for Parnell and puzzlement at Dante, who is a profoundly religious individual and has changed her view on Parnell dramatically upon learning of his adultery. As the argument grows more and more heated, finally culminating with Dante's storming out of the room and Stephen's father's bursting into quiet tears over Parnell's death, Stephen's nature is evident as he observes and records other characters' gestures and facial expressions: one person leans across the table, another puts his taut fingers together in an arch, one scrapes the air "as if he were tearing aside a cobweb." The passion of the argument influences him profoundly, as he learns that individuals close to him are in conflict over something complex, political yet personal, and difficult to grasp.

Punishment at School

Stephen listens in on the playing field as other boys discuss an incident where older boys were caught engaging in sexual behavior and were going to be expelled or flogged. He reflects on his associations with the "square," or area where the school latrines are, and on his mystification of what "smugging" involves. (The term smugging refers to homosexual encounters or sexual explorations that young men sometimes engage in, such as mutual masturbation.) He extends his thinking to examine group punishment for individuals' wrong actions. The boys marvel at how their classmates did it and then ruminate on the punishment they receive. Stephen imagines the physical experience of the punishment: the feeling of cold air on bare skin during flogging, the sound of the pandybat hitting flesh, and the sting of the flogging. When Joyce has Stephen imagine such things, with such completeness and detail, he is indicating that Stephen's nature is one of an artistic temperament, which will serve him well in the future.

Later in the chapter Stephen will grapple with punishment himself, as one of the school's supervisors, or prefects, beats his hands unfairly. When the prefect of studies visits the class and sees Stephen is not working, he assumes Stephen is merely trying to shirk his responsibilities, and flogs his hands aggressively. In fact Stephen has been excused from his work, because after breaking his glasses he cannot see well enough to complete it. After the beating, Stephen seeks justice for what he views as a slight to his honesty by gathering the courage to see the rector of the school. He receives support for his decision from his peers, who encourage him to report the injustice. When he explains what has happened, the rector says he will talk to the prefect about it, presumably to reproach him. When Stephen returns from getting satisfaction from the rector, his classmates greet him with cries of delight, lifting him above their heads like a returning hero.


Readers learn important specifics about Stephen in the book's opening: he is observant, as one can see by the way he spots details around him; he is also able to distinguish nuance at an early age, as one might tell from his differentiated reactions to his mother's and father's smells. He also does not fit in easily, as evidenced by his difficulty at sports, and being singled out for bullying behavior by his classmates. His failure to conform to social expectations will impact the novel's later treatment of the subject of exile. Stephen is inexorably disconnected from those around him and, by extension, his country.

The early smells, visual sensations, and auditory experiences Stephen has will also bear fruit later in the novel. Cold things, such as the feeling of urine in his bed after he has wet it, will always be ominous; warmth, such as the warmth he looks forward to inside the school when he is outside playing rugby, will always be associated with comfort. In these early moments in the book Stephen seems to be someone who frequently questions his world and his role in it. He must turn both over and over, seeing how they work. His trait of self-examination helps to build one of the plot's crucial questions: whether or not Stephen will eventually join the priesthood.

The argument the characters have at Christmas parallels and personalizes an argument raging across Ireland at the time the book was written. The individual's relationship with the church and the role of the Catholic Church in directing Irish politics are central to the argument and will influence Stephen's considerations when he chooses the path of an artist. He prepares for a career in the priesthood and then must ask himself if he really wants the vocation, or if it is unsuitable for his temperament.

The final words of the argument—in which Mr. Casey is crying "Away with God!" to indicate his support of secular governance and Dante is shouting "Blasphemer! Devil!"—raise the question of whether or not Catholic priests should be involved in shaping Irish politics. A question so hotly debated on the national stage must inevitably affect Stephen, even at a young age, and will indeed be one of the burning questions of his young life. Readers can see how involved Stephen is in the argument, as a glow comes to his cheeks in sympathy with one of the speakers and then his face is "terror-stricken" as the dispute comes to its crashing conclusion. The purpose is to show how Stephen's mind is being shaped and to what extent these early arguments will determine his own passions.

While Stephen's moral sense continues to develop, he also continues building his acute perception of all physical senses, from eating to breathing to being flogged. In so doing his attention to minute detail makes many of his experiences multi-dimensional. Stephen's intense awareness of the way things feel, smell, and taste will contribute to the sexual appetites he experiences later in the novel.

Also apparent is the emergence of Stephen's intensified sense of right and wrong. It is wrong, in his mind, for the prefect to beat him if he is following orders regarding not writing in class. Therefore, after encouragement from his classmates and older students, he takes his complaint to the highest moral authority he can think of, the rector, and pursues right action against the adult world. Justice is restored, in Stephen's mind, and he is satisfied; as his classmates greet him as a victorious returning conqueror, readers also come to view him as a hero who has done something others didn't have the moral courage to do.

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