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

James Joyce

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Chapter 2

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 2 of James Joyce's novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man | Chapter 2 | Summary



Home for the Summer

Stephen is home from boarding school for the summer, spending his days with his amiable Uncle Charles as he makes the rounds of their village. Stephen's keen attention to language as it is spoken in a variety of scenarios is one of the indicators of his development as an artist. He also spends time with a group of friends, having mock-battles at various locations. Stephen carries himself somewhat apart from his companions, due in part to a heightened sense of his own heroism, inspired by reading The Count of Monte Cristo, a work significant here for its portrait of a central figure long in exile, which echoes the future that Stephen himself will follow.

Readers soon learn Stephen will not be going back to boarding school. The unspoken reason is his father cannot afford it. This circumstance serves to move Stephen's maturation along slightly more quickly, as he begins to ask himself how he will find his place in the world, both economically and spiritually. As he rides with the local milk deliverer, he ponders what it might be like to have a job, and then, while he is musing on employment, he begins to wonder how his own family will find stability now that his father is "in trouble." During this time of economic instability, Stephen enters fully into the heroics of The Count of Monte Cristo and fantasizes about the Count's love interest, Mercedes. This novel provides Stephen with an imaginative outlet: he can create his own noble, stable world where he ventures forth righting wrongs. Stephen's imaginary pursuit of Mercedes heightens his own emerging adolescent urges for romance and physical contact. By choosing a hero to emulate, Stephen again distances himself from others and takes bold measures to create the world of an artist.

Moving On

The upheaval continues as the Dedalus family leaves the house at Blackrock to move to a semi-furnished, bleak rented house in Dublin. The move is caused by Simon Dedalus's financial woes. It is a shock to Stephen, unsettles him, and forces him to reconsider events from the recent past, such as groups of servants whispering in the Blackrock house's hallways.

Forbidding though the move may be, it advances the development of Stephen's artistic sensibilities. Stephen goes with his mother to visit family members, and even joins a birthday party for a younger child. Again he is compelled to observe and take note rather than join in, adding to his trove of moments and scenes. When he leaves the party with a young girl who was also there, he briefly considers the opportunity for flirtation and physical contact but retains his distance from her. The experience fuels his desire to write, and he picks up a new pen and new paper to dedicate a poem to her in the style of Byron. Once again he develops and nurses romantic obsessions, but because he is slightly older, these obsessions are considerably more elaborate and romantic.

Simon relates a conversation he has had with the rector at Stephen's former school. He reveals the staff took Stephen's accusations lightly, rather than with the seriousness Stephen would have expected.

New School: Belvedere

Stephen has a part as a "farcical pedagogue" in the Whitsuntide play at his new Jesuit school, Belvedere, and every aspect of the description communicates how mechanical and artificial Stephen finds the daily life of the school to be. Joyce accentuates the woodenness of the sets, the props, and the student actors' deliveries to convey Stephen's distance from these events and their temptation for engagement on his part. The play is significant in that it reveals the moment when the young artist begins to make the switch from life imitating art, to art being life itself, as the play had "suddenly assumed a life of its own." Indeed, when Stephen meets some of his classmates outside the building before the play is held, they make fun of him in a somewhat aggressive way, teasing him about a girl whom his father brought there to see him. Stephen, however, reflects that he "knew that the adventure in his mind stood in no danger from these words"—that is, the school chums can say nothing to either dissuade or intensify his attractions or, in a larger sense, his growing inner life. He chooses to remain at a distance from even his closest friend, and no longer feels any pull from father or church to be a gentleman or a good Christian.

As with the other women in the book thus far, readers learn only the bare minimum about the girl who has come to see Stephen perform: Stephen is attracted to her, she is very polite to his father, and Stephen longs to be alone with her. Stephen is not yet grown up, so his relationships with women focus heavily on objectification rather than on interaction. As always he fixates on being alone with the girl but gives little thought to what might happen when they are alone, most likely because he has no idea.

A Trip to Cork and Back

Stephen takes a poignant but provocative trip with his father to Cork to complete the sale of some family property. It is clear from the outset that Stephen and Simon are having two wholly different experiences. Simon is primarily interested in drinking heavily, reminiscing about his past at the University of Cork, and shoving the experience of having to sell family property out of his mind. He takes Stephen on a tour of the college campus, and every name he brings up to a porter is out of date; the individuals Simon remembers have been succeeded by one or two generations. After the sale of the property is complete, Simon and Stephen go out on a "bar crawl," during which various bartenders reminisce about Simon's charisma as a student and Stephen becomes increasingly embarrassed.

Stephen feels betrayed by this trip to Cork with his father. Not only is he unable to fully understand or empathize with his father's nostalgia, he is uncomfortable with Simon's drunkenness and flirting with barmaids, and he's plagued by his own imagination. His feverish dreams on the train of a sleeping populace, and his overwhelming visions of the word "fetus" carved into a desk come to a head as he is concerned that he might progress along his father's life path, amounting to nothing. He calms himself by repeating his name, much as he did when writing out his address all the way to "the Universe" as a child.

His fear seems justified when, after winning a substantial academic prize back in Dublin, Stephen squanders it in grand fashion. Despite the fact that Stephen is attempting, in part, to provide for his family in so spending his earnings, they're still lost. The fear of following in his father's footsteps seems even more justified when, unable to restrain himself any further, Stephen finally travels to a red-light district in Dublin and sleeps with a prostitute.


Toward the end of summer Stephen says he wants "to meet in the real world the insubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld." Though he is describing a fictional woman he's been daydreaming about, the statement has much larger implications. The subject he addresses here is, in its thematic meaning, the creation of art. Anyone who writes, paints, or composes ultimately wishes to see their ideas come to fruition and to "encounter" them the way Stephen wishes to encounter Mercedes—to make human, tangible contact. The text could also be said to be referring to the study and appreciation of artworks and literary works, the desire to involve one's self with them by reading them, listening to them, and exploring them. Stephen is studying the life around him, gathering material in his mind, including the vocabulary and speech patterns of his father, family, and associates. This is a continuation of his close attention to gesture, image, and language from the first chapter of the novel. In the book's narrative structure, readers witness here his sexual awakening, or the beginnings of it; in a broader sense, though, this is a continuation of his artistic awakening.

Stephen also begins to grow up during the summer. When he accompanies his uncle on his rounds, he overhears a lot of talk of politics. As he repeats the words the adults are saying in order to understand them, he begins to learn about world affairs—and, more importantly, to ponder how he will involve himself in the world of adults. In other words he begins growing up by wondering what it would be like to be a grown-up. This consideration makes it impossible, then, for him to indulge in children's play-acting with the same pleasure his friends have. He is intentionally distancing himself from those around him as he nurtures his artistic development.

Much of the narrative here comes through a series of impressions, not necessarily connected, much like a series of photographs: Stephen at a party, Stephen on a tram, Stephen at home in his relatives' kitchen. The cumulative effect of these impressions is to communicate that Stephen's feelings of loneliness and alienation have intensified, and he considers himself both above the frolicking of his peers and unhappily cut off from them. Overwhelmingly, Stephen's imagination calls to him more loudly than any more earthly demands.

The family's move to Dublin marks Stephen's first encounter with the city, a locale in which he will be immersed for the remainder of the novel. The city is a central setting for Joyce and for the modernists as a whole, being the location where the triumphs and the failings of civilization can be most readily witnessed. The urban landscape Joyce initially offers here intimates that what will follow will be a rich landscape for Stephen, full of images which build a murky, potentially dangerous atmosphere: an empty city square, a filthy dock area, a dusky river view, horses pulling a nearly empty tram, which is itself littered with used tickets. Although on the one hand, Dublin reminds Stephen of "another Marseilles," which he has never visited but has read about in Dumas, it also leaves him clearly seeing that he is different, a difference he then embraces.

Stephen's artistic maturation process is in full display here. Joyce offers a glimpse of Stephen's semi-conscious editing process when he tries to compose the poem for the girl: "all those elements which he deemed common and insignificant fell out of the scene." This act of choosing to preserve only the most essential elements of a scene sets him apart from others. While his peers might seek distraction in a party or a walk through the city, Stephen sees daily life as conscious work of a sort; he sifts through the piles of details for clues and memorable words or scenes.

The second foray Joyce makes into stream of consciousness, or the recreation of an individual's thought pattern, jumps around in time. Stephen remembers various incidences that are, to him, somehow connected. Joyce leaves the connections unexplained.

In addition this part of the novel shows a heightened clash between the role Stephen is called upon to play in the world versus the role he is choosing for himself. His heart lies apart from the dull goings-on in the auditorium, and while Joyce leaves the character's true passions ambiguous at this point, they will crystallize over the course of the book. Similarly, his interactions with his classmates suggest they see him as a dissembler; one of the peers calls him a "sly dog" twice after seeing Stephen's love interest speaking with Simon outside the auditorium; earlier, he has teased Stephen, saying he "doesn't smoke and he doesn't go to bazaars and he doesn't flirt and he doesn't damn anything or damn all."

Stephen's artistic nature is hinted at with his seemingly random connection of his heretical essay, an earlier argument about Byron's poetry, and his fantasies about the girl from the party two years ago, who has now come to the play. The connection shows Stephen as a great compiler of life. Readers never see Stephen deliver his lines here; the lines are beside the point. At this juncture in the novel, readers are merely meant to notice he is performing and he discovers during the rendition of the lines that art can be life.

That Stephen is witnessing the sale of his family property is significant; the transaction represents yet another stage in Stephen's progression toward rootlessness—and ultimately exile. Where Simon sees fond memories in Cork, in and around the university, Stephen sees a whirlpool of nightmares—or at least imagined scenarios over which he has no control.

Throughout the trip Stephen is portrayed as something of a custodian to his father, from the moment when he wakes up ahead of Simon on the train to Cork and sees him sprawled drunkenly across a seat to the moment when he masks his father's rattling of the china at the breakfast following their pub crawl.

Here and elsewhere Stephen is both emotionally engaged in his surroundings and detached enough that he can gain some artistic value from them. He reasserts his independence from his father and the past, his soul no longer capable of "simple joys." His maturity is put to the test when he receives a huge cash prize. Rather than spending the earnings conservatively, he spends them on finery and quickly exhausts them. He follows up this failure with a visit to a prostitute. Stephen is not so much at a turning point in his life as at a juncture where warring impulses guide him in two very different directions: dissolution or the artist's life? Rather than choosing a direction, though, he will remain conflicted until near the novel's end.

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