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

James Joyce

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Chapter 5

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 5 of James Joyce's novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man | Chapter 5 | Summary



University Life

As the chapter opens Stephen leads the listless and somewhat unstructured life of a student, and the lifestyle seems to suit him better than the rigors of clergy training. He breakfasts at home, amid pawn tickets and squalor, where his mother chides him for not bathing and his father curses him. Arriving late to the university, he finds he has missed two classes and falls into a conversation about aesthetics with the dean of studies. The dean proposes an aesthetic of usefulness, functionality, as if to imply that Stephen could do well to study it. The dean supports this by encouraging Stephen to complete his degree before he turns completely to art. Again Stephen is reminded of the shortcomings of the clergy. He has escaped from the snare of family, and now escapes from the snare of religion. He proves his distance from world concerns and nationality when he both refuses to sign a pledge for world peace and spurns Davin's entreaties to try to be more Irish, like everyone else.

Then Joyce provides a glimpse of Stephen's new life at the university, and exposes his thinking of what it means for wildly differing groups to agree on beauty. He dodges Cranly's surly negativism about life and entreaties to comply with his Easter duty, even if it is hypocritical, and rebuffs Davin's argument that he should claim himself as a true Irishman and join in the movement against the British. Instead he wanders with Lynch, discussing his theories about what might be agreed upon to be the constant in beauty.


Stephen awakes after a euphoric dream where he understands life from the perspective of the seraphim, or the highest order of angels. This transporting vision connects heavenly love with the love he has for Emma. He hurriedly writes down bits of a villanelle dedicated to her, capturing what seems to have come to him in his dream, and then he has a furious inner dialogue about whether he was right to act coldly toward her when he did. He has been in love with her, to varying degrees, for 10 years, and reflects that her flirtation with Father Moran is shallow compared to what he has to offer as "a priest of eternal imagination."

Cranly and Beyond

Later he meets with Cranly and reveals, to Cranly's chagrin, that he will not do as his mother asks and fulfill his Easter duty (making his confession and communion); he will not pursue the priesthood, and he plans to leave Ireland. Cranly feels these decisions negate all the time and effort Stephen has spent up to this point, and he speaks fairly gravely and seriously to Stephen about what the consequences of his choice will be—isolation and exile. Stephen welcomes these things.

Stephen records a series of diary entries describing his last days in Dublin before both his physical departure from the city and his departure from family, nation, and religion. He continues thinking about his discussion with Cranly, now comparing Cranly's parents to the biblical Zechariah, who fathered John the Baptist at an advanced age. Stephen pieces together his responses to friendship, his country, his dreams, and his longest love. He meets Emma on Grafton Street and announces his change of goals, which brings completion to that part of his youth. Finally, as his mother is helping him pack, she expresses hope that he will find answers to his quest for artistic completion, "what the heart is and what it feels." After this exchange, readers receive Stephen's grand statement of purpose, and his call to Daedalus to bring him strength.


Stephen's interests continue to build on the foundation of what has been established earlier in the novel. He is more confident in his thinking but shirks from drawing attention to himself, unlike Cranly. When he heads toward school from home, he shrugs off the desperate straits his family is in and turns his mind to those things currently engaging him. He has left behind the clever comeback of a schoolboy, and instead continues to pick up the thread of what now matters to him: What is art for someone who has shed his native Gaelic for the conqueror's language of English? He explains to Davin that he sees his task to "try to fly by those nets [of nationality, language and religion]." In Lynch he finds a dull-witted but flattering listener, a friend who is willing to approve of Stephen's complex argumentation as they walk through Dublin.

This level of thinking ends with yet another bird image of the young woman he admires from 10 years ago, Emma Clery, whom he met at the birthday party. He castigates himself for judging her penchant for chatting with the instructors, and instead questions if instead her life is as simple as a "rosary of hours."

As the novel begins to draw to a close, Stephen's maturity and development as an artist become stronger and more clearly defined. He has developed habits of an artist, such as the urgent need to write down lines he has dreamed so they don't vanish. While he chides himself slightly for nursing a 10-year romantic obsession, he also engages with his own obsession in a way that indicates he takes it very seriously, and views it as a font of inspiration for his own writing. Stephen, in fact, views everything at this point as potential material. This includes a flock of birds, whose symbolic implications he ruminates over at length.

When he takes his leave of Cranly, he acknowledges he is taking a risk that may damn him through eternity. Both have a sense of loss during this discussion, but Stephen takes a more universal view than Cranly does. His conversation with Cranly could easily be viewed as his conversation with the entire human race. In his new artistic life he understands that he works against the current of those individuals who have not chosen such a lifestyle and view it as frivolous.

The tone here is detached; the form Joyce has chosen here reflects Stephen's transformation from an observant and deep-thinking child into an artist who transforms his world through his imagination. On a practical level the artist needs to assume this remove; otherwise, his unique perspective would be affected. Readers can also see here a shift from the third-person omniscient viewpoint of the rest of the novel to a relaxed, confident first-person narration. At the same time the tone suggests detachment, it also suggests closeness, immediacy. Readers might feel as if they could get to know this Stephen better than the one who occupied earlier pages.

As the novel ends, the theme of escape continues. For Stephen he must leave it all. He is more focused, if no less burdened by vice. The sense Joyce gives is that Stephen responds to an aesthetic call to action. The image of flight—through birds on the library steps—lifts him as he looks to his future.

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