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

James Joyce

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man | Context


Irish Independence versus British Rule

Though no specific time period is given for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, it most likely takes place in the first two or three decades of the 20th century. In Ireland the period starting in the late 19th century and extending two decades into the 20th century saw extensive political and cultural conflict. The root of the conflict was the clash between Catholics and Protestants over Irish independence from British rule. The repressive British government had been in place since the 16th century and had dismally failed the Irish during the mid-19th century's potato famine, allowing the death of about one million Irish people through neglect. This tragedy was brought about by a complex web of laissez-faire economics (centered on the idea that the government should not interfere with the economy), the Protestant religious belief in divine providence, and an attitude of moralism that viewed the Irish in a stereotypical way, as lazy and in need of a good lesson in self-reliance.

The Protestants, who were in the minority, largely favored continuing the British rule, while Catholics favored Home Rule, or creation of a separate Irish parliament. Charles Stewart Parnell, a Protestant statesmen who led the Irish nationalist movement for Home Rule in the 1880s, died in 1891 without achieving his goal, having lost his leadership role after being discovered to be an adulterer. Nevertheless, Parnell would become a symbol of rebellion among the Irish for many decades to come, and his ideas are discussed by the fictional Dedalus family in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.


Joyce is considered one of the central authors of modernism, a movement that sought to challenge previous literary traditions such as romanticism or realism by finding new ways to write about human experience. Other major writers of this artistic movement include T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, and W.H. Auden. These writers, active from just after the turn of the 20th century to the mid-1930s, were united by their mission to build literature from a culture broken by war. They were determined to communicate in new and surprising ways, by pushing language beyond conventions and ignoring conventional forms and structures.

T.S. Eliot's poem "The Wasteland" is considered one of the crucial modernist texts: composed of fragments, quotations, and allusions, it communicates the disjointed and inadvertently doomed nature of modern life and forces the reader to construct meaning from its parts. Ezra Pound's The Cantos similarly mixed snippets from other languages with quotations and the author's frequently prophetic verse to address issues of importance to Pound, including historical progress and world economy. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and subsequent works, Joyce uses extensive stream of consciousness, a technique through which the protagonist's thoughts and feelings are presented in a continuous, uninterrupted flow. The effect is to show firsthand a character's thought process—and in so doing make the work of fiction seem as "real" to readers as possible.

The Epiphany

In Christian theology an epiphany is a sudden showing forth of the divine. The Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the visit of the three magi, or wise men, to the infant Jesus. Joyce used the word to describe a sudden showing forth of a person or thing's true nature. Stephen Dedalus has such moments in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The most significant of these moments is his realization, fairly late in the book, that he has no zeal for the priesthood. There is little warning for this realization, falling on the heels of a recommendation by one of the masters at Stephen's Jesuit school that he pursue the very profession he now seems not to miss in the least. Yet, it reveals Stephen's true feelings to himself and, in turn, to the reader.

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