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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man | Discussion Questions 21 - 30

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How does loneliness affect Stephen in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Initially Stephen suffers from the bullying of his schoolmates, as they prove to him he is not cut from the same cloth as they. He has a hard time of it, being singled out for exclusion. This begins to change when Stephen's differences work to his advantage: with his honorable nature he speaks to the Dean of the School about his punishment, and he returns as a hero to his classmates. In Stephen's lonely moments he can meditate on who he is rather than think about the person others would like him to be. When he visits prostitutes he radiates loneliness, but in a more desperate way than he does when he writes poems, since writing is a solitary act. Throughout the novel it is clear Stephen is set apart from others. As an artist he is refining and reinforcing that which makes him different: his own voice. The book builds on this feeling of isolation, demonstrating how it can lead to the sort of seriousness and intentionality necessary to create great artworks.

What is Stephen's relationship with his family in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Stephen's relationship with his family changes greatly over time. As an infant he wants to please them and avoid punishment. As a student at Clongowes he begins to realize that they are not as well-placed in society as others. His religious mother initially has a strong hold over him, as mothers and motherhood are associated with the Virgin Mary in Catholicism; a mother is beyond reproach. He keeps in her good graces while he turns his back on family and religion. Stephen's relationship with his father, however, is more negative. He has once looked up to Simon as being strong, clear-spoken, and well-respected. These traits succumb to Simon's alcoholism, and he deteriorates into a melancholy, feckless drunk. In one of the last scenes Simon interrupts Stephen's final conversation with his love of 10 years, once again ruining Stephen's chances at drawing a chapter of his life to conclusion.

What characterizes Stephen's interactions with his teachers in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Stephen has a troubled relationship with his teachers. Stephen initially looks to his teachers for approval and encouragement, as most young students do. Because he lives at his schools, they have a larger role in his life than if he attended a public school close to home. As the teachers then stand in the stead of his parents, he is exposed to them for many hours. He now has time to draw fairly detailed ideas about his teachers, including the fact that some of them are cruel hypocrites. He stands up to the prefect of studies when he is unjustly punished, for example. As he grows older and more confident in who he is, Stephen begins to separate himself from the religious doctrine his teachers promote. Where once he could envision himself as a member of the clergy, he chooses to reject a priestly vocation. Finally, at university, Stephen has moved beyond what his teachers can teach, and he loses respect for them. For example when the Dean of Studies tries to discuss aesthetic theory with Stephen, Stephen's own understanding goes far beyond what the dean is able to present or comprehend.

Why is it significant that Stephen visits his father's college in Cork in Chapter 2 of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Stephen holds some hope that something may be different as he and his father travel together. Instead the reality of his father's sipping from a flask on the train, and drinking his way through Cork, clarifies how Stephen has been betrayed or abandoned by Simon. As it develops, Stephen's trip with his father to Cork becomes a dramatization of the way Stephen's life could go if he were to give free rein to his impulses. As he follows his father's ramblings and reveries about his college days, it becomes evident that Simon Dedalus's college years were the best time of his life; he was free of responsibility and did not seem concerned about what to do when he left college. Stephen finds his father's nostalgia wincingly embarrassing, and it clarifies for Stephen that he is completely different from this father.

What is the significance of Stephen's literary prize in Chapter 2 of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Winning the writing prize changes his family's view of Stephen, as he is now making more from a single prize than Simon has made in quite a long time. When Stephen receives the prize, he spends the money lavishly, lovingly, and sloppily on others, which is revealing on another level. It's an indication that he misses living as he once had, and that he would like to recreate some comfort for himself and his family. While misguided, his spending is compassionate. At his core Stephen is not responsible in the same way others are. He may be responsible to the craft of writing, but he has yet to develop discipline over his finances, despite his family's cautionary words. Finally, winning the prize provides verification of Stephen's talent from the outside world—a validation of his artistic path.

In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man what is Stephen's attitude toward the natural world, and why is it significant?

Stephen often finds either a mirror of his own experiences and feelings in the natural world, or he finds inspiration and encouragement for his artistic vision in what he sees outside of the city. Being shoved into the drainage ditch at Clongowes with its slime and freezing cold water is certainly a different kind of baptism for him. Here the natural world is hostile, rejecting him as his classmates have done, making him sick with a fever, and highlighting his love for the comfort of a warm fire. He remembers fondly riding along with the milkman out to the meadows where the cows are grazing, but feels the relief withdrawn when the cows are brought into the barns for the winter. While there are multiple examples, clearly he finds inspiration in the sea. It is connected to Europe and his upcoming exile; it provides him with the fair birdlike girl in the stream; and as he walks and walks following the outgoing tide, it cements his commitment to art.

How does Stephen's attitude toward morality change over time in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Since he is born into a devout Catholic family, Stephen's morality initially aligns completely with the Church and its teachings. It is only after Stephen begins to interact with the mixed manifestations of the Church's teachings, as embodied by his instructors at Clongowes, that he begins to question what he has accepted. As Stephen's knowledge of himself grows, and as he builds and differentiates himself as an artist, he learns to accept all of the implications, including the need to leave the Church. As he deviates away from church doctrine, and accepts himself as a human with needs and desires, the split between Stephen and his early morality grows. He increasingly sees the life of most Irish people, especially Irish Catholics, as shallow or hypocritical. He sees them as content to simply follow the tenets of the Catholic Church even if it means turning their backs on Parnell. At the novel's conclusion, when Stephen says he wants to "forge the uncreated conscience" of his race, he is being quite sincere. He considers artistic value to be a higher moral calling than the values most of the Catholic Irish uncritically accept.

What role does shame play in Stephen's life in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Shame is easily triggered in the sensitive and adult-pleasing Stephen when he is young. The Catholic Church uses guilt and shame as a way to keep the flock of the Church large, and under its influence. Stephen feels shame for a number of other reasons besides Catholic guilt: shame over the poverty his family assumes due to his own father's weaknesses, shame because he is not conscientious enough in his studies, or because he may have let his teachers down, and finally, because he thinks about himself over others, and because of his sexual longings. His shame is not a force that drives him toward more virtuous behavior, however. Stephen's shame is something he lives with on a daily basis, ultimately leading him to explore what is at the root of his feelings. After a mentor encourages him to pursue the priesthood in Chapter 4—a career that requires cessation of some of his shame-inducing behaviors—Stephen decides to embrace his imagination, and allow whatever passions he feels to flow unchecked. He sees this path as what he was created for: the life of an artist.

How do Stephen's visions of the afterlife affect his behavior in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Stephen's visions of hell, with his description of a spare plain populated by half-goat, half-human figures, fill him with terror and panic. Early in the novel, these feelings drive him toward more intense devotion to his religious studies. Later these fits of terror, provoked largely by the sermons he hears in school, do little to amend his base impulses. Stephen has grown stronger in his conviction that, as Satan states in Milton's Paradise Lost, "I will not serve." When Stephen turns his back on his religious upbringing, he repeats Satan's statement. With a clear image of what might await him in the afterlife, at the end of the novel he says to Cranly, "I do not fear to make a mistake ... a lifelong mistake and perhaps as long as eternity too." His nightmarish visions, in all their intensity, thus become something else entirely: the flowering of an imagination, rather than justification for suppressing it.

How does Stephen Dedalus's name embody both Greek and Christian mythology in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Stephen's first name, like that of any good Irish Catholic child, is a saint's. Saint Stephen was the first Christian martyr. Stephen feels martyred at various points in the novel: when he is unjustly punished at Clongowes, for example, and when his family's financial woes and his father's fecklessness drag him down. His last name evokes the Greek myth of Daedalus, who built himself and his son a pair of wings from feathers and wax so they could escape from imprisonment. Daedalus's son, Icarus, flies too close to the sun, his wax wings melt, and he plunges into the sea to his death. Like Daedalus, Stephen will need to escape from a prison, his life in Ireland. He will need to kill the things that hold him back—Church, family, nationalism—in order to find freedom in exile.

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