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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 | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


What is the significance of Stephen's confession in Chapter 3 of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Stephen is driven to confession after a particularly harrowing episode of indulgence followed by guilt. Its immediate effect is to make Stephen feel considerably better, cleansed and pure, both spiritually and physically. In terms of his growth as a human being, the confession helps Stephen continue to consider his chance to join the clergy, and all that it would bring him. It marks a recommitment to the Church at this time. However, confessing his sins doesn't make Stephen less likely to commit them in the future. Moreover, while a sense of well-being brought on by confession might temporarily make Stephen feel closer to the Catholic Church, that affinity doesn't prove to be long lasting. In retrospect this makes the act of confession, as represented in the novel, seem hollow.

What role does water imagery play in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Water is a sign of either sin or forgiveness in the novel. Found in fonts in the Catholic Church, muddy ditches, and petal-strewn rivers, water has a range of uses for Joyce. For example when Stephen feels the cold water against his skin after he is pushed into a ditch by a Clongowes classmate, the water is cold and slimy, proving to Stephen through this rough baptism of foul water that he does not fit in with his peers. Several of his instructors are shown to be devout hand-washers, literally cleaning away the dirt of the world with water's purity. When he goes to the beach, Stephen sees a girl standing in the stream that feeds into the ocean. She proves to be a sort of muse for his newly realized artistic sensibility; in this case water can be seen to represent a force of recreation. Stephen, now as an artist, is rising from its waves. Finally, it is the ships at harbor that spread out their masts as arms to receive him into exile. In this case water will help him make a clean break from the nets that have held him tethered to Ireland.

How does the contrast between the clergy and the world outside the Church help to shape A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Throughout the novel Stephen keeps one eye on the world outside the priesthood. Tempting as it is to yearn for a lifetime of flattery from members of the Church, once Stephen turns his back, he then must face what that outside world has to offer. The city holds just as many snares for Stephen as life in the clergy does, not just the obvious chance to purchase sexual pleasure, but the flattery and praise he receives from the university. He could easily stay and compete with his former schoolmates, or join in with the Nationalist movement, but he slips these snares as well. While Stephen rejects both clergy and much of the outside world, as a writer he actually creates a world for himself where he will be able to exercise his imagination separate from all that holds him down. Hence the contrast between a life in the priesthood and life in the outside world emphasizes that his choice of a life as an artist will completely free him from a life of servitude.

What is the significance of singing and music in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Characters sing throughout the novel. Like poetry, song captures the lyric heart of its listeners. As Stephen grows more and more enchanted with all forms of speech—low class and high, heavily accented or not—the addition of song and music is a natural expansion to his collection of things truly Irish. Significantly, Simon Dedalus is remarked to have a fine singing voice, suggesting that he has perhaps passed an artistic spirit on to his son; Stephen clearly has an "ear" for the language that surrounds him. Over and over again throughout the novel, Joyce takes the time to show how the sound of language and intonation fascinates Stephen and evokes flights of his imagination.

How might A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man be considered a "conversion narrative"?

In a conversion narrative, such as St. Augustine's Confessions or similar texts, the reader learns about how a subject contemplated faith, struggled with resistance to that faith, and then finally gave in to it, embracing religious belief as part of a larger calling. Throughout the novel Stephen hears the call of the writing life, through the impulses that drive him to write poems when he should be studying and through a worldview that turns the regular order of things on its head. It could be said that his forays into the red-light district of Dublin grow out of a need to rebel against one kind of faith, one that places the soul's purity above any other kind of pleasure, in favor of sensual pleasure. Because Stephen's choice of the artistic life comes with a fair share of conflict, he is "converted" to it instead of following a very different life path.

In what ways does Stephen's family instability shape the structure of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

On a basic level the Dedalus family's departure from their rural estate to Dublin brings Stephen into contact with a number of influences he would not have encountered otherwise, so his move away from clerical pursuits toward a more bohemian lifestyle is hastened. He is shamed somewhat by his family's poverty when he is at university, as others around him are able to move through university life with more ease. On a more symbolic level the instability of the family's finances, due to Simon Dedalus's irresponsibility, breeds in Stephen a sense of inner instability or rootlessness. This in turn causes him to both embrace and distrust establishments; while he embraces the Church in his early years, he does not necessarily view a life within the Church as a final calling in part, perhaps, because his family life has led him to view no one spot as a permanent home. This, among other influences, allows him to ultimately reject the life of a priest, with its financial security and social endorsement, for the far less secure life of a writer.

What does Stephen's writing process reveal about his character in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Stephen's writing sessions always occur at the urging of his subconscious mind. Either his poems come to him in dreams, or they distract him from some more worldly task he is meant to complete. He hastens to write down the fragments he remembers, knowing that the inspiration of vision or dream will fade. He has gained discipline as a result. At the end of the novel, his work on the villanelle shows his dedication to making sure the details aren't merely correct but reflect his inspiration. Writing then represents, for him, a refuge of sorts from the concerns of the day. Further, his process involves considerable revision; we see Stephen reaching for the right words to describe a sensation or impression in a poem, as in Chapter 2. The poems can be seen as a means for Stephen to express his complex imagination and channel his tendency toward extremes.

How does Stephen use his dreams in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Stephen uses his dreams as inspiration for his writing, weaving his subconscious and conscious minds together to create. He wakes from his dreams having been changed by them; his imagination is capable of creating the most vivid of experiences when he sleeps. Most of Stephen's dreams in the novel involve his torment over his own lack of worth in the view of various authority figures. Early on Stephen dreams of Parnell, as a reminder of a political stature to which he may aspire but will not reach; later in the novel, having been fed various visions of hell by his schoolmasters, Stephen dreams of the afterlife as a barren, scorched landscape populated by animal-like beings. His dream that inspires the villanelle, however, is a vision into the realm of the seraphim, the highest ranking angels, and he awakens bathed in the light of their glory.

How does Stephen's attitude toward the educational establishment relate to his ultimate career choice in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Stephen's relationship with his superiors in his various schools cannot be seen as entirely negative or entirely positive. He finds enemies, such as the Prefect of Studies at Clongowes who punishes him without justification. He also finds allies, such as the director of the school who sees potential in him and encourages him to pursue the priesthood in Chapter 4. However, as Stephen matures he comes to see the university as well as the Church as instruments of institutional oppression. When he decides to become a writer rather than a priest, he is rebelling both against what he views as the hypocrisy of the clergy and the cloistered life of the academic. He must free himself from these limiting institutions to pursue his life of creation, art, and imagination.

Why does Stephen invoke Charles Stewart Parnell in Chapter 5 of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Stephen has seen the deep divisions within even his own family in taking sides between nationalists, represented by the late politician Charles Stewart Parnell, and the Catholic Church. While his passion for the Church wanes, it does not drive him to embrace nationalism. In Chapter 5 he tells his friend Davin, "No honorable and sincere man ... has given up to you his life and his youth ... from the days of Tone to ... Parnell ... but you sold him to the enemy or failed him in need." He does not see Parnell's movement as the answer to Ireland's political problems. Instead he chooses writing as his way to stand up against oppressive world views.

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