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 41 - 50


What effect does Joyce create in the nighttime scenes in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Darkness is a recurring image for Joyce, and the nighttime scenes are true to form in that the dark generally allows more sordid desires to surface and can obscure what is good and right. The novel's nighttime scenes are generally times when Stephen's neuroses or inner desires are allowed to flourish. Most notably Stephen walks through Dublin's red-light district and consorts with prostitutes at night; he also walks along the harbor, where he can nourish his dreams of departure. From the start of the book, night also is a setting in which Stephen's worst fears come to light. When he is in the infirmary at Clongowes, he envisions his own death; later in his life, after he has committed many acts the Church considers sinful, he is jarred from sleep by a vision of a hellish afterlife.

How can regret be said to power Stephen's imagination in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Romantic regret is the most powerful form of regret Stephen experiences in the novel. He occasionally regrets his failure to be sufficiently forthcoming in his dealings with his one persistent love interest, Emma Clery. Their conversations are mere flirtations; they do not have a single substantial dialogue about the possibility of a real romantic relationship. Stephen returns to her over and over in his thoughts and dreams. Finally, she is his inspiration for the exquisite villanelle he writes. His thoughts of her and his regret for never having truly connected are a source for his imagination to grow and develop artistically. After Simon interrupts their last meeting, Stephen's own actions draw too much attention to his and Emma's conversation. He clearly is stung over the collapse of this possible farewell. Yet he knows that she is not for him. Stephen feels some shallow regret, as well, about his numerous visits to prostitutes, and the regret manifests itself in his dreams. However, this regret dissolves as Stephen makes a decision about whether his life will fall in line with clerical propriety or faith to his art. When he chooses the latter, he frees himself of his sin-related guilt.

In what way does Stephen's economic status relate to his ultimate goals in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Stephen's economic status is in steady decline throughout the book due to the confluence of his father's irresponsibility and his own changing career path, from the stability of the clergy to the instability of the artistic life. Because of this trajectory, his economic status changes his vision of himself and allows him to pursue a writing career. He is presented with an option that will afford him financial comfort, yet he consciously chooses not to pursue it, even though he knows firsthand the dangers of economic instability. Although Stephen is clearly brought low by the financial straits his family is in, he has no problem envisioning that his life as an artist will provide all he truly needs.

How does Stephen's vision of the soul change as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man progresses?

As Stephen becomes a young man, he conceives of the soul as a spiritual entity, bound up with religious faith and also with the native passions of his heart, such as his love for Emma Clery. His soul is a place of both torment and inspiration. As Stephen begins to conceive of himself as a writer and artist, he starts to see his soul as something of a workspace in which he can transform issues of importance to him concerning his family, the state of Ireland, and faith itself. When he refers to "the smithy of my soul" at the end of the novel, he is saying he now sees the soul as a tool he can use to create artistic works, rather than an instrument wholly connected to the Church.

How does Stephen's idea of beauty evolve in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

When he is younger, Stephen simply sees women as perfect, like the Virgin Mary and his mother. Beauty, for him, is connected with purity and holiness. Later he begins to see beauty not just as a physical manifestation of the looks of the women who catch his interest, but also as a manifestation of his imagination, where he searches for ways to share that beauty with others through his art. As he becomes educated, he begins to understand the relation between beauty and individual perception; in a conversation with his college classmates, he states that beauty is "beheld by the imagination" and can cause a change in the person experiencing it. By the end of the novel, Stephen understands beauty is not something separate or unattainable; it is something he can create through his writing.

What is the price of Stephen's freedom in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

In Chapter 5 Stephen tells Davin that he must fly free of the nets of nationalism, religion, and family in order to create something wholly new—something that represents his imagination and creative force. If Stephen's freedom is defined as his decision to reject the priesthood in favor of pursuing the artist's life, the most obvious price of this freedom is financial and social stability. The other price of this freedom, however, is human connection, a sense of belonging. As Cranly indicates to him—none too subtly—Stephen is cutting himself off from social ties through the choice he makes. He is casting himself out of the clerical community and out of the infrastructure of Irish society, given the socioeconomic significance of the Church in Ireland at that time. Stephen is aware that in being true to his vision for himself he makes himself an outcast. He welcomes his self-imposed exile.

What is the role of hypocrisy in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Hypocrisy comes to Stephen's attention early in the novel, when the prefect beats his hands for being lazy, when actually he has been given time off because of his broken glasses. Additionally, Stephen is caught up in the Christmas dinner argument and is taken aback by how passionately people he loves can argue for completely different sides. He wonders: how can they all be right? As a young man he is tormented by the hypocrisy of studying to be a member of the clergy and consorting with prostitutes. He ultimately comes to view his superiors in the educational institutions as hypocrites as well, referring to the "cheap hair oil" one of them uses as an indication of skin-deep piety. Later in the novel Stephen will come to view the Irish people, in general, as hypocritical for following the Catholic tenets and directives while their country continues to be oppressed by the English and their personal behavior is anything but virtuous. Finally, Stephen views himself as a hypocrite briefly when he is considering the clerical vocation when his heart is strongly drawn to the creation of literature.

To what extent do figures from history shape Stephen's sensibility and behavior in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Stephen holds up figures from history as models against which he measures his own behavior. For instance Parnell shows up in Stephen's dreams when he is at Clongowes; the thought of Parnell, the tragic fallen hero whose hopes for an independent Ireland were dashed, nudges Stephen toward more virtuous behavior. Later in the novel a rector presents St. Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Jesuits who staff Stephen's religious schools, to Stephen and his fellow students as a deeply religious person who faced spiritual struggles. Stephen can see that his own difficulties are minor compared to the torments Xavier went through. As Stephen matures, church theorists such as St. Thomas Aquinas, literary figures such as the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, and philosophical figures, such as Aristotle, become increasingly important for him. He quotes such figures often; for example his discussions with classmates about the nature of beauty are dominated by analyses of Plato and his contemporaries.

What is the significance of Stephen's cry "[o]ld father, old artificer" in Chapter 5 of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Stephen lays claim to recreating the conscious of the Irish people by leaving Ireland. For this monumental task he calls on the Greek figure of his namesake, Daedalus. The mythical character is the "artificer" who built the wings for himself and his son Icarus to escape their prison, to watch over him as he sets sail. His cry is similar to what Icarus might have uttered to his father as they prepared to flee from their prison. By invoking Daedalus, Stephen aligns himself with a father figure as brilliant and inspired as he, Stephen, is. He is clearly breaking free from the ties of family and casting off the dead weight that his own father has become.

How can the use of stream of consciousness be considered the most significant feature of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

The most significant feature of Joyce's writing with Portrait is his use of stream of consciousness. In order to reveal the workings of Stephen's mind, Joyce keeps the omniscient narrator very close to Stephen's thinking; readers see things through Stephen's eyes. Much of the novel follows as a sort of virtual inner monologue by Stephen, from the first chapter onward. Even though the novel is largely narrated in the third person, except for its beginning and its end, events are colored by Stephen's shifting passions and motivations. When he feels abject, as when he longs for the company of a love interest who is not by his side (for example in Chapter 1 when he pines for Eileen), the world seems like a considerably harsher place than usual. When he literally feels hell as it is described by Father Arnell, it manifests in his dreams, which are written so readers, too, may experience it. When he is feeling rhapsodic, the events in his life and the world around him seem bathed in a pastoral glow. The effect of this technique is to let readers experience the growth of Stephen's artistic sensibilities as they push against the constraints of the outside world.

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