A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a semi-autobiographical novel, written from 1914 to 1915. The story describes the formative years of the life of Stephen Dedalus, a fictional alter ego of Joyce and an allusion to the consummate craftsman of Greek mythology, Daedalus.
A Portrait is a major example of the Bildungsroman. Joyce’s novel traces the intellectual and religio-philosophical awakening of young Stephen Dedalus as he begins to question and rebel against the Catholic and Irish conventions with which he has been raised. He finally leaves for abroad to pursue his ambitions as an artist.
Stylistically, the novel is written as a third-person narrative with minimal dialogue, though towards the very end of the book dialogue-intensive scenes involving Dedalus and some of his friends, in which Dedalus posits his complex, Thomist aesthetic theory, and finally journal entries by Stephen, are introduced. Since the work describes Stephen’s life from the time he was a child to his increasing independence and ultimate abandonment of Ireland as a young man, the style of the work progresses through each of its five chapters, with the complexity of language gradually increasing.
The book’s opening pages have examples of Stephen’s thoughts and conscious experience when he is a child. Throughout the work, language and prose are used to describe indirectly the state of mind of the protagonist, and the subjective effect of the events of his life. Hence the fungible length of some scenes and chapters, where Joyce’s intent was to describe the subjective experience by language, rather than to present the actual experience by prose narrative.
The myth of Daedalus and Icarus features in the novel. In Greek mythology, Daedalus is an architect and inventor who becomes trapped in a labyrinth of his own construction. Later, he finds himself on an island and fashions wings of feathers and wax for his son (Icarus) and for himself, so that they can escape. As they fly away Icarus grows bolder and flies higher, until, finally, he flies too close to the sun, which causes the wax to melt and Icarus to fall into the sea.
Stephen’s name is an allusion to Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Stephen Dedalus, like Saint Stephen, has conflicts with the established religion. The Divine Comedy is also echoed in the name Stephen gives his aunt – Dante. Dante is so-called because of the way ‘The Auntie’ sounds with her Cork accent. The epigraph is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Et ignotas animum dimittit in artes (“And he sets his mind to unknown arts”).
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man