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A Portrait of an Artist


Family Life
Chap 1 - Summary
Chap 1 - Interpretation
Chap 2 - Summary
Chap 2 - Interpretation
Chap 3 - Summary
Chap 3 - Interpretation
Chap 4 - Summary
Chap 4 - Interpretation
Chap 5 - Summary
Chap 5 - Interpretation
Themes - Beytrayal
Themes - Imagery





The 5th, and last, Chapter of the book is the longest and the reader will in a sense be relieved that the challenge that Joyce has set has been achieved. The criticisms that can be made about the book may be lack of plot, the abrupt transitions, the general formlessness of the novel, and why Joyce makes the reading of the book such a challenge.  However, in making these criticisms, we would be missing the point that Joyce is trying to make.

‘The Portrait’ is Joyce’s statement on the Irish nation, the Roman Catholic Church, and Stephen Dedalus’ family, which is many respect mirrors his own.

The intensity of the book grows as you pass through each Chapter.  Joyce cleverly sets the literary standard to Stephen’s age so we have traveled from the simplistic prose in Chapter 1 when Stephen was a young child, to the sophisticated and intricate thoughts of Stephen the University student in the final section of the book. Stephen wishes to escape the three main elements that have controlled his life and we will examine these later.

Chapter 5 opens with a reminder of Stephen’s home life.  The fall to poverty suffered by his parents has a lasting effect on them.  He finds it impossible to forgive his father, not just because he has failed the family due to his worsening financial situation, but also because he has failed to be a good father to Stephen and the rest of his siblings. Stephen feels betrayed by his father because he has not guided him and helped him face the problems particularly when he was moving into adolescence. He was disappointed by his father who always seemed to put him down in public and treat him as a joke. He feels more loyalty to his mother, but he realizes that she will always hold him back unless he can put some distance between her and himself.

Joyce’s lyrical style is evident in this Chapter.  He composes a well-structured villanelle concerning his dream about Emma, but then in the very next paragraph we read, “What birds were they?  He stood on the steps of the library and looked at them, '' They flew round and round the jutting shoulder of a house '' The air of the late March evening made clear their flight, their dark darting quivering bodies flying clearly against the sky as against a limp hung cloth of smoky tenuous blue.”  This is yet another artistic scene painted eloquently by Joyce in words.  There is further bird symbolism here, and again we relate birds to Stephen’s free spirit.

During this Chapter we see Stephen breaking loose from the bonds that have restricted his developing artistic soul.

The Chapter opens with Stephen sifting through the pawn tickets. In a sense, Stephen is pawning his loyalty to Ireland in order to obtain freedom.

The scene with the girl on the shore convinced Stephen that he had a specific purpose in life and a duty to pursue it. It was not by chance that his conditions worsened as he grew older, and from this poor base, he will build a promising future.  We see that Stephen is not a model student; he is not interested in any topic that does not relate to his own personal development.  He has no strong opinion on world peace or socialism.  He prefers his own company and solitude.  He does not wish to be regarded as one of the crowd.  He looks at scenes in his life through an artistic eye and not a crude primitive eye. He will not become a servant of the English authorities. He feels he can learn more from the works of Aristotle and Aquinas than from the lecturers and Dean of the University.  All this we learn from his conversation with various characters in Chapter 5.

As we have said before, Stephen desires escape from family, country and religion, and the reasons are as follows:-

Family: Stephen desires to leave his family and his decision for doing so is purely selfish, but essential if his artistic soul is to survive. It is easy to leave his father because of the sense of betrayal he feels, and his mother being a sound Roman Catholic is bound to her husband for better or worse.  Stephen has lost his faith and he knows that if his mother were to find this out, she would be heartbroken. He does not wish to join the family at Easter because this would be hypocritical, but if he remains in Ireland he will not be able to maintain the fa'ade that he is a true Roman Catholic. On the day before Stephen’s departure, his mother hopes that his emotional development will be paralleled by his artistic idealism.

Country: It is important that the reader has some understanding of Irish history and its relationship with England. Ireland has had the misfortune of facing conquest after conquest. Initially Ireland was divided into five kingdoms inhabited by Celtic tribes.  These clans warred frequently amongst themselves, which weakened the race as a whole.  In the 8th Century they were invaded by the Danes who were not ousted until the 11th Century.  Ireland enjoyed a brief period of independence until they were invaded by the English in 1171. Ireland remained under English rule until the early 20th Century.  Tensions mounted when England broke away from the Roman Catholic Church whilst Ireland remained predominantly Roman Catholic. The English were determined to convert as many Roman Catholics to the Protestant Religion as possible, but this proved impossible.  They embarked on a campaign of encouraging Protestants to migrate to Ireland in particular to the northern province of Ulster, in order to weaken the Roman Catholic position.  The English exacted a strict control over Roman Catholics but this was alleviated in 1829 by the Act of Catholic Emancipation, which allowed Catholics to hold Civic Office and sit in Parliament.  This enabled the likes of Parnell to raise the voice of Roman Catholics in the British Parliament. Independence for the Irish nation was a hard and bitter campaign.  In the 19th Century Ireland suffered great hardship through the failure of the Irish potato crop from 1845 – 1849. In 1905 Sinn Fein was founded and finally in 1914 Home Rule was agreed, but implementation was suspended because of World War I. In the Easter of 1916 Irish nationalists organized a rising and created the Republic of Ireland. The British army brutally crushed the rebellion, but this led to Sinn Fein having a landslide victory in the Irish elections of 1918.  At this time, the Irish Republican Army was formed and they embarked on a guerrilla war against the British forces.  In 1922 the Irish Free State was formed, but the Northern Province of Ulster, which was by now predominantly Protestant, remained part of the United Kingdom.

Ireland’s struggle for independence can be likened to Joyce’s and Stephen’s struggle.

Church: The vast majority of children in Ireland were brought up strictly in the Roman Catholic faith.  Both Joyce and Stephen endured similar experiences. They were indoctrinated into a religion governed by ritual and rules.  The schools they attended were intrinsically linked to the Roman Catholic Church.  They were not given alternatives and were only taught the Catholic viewpoint on life. At an early age, they were told that God was all-powerful and a vengeful God.  To give in to temptation and commit sin would lead to eternal damnation. What annoyed Joyce was the Church’s involvement in politics as well as family life. He totally opposed their stance on the Parnell affair, as he believed this seriously damaged the Irish Nationalist cause. He could not abide the self-destructive tendency of the Church and the Irish people.  Joyce could not understand why they seemed to tolerate English Protestant rule rather than support Parnell who although was flawed, still had the best interests of the Irish people at heart. So far as the Catholic Church in Ireland is concerned, independence was secondary, as the most important affiliation was to the Bishop of Rome and English dominance could, therefore, be tolerated. Joyce felt that the problems faced by Stephen’s family were not eased by their loyalty to the Church, but in some ways worsened by it.

This book presents problems to every reader regardless of age and ability. It is Joyce’s most widely read work and is among the most frequently taught novels in modern University curricula, but it is also useful for younger students who do not need to delve so deeply into Joyce’s philosophy.

Many of the problems faced by Joyce and Stephen are with us today. The authority of the Church or religion, the quest for independence and self-determination, and the influence of parents and families are just as important in today’s world as they were for Joyce one hundred years ago. Joyce has an intricate statement to make and it is contained in the five Chapters of this book. His views are punctuated by literary works of art when he is describing particular scenes that Stephen experiences. This enables the book to be more palatable for it is, as well as a statement, a poetic masterpiece.


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