This novel deals with the early life of Stephen Dedalus and it can be
considered as an autobiographical portrait of the novelist.
It starts with Stephen as a very young child around 3 years old and we are
given details of his first memories.
As one might expect, Joyce cleverly depicts the low attention span of a child by providing the reader with fragmented pieces of information. We are given snippets of nursery rhymes and details of his early bonding with his immediate family. It is clear that Stephen has even at this early age, an artistic perspective of the world around him.
The next significant incident in Stephen’s life is the abrupt departure from
his secure home to the strict environment of Clongowes Wood College, a Jesuit Boarding School.
Stephen does not readily mix with his peers and he is singled out for intimidation by some of the school bullies. He is pushed into an open cesspool and develops a fever, which forces him to be admitted to the school infirmary. He soon comes to realize that he is different from the other schoolboys and that he will always be a loner.
At approximately aged 6, Stephen returns home for the Christmas holidays and
for the first time, is included with the adults at the dinner table.
A political argument rages at the table concerning the Irish Nationalist leader, Parnell, who has died. Parnell was a leading Nationalist and Member of Parliament whose political career ended due to scandal in that he was involved with a married woman. He alienated himself from the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland who took the high moral ground on this issue. The Church enjoyed a strong influence over the Irish people at this time and Parnell’s fall from grace severely damaged the Nationalist movement.
Two adults at the Christmas dinner took their opposing views of the death of
Parnell to the extreme. Stephen’s strict nurse supported the Church’s view whilst Stephen’s father’s friend supported Parnell.
When Stephen returns to school, he is again involved with another pupil and
his glasses are broken, and he is unable to take part in some of the lessons. A sadistic teacher thinks the worst of Stephen and administers physical punishment on the “lazy idle little loafer”.
Stephen is so upset at this clear injustice that he summons up enough courage to take his complaint to the Rector. He supports Stephen and suddenly Stephen becomes the hero of his class. As a result of this episode, Stephen’s confidence is given a boost.
When Stephen returns home for the summer holidays he learns that his father
is experiencing financial hardship and cannot meet the Boarding School fees.
Stephen’s education will now be the responsibility of Belvedere College, a Jesuit Day School, much less famous that Clongowes Wood. The less austere Belvedere College suits Stephen and he soon flourishes and becomes an award-winning essay writer and fine thespian in the school plays. Although his scholastic achievements are exceptional, he still has difficulty in mixing with his schoolmates.
He is also having a conflict in faith concerning his relationship with the
Roman Catholic Church.
We also learn details regarding Stephen’s father, who although a
good-natured man, is an ineffectual father to Stephen and cannot be relied upon.
As time passes, Stephen totally loses his faith and starts to lead a sinful
life frequenting the red-light district of Dublin even though he is only 14 years old. He gets comfort from his dilemma over faith with a prostitute and this marks his first sexual experience.
He continues this sinful way of life, but obtains no lasting satisfaction and is soon overwhelmed by guilt and regret. He decides to renew his faith and lead a life of chastity and devotion. He takes part in numerous religious services and devotes all his spare time to prayer. Stephen’s transformation does not go unnoticed and he is encouraged by the Director of the School to enter into Priesthood. At first Stephen is tempted by this avenue, but on careful consideration he realizes that he would be at odds with a clerical life due to his active sexual desires, therefore, he rejects following a religious vocation.
Having gone through this self-analysis he realizes that his future lies
along an artistic road and so he enrolls at Trinity College, Dublin. Throughout his developing years we see the world through Stephen’s artistic eyes and he wishes to pursue a life that is free from the
constraints of religion and politics. He is regarded by the other students at University as being anti-social because he is preoccupied with his own pursuits and interests.
Stephen admits to himself that he is insular and introspective. He now strikes a happy medium between the two extremes he experimented with earlier. He is neither totally sinful, nor is he a religious fanatic.
Stephen does not wish to copy the other icons of the classical artistic
world, or the contemporary heroes of modern art.
He wishes to develop his own philosophy in order to satisfy his artistic soul. In order to find his true self it is necessary for him to leave his family, divorce himself from his faith, and cut his geographic ties with Ireland. He decides that his future lies in a more cosmopolitan atmosphere, and so he must leave Ireland behind.