So I reread A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man a couple of months ago and was struck by several things – mainly that having read it a couple of times over the last thirty years, I’d never read it very carefully.  The other is that Portrait is easily as brilliant as any of Joyce’s other work – I have tended to rate it rather lower than Ulysses (which I reread last year and also found to be far deeper and wider and taller than I had in the past).

A look at Stephen’s alienation in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Through the course of A Portrait, James Joyce builds a compelling argument for Stephen’s flight from Dublin. At every turn of his upbringing, city, family, or the church conspire against Stephen’s artistic freedom. One might argue that these elements conspire against his soul.

Prefects, professors, and deans all exercise the will of the church over Stephen in such away that he desires to pull out from under its authority. At one end, we have the church, in the form of Father Dolan and his swishing soutane and pandybat (chapter I), physically punishing Stephen for no other reason than sadism. This unreasoned sadism reflects that of the other boys at Clongowes Wood College, the Jesuit boarding school he is sent to at the age of about six. At the other end, we have an English dean of studies, a convert to Catholicism, who argues the words funnel and tundish with Stephen. The first is an offense against Stephen’s person, and perhaps against his self-mastery. The latter is an offense against his linguistic mastery, which is already a point of pride, ‘The little word seemed to have turned a rapier point of his sensitiveness against this courteous and vigilant foe’. (Chapter V)

jj-psSomewhere in between these two events, Father Tate, leading an English class, calls Stephen out for blasphemy in a sequence that evokes in the reader a sense of the secret mysteries of the church (chapter II). The teacher cites merely a fragment of a sentence, ‘”Without a possibility of ever approaching nearer.” That’s heresy.’ Stephen backs down, saying, ‘I meant ‘Without a possibility of ever reaching.’ The teacher accepts this, ‘O. That’s another story.’

The reader, put in Stephen’s place, feels the absurdity of how the Church imbues everything with the possibility of sin, even where none is obviously present. A word or a thought separates Stephen’s soul, and the souls of those who listen in, from the hope of grace, but again, the teacher bullies rather than educates – he’s no different than Father Dolan, and in fact no different from Father Arnall and his sermon to the boys on retreat.

Father Arnall’s sermon seems to describe the horrors and risks of hell, though Arnall seems honestly invested in his charges maintaining a straight and narrow path to heaven, ‘O what agony then for the miserable sinners! Friend is torn apart from friend, children are torn from their parents, husbands from their wives. The poor sinner holds out his arms to those who were dear to him in this earthly world…[b]ut it is too late: the just turn away from the wretched damned souls which now appear before the eyes of all in their hideous and evil character.’ (Chapter III)

As the first day of the retreat comes to a close, Stephen knows, ‘Every word of it was for him. Against his sin, foul and secret, the whole wrath of God was aimed. The preacher’s knife had probed…and he felt now that his soul was festering in sin.’

This sermon forms the crux of Stephen’s growth. Before it, he is a young sinner already familiar with the prositutes of Dublin and after, he cannot wait to confess, to be cleansed. Having done so, sinks himself into devotion, renewing his faith to such a degree that priests ask him to consider whether he has a vocation. In the moment of invitation, he recognises ‘an echo of his own proud musings…accomplishing the vague acts of the priesthood which pleased him by reason of their semblance to reality and of their distance from it.’ Given leave to decide, Stephen wonders on the ‘grave and ordered and passionless life that awaited him…he heard the discreet murmur of the burning gasflames…and he smelt again the warm moist air which hung in the bath in Clongowes above the sluggish turfcoloured water.’ In the first moment we have of Stephen’s life at Clongowes, he’s been shoved into a ‘square ditch’ into which some of the children have seen rats jump. One guess is that the square ditch is some kind of sewer. As he goes to the infirmary, having caught a cold from the experience, ‘he remember[s] with a vague fear the warm turfcoloured bogwater.’ Stephen therefore associates life in the priesthood with ‘turfcoloured water’, possibly the first trauma of his life.

He considers the director’s pitch and finds, ‘His soul was not there to hear and greet it…He would never swing the thurible before the tabernacle as a priest.’ (Chapter IV)

From the church’s loosened hold on Stephen, we turn to his breaking of sociey’s hold. The social vendetta against free thought first takes the form of the boys at Clongowes who shove him into the square ditch because he refuses to trade one of his possessions for something belonging to an older boy. Later, Dublin society takes the form of three boys in Stephen’s class who come for him in the wake of that blasphemy charge and call on him to name the best poet.

Heron, Boland, and Ash represent the cruelty of authority put in the hands of the un- or undereducated. ‘Boland was the dunce and Nash the idler of the class’ (echoing Father Dolan’s taunt, ‘Lazy, idle, little schemer’).

For Stephen, the greatest poet is obviously Byron, whom Boland derides as a ‘bad man’ and Heron, ‘only a poet for uneducated people’ while holding up Tennyson as the apex of English poetry. (That neither are Irish says something else about Dublin society and education in about 1898.) One of the boys points to his knowledge of Tennyson by noting ‘Oh yes, we have all his poems in a book on our shelf.’ This is interesting and possibly ironic because there is (or at least was) a volume of Byron on the Dedalus family bookshelf. The difference being that Stephen has read the Byron, having invoked in his own poetic efforts the titling convention Byron often used. ‘On the first line of the page appeared the title of the verses he was trying to write: To E— C—. He knew it was right to begin so for he had seen similar titles in the collected poems of Lord Byron.’ (Chapter II)

Heron, Boland, and Ash seem to be the models for the droogs in A Clockwork Orange. This is not far-fetched, when one notes that Clockwork’s author, Anthony Burgess, also wrote an introduction to Joyce’s work called ReJoyce. In Chapter 4 of Burgess’ novel, Little Alex, the narrator and protagonist, turns on one of his mates with a knife. The filmed version of this scene plays out much like the sequence in which Heron calls his friends to turn on Stephen. ‘Behave yourself! Cried Heron, cutting at Stephen’s legs with his cane. It was a signal for their onset. Nash pinioned his arms behind while Boland seized a long cabbage stump which was lying in the gutter.’

I’d like to believe that Stephen walks away from this encounter harder of heart against what Irish/Dublin society turns its offspring into, but this isn’t explicitly in the text. He is, however, freed of his attachment to it, feeling ‘that some power was divesting him of that suddenwoven anger as easily as a fruit is divested of its soft ripe peel.’

From an early age, he is fed up quickly with the company of his age cohort – he leaves a party with his friend Eileen very late, easily bored by the company of other children. Later, after a performance his family sees him in at school, he leaves his mates, and his family as well to wander alone with his own thoughts. Heron, at this point, is simply a representative of those who weary him.

Following this, Joyce presents the nationalist movement that Stephen’s friends join. They pressure him to sign a testimonial regarding univeral peace, but he refuses, ‘The affair doesn’t interest me in the least.’


. This is a political parallel to the literary situation about Tennyson and Byron. Different people bullying him, but older, he can now make argue that he wants and needs no part of it. When one points to the tsar as a leader into a bright future, Stephen responds, ‘If we must have a Jesus, let us have a legitimate Jesus,’ the inherent blasphemy no longer an issue. He’s not physically attacked for his refusal but is accused of ‘intellectual crankery’. (Chapter V)

From each experience, Stephen grows more away from the society he was born into and more into himself.

As a small boy, Stephen is punished though he committed no sin. With the droogs, he’s punished for stating a belief to the swine who only know the dogmas taught to them and who are as keen as those same priests to seek out and punish sin, but only for the sake, it seems, of passing on the violence they’d learned, probably in the home as well as in school.

When Stephen seeks out the confessional to make peace with himself for the sins he committed with prostitutes, there’s a refraction of the same coerced penance – from a Catholic standpoint, his sexual exploits are a series of sins, but the confession is exacted through Arnall’s sermonizing. From the point of view of the artist collecting experience to exploit for the purpose of art, the reading of Byron or experience of sexual release are no sin.

The collision of society and politics on the one hand and the church on the other is exemplified in Dante Riordan’s rejection of Parnell and support of the priests who excoriated him (chapter I). It is possible that Stephen internalizes the assertion that, ex cathedra, what the priests say is infallible. Such that they could by word alone take down men as powerful (‘My uncrowned king,’ Stephen’s father cries) as Parnell. When Father Arnall describes the possibilities of damnation, Stephen feels his soul tormented by the sins he’s already committed, as surely Arnall speaks the infallible truth – he too is preaching ex cathedra.

Stephen plays these experiences off against each other. Joyce prepares us to watch him take flight as he starts to do when offered the priesthood, the opportunity to claim a vocation at which he balks.

Each step he takes – away from the priesthood, away from his classmates who would rope him into political movements, and even away from the dean of studies who argues with Stephen over whether a funnel or a tundish is the correct term removes Stephen from the general admixture of humans and into in a rarer class. By the time he refuses the petition for universal peace, he’s beyond the manipulation of those around him. He won’t even be manipulated by his mother into bathing. He manages to sidestep each stone laid by those who would have him be a cog in the religious or social order, even his father, who tells him that a gentleman won’t grass on his classmates, would have him aligned in society just as the priests would have him and his society aligned to the strictures of Rome. As Stephen finds his own way, he learns that his freedom lies in getting off all the paths set for him. This is the thing – the artist finds their way out of the bondage of religion, language, history. The nightmare from which Stephen (as he notes in Ulysses) longs to awaken still encumbers in that the artist must still create out of the inkwells and parchment of history. Byron might be a bad man and a heretic, but he’s still firmly in the historical firmament and still contributing to the history by his very words. Committed to pages, canvas or stage, the elements of the art belong to history, even or perhaps especially to the history that tries to erase the works.