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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man contains a large cast of characters. But the central figure, Stephen Dedalus, is by far the most important. Of the others, only two play major roles throughout the novel-Stephen's father, Simon, and his mother, May.


A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is above all a portrait of Stephen Dedalus. It is through Stephen that you see his world, and it is his development from sensitive child to rebellious young man that forms the plot of the novel.

There are many Stephens, often contradictory. He is fearful yet bold, insecure yet proud, lonely and at the same time afraid of love. One Stephen is a romantic who daydreams of swashbuckling heroes and virginal heroines. The other is a realist at home on Dublin's most sordid streets. One Stephen is too shy to kiss the young lady he yearns for. The other readily turns to prostitutes to satisfy his sexual urges. One is a timid outsider bullied by his classmates. The other is courageous enough to confront and question authority. One devoutly hopes to become a priest. The other cynically rejects religion.

Stephen loves his mother, yet eventually hurts her by rejecting her Catholic faith. Taught to revere his father, he can't help but see that Simon Dedalus is a drunken failure. Unhappy as a perpetual outsider, he lacks the warmth to engage in true friendship. "Have you never loved anyone?" his fellow student, Cranly, asks him. "I tried to love God," Stephen replies. "It seems now I failed."

The force that eventually unites these contradictory Stephens is his overwhelming desire to become an artist, to create. At the novel's opening you see him as an infant artist who sings "his song." Eventually you'll see him expand that song into poetry and theories of art. At the book's end he has made art his religion, and he abandons family, Catholicism, and country to worship it.

The name Joyce gave his hero underscores this aspect of his character. His first name comes from St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr; many readers have seen Stephen as a martyr to his art. His last name comes from the great inventor of Greek myth, Daedalus, whose mazes and waxen wings are the kind of splendid artistic creations Stephen hopes to equal in his writing.

Just as Stephen is a contradictory figure, you may have contradictory feelings about him. You can believe that he is a brilliant artist who must flee dull, uncultured Dublin at any cost. You can admire his intelligence and courage. You can consider his art well worthy of martyrdom, and consider that it merits comparison with Daedalus' achievements. His theories and poems are, if not masterpieces, at least the works of a man who may someday create a masterpiece. Indeed, you can believe that Stephen may grow up to be very much like the James Joyce who wrote Portrait of the Artist.

On the other hand, you can agree with the readers who call Stephen a supreme egotist, "a posturing, unproven esthete [lover of beauty]," a self-centered snob who has succumbed to the sin of pride. "You are wrapped up in yourself," says his friend MacCann. You can believe, as some readers do, that Stephen's artistic theories and his works of poetry are at most the products of a clever but shallow mind. Stephen may martyr himself for art, but his martyrdom will be worth nothing because he is too self-absorbed to be a great artist. He is not Daedalus; instead he resembles Daedalus' son, Icarus, who, wearing his father's wings, soared too near the sun and died as a result of foolishness and pride.

Or you can take other views. Perhaps Joyce makes fun of Stephen's pretensions while still admiring the bravery that accompanies them. Perhaps Joyce feels sympathy for Stephen's struggles but also feels obliged to mock the less admirable aspects of his hero's character-because he shared those character traits himself.

The title of the novel contains two hints you may want to keep in mind as you make your judgment of Stephen.

1. The novel is a Portrait of the Artist as a young man. Joyce himself said to a friend that his artist was not fully formed yet. Young men often take themselves, and their rebellions, too seriously. Yet they may gain wisdom as they grow older.

2. The novel is a portrait, not the Portrait of the Artist. Perhaps this is an admission that the book gives only one version of Stephen. Other portraits might add other information and focus on different aspects of his personality.

At the end of Portrait of the Artist, will Stephen fly or fall? Joyce does not say. A later work, Ulysses, is in part a continuation of Stephen's story, but even in this work Stephen's final fate is not certain. With his complexities and contradictions, Stephen seems more like a living human being than a figure from a book. And who can know everything about another human being? Who can predict with complete certainty what that human being's fate will be?


"A medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician... a drinker, a good fellow, a story teller, somebody's secretary, something in a distillery, a taxgatherer, a bankrupt and at present a praiser of his own past."

That's how Stephen describes his father, Simon Dedalus, toward the end of the novel. Portrait of the Artist is a book of discoveries, and one of the most important discoveries Stephen must make is this: what kind of man is his father? Like most sons, he must measure his father in order to measure himself.

Simon Dedalus' character is revealed gradually from the first chapter of the novel to the last. To the infant Stephen he is just a hairy face. A slightly older Stephen knows he is a "gentleman." During the Christmas dinner in Chapter One, you see that Simon can be a genial but argumentative host. In Chapter Two you see that while he may fall from respectability himself, he still believes in it for others.

Stephen must attend an upper-class school run by the Jesuits, not the Christian Brothers' school that caters to the lower-class Irish-though Simon is rapidly becoming part of that class.

As the novel progresses, Simon seems to represent both what is admirable about Ireland and what is destructive. Simon is a good fellow, a fine talker, a lover of politics and witty argument. But he is an irresponsible head of a family, incapable of keeping a job, saving money, or refusing a drink.

Stephen feels alienated both from his father's strengths and from his weaknesses. He feels superior to Simon's irresponsibility. But he envies his father's robustness, gregariousness, and warmth. When in a bar Simon declares that in his youth he was a better man than Stephen is now, part of Stephen fears his father's judgment is correct.

As time goes on, Simon drinks more heavily and leads his family deeper into poverty. A failure in the present, he lives in the past. Stephen realizes that to grow he must reject his biological father and adopt a spiritual father who will guide him in his art. He chooses Daedalus, the father and creator of Greek myth. And it's Daedalus, not Simon, whom Stephen calls "old father," in the final lines of the book.


Important as she is in Stephen's thoughts, Stephen's mother, May, is a shadowy figure. She's a dutiful wife who endures the hardship brought on by her husband's folly, and who tries to keep peace within her divided, declining family.

A devout Catholic, Mrs. Dedalus represents to Stephen the warmth and security a mother can offer and also the security offered by the Church. In his mind she is often merged with the Virgin Mary. But he also links her to what he sees as the rigidity and narrow-mindedness of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Inevitably, as Stephen moves away from the Church he moves away from his mother. The first wedge is driven when he refuses to become a priest, embarking instead on an educational course she considers dangerous.

Yet in the end she is forgiving. Nor is Stephen able to reject her as completely as he does so much else in his life. He notes in his journal that she is putting his "new second-hand clothes" in order for his departure. And she prays he will learn "away from home and friends what the heart is."

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