A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of James Joyce

Portrait of the Artist is largely autobiographical: Stephen’s life corresponds in most details to Joyce’s. Like Stephen, he was born in Dublin to a merry, profligate father and devout Catholic mother, the eldest of ten surviving children; like his fictional counterpart, he attended Clongowes Wood College, Belvedere College, and University College Dublin. During college, Joyce began to publish literary reviews, poems, and plays. After graduating in 1902 he briefly studied medicine in Paris; he returned to Dublin some months later to attend his mother’s funeral. At this time, he tried unsuccessfully to publish shorter, earlier versions of Portrait under the names of Portrait of the Artist and Stephen Hero. In 1904 he met Nora Barnacle, who he married and who served as an inspiration and a model for many aspects of Joyce’s fiction. The couple spent many years wandering around Europe in near-poverty, settling eventually in Zurich and Paris.
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Historical Context of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Portrait takes place during one of the most turbulent and eventful periods of Irish history. A significant issue during this period was Irish nationalism and separatism. Since the Norman invasion in the 12th century, large parts of Ireland had been held under British rule, and in 1801 Ireland became part of the United Kingdom. Throughout the 19th century, and especially after the great potato famines of the 1840s, many Irish people felt growing dissatisfaction with British rule and dreamed of becoming a sovereign nation. Irish separatists splintered into two major groups: Fenians, who favored the use of brute force, and constitutional reformists, who chose to follow a more moderate path within the confines of international law. Michael Davitt and Charles Parnell were famous separatist leaders of the 1870s and 80s. Under Parnell’s leadership, and with the support of the British prime minister, the Irish people hoped to finally establish home rule; but when it came out in 1891 that Parnell had been engaging in an extramarital affair with Kitty O’Shea, the wife of a member of the Irish Parliament, the Catholic Church denounced Parnell and he fell from power. He died only a year later, and the Irish separatist movement lost direction – until erupting in the 1919 War of Independence.

Other Books Related to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Joyce’s novel arrived at the pinnacle of the profoundly significant literary movement known as modernism. Portrait pioneered many modernist literary techniques, including stream of consciousness, nonlinear narrative structure, and wildly imaginative wordplay. He brought these techniques to an even greater degree of polish in the longer, more enigmatic novel Ulysses, which brought him universal renown (as well as scathing criticism). Portrait is also famous for its use of the epiphany, an ecstatic moment of understanding. Joyce’s modernist cohort included such writers as Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, Andrey Bely, Marcel Proust, and his student Italo Svevo. He also had strong ties to such Irish writers as W. B. Yeats.
Key Facts about A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • Full Title: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • When Written: 1905 and 1914
  • Where Written: Dublin and Trieste
  • When Published: 1916
  • Literary Period: Modernism
  • Genre: Kunstlerroman, a narrative of an artist’s youth and maturation.
  • Setting: Dublin, Ireland, in the late 19th century.
  • Climax: Stephen looks ecstatically at a bird-like girl wading in the river, and feels clearly that he is destined to become a writer.
  • Antagonist: As Stephen moves from school to school, his antagonists vary. It can also be argued that the antagonists that remain constant are the humiliations of poverty and the aesthetic/philosophical restrictions of nationality and religion.
  • Point of View: Third-person limited omniscient.

Extra Credit for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Life Mirrors Art. Like Stephen, Joyce was chosen to lead the sodality of the Virgin Mary at Belvedere; he, too, broke away from religion at the age of sixteen.

Serial. A Portrait of the Artist was first published in serial form in a magazine called The Egoist in 1914 and 1915.