Skip over navigation

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

James Joyce

Study Questions

Key Facts

Quiz

How is Stephen influenced by his Irish nationality?

Stephen has a conflicted relationship to his Irish nationality, largely because of the fact that his family and friends have conflicting political views about Ireland and its independence. On one hand, Stephen's governess, Dante, is proud of the church and disdainful of Irish leaders like Parnell. On the other hand, Mr. Dedalus and John Casey see Parnell as the only hope for a free Ireland. Stephen's friends also stand on opposing sides of the question. Influenced by these divergent opinions, Stephen, though eager to leave Ireland by the end of the novel, is also inextricably tied to it. He feels that Ireland has always been at the mercy of other nations, just as he has always been bound by outside influences. When Stephen leaves, it is to forge the conscience of the Irish race—a project that, ironically, he feels he can accomplish only by leaving his native island behind.

Discuss Joyce's use of religious imagery and language. Why are Father Arnall's three sermons so successful in overcoming Stephen's religious doubt?

Father Arnall's sermons touch Stephen at his core because they resonate with both Stephen's cultural background and his preoccupation with aesthetics. At the time when Father Arnall delivers his sermons, Stephen is struggling with the exact issues the priest addresses: the overwhelming strength of sinful emotions and the fear of being punished for them. When Father Arnall speaks, he validates and solidifies Stephen's vague concerns about morality and heavenly punishment. The cultural context in which Stephen has been raised creates an intolerable tension between his desire for various freedoms and his desire to meet the moral requirements placed upon him.

Additionally, Stephen, who is closely attentive to the sensory world around him, particularly connects with Father Arnall's vivid portraits of the sensory experience of being in hell. In addition to focusing on spiritual tortures, the priest describes the raw pain and grotesqueness of hell, painting a moral and religious punishment in emotional and aesthetic terms. As Stephen is just awakening to the power of such emotions and aesthetics, Father Arnall's sermons have a particular resonance for him. Stephen's conversion to devout religiousness is, however, only temporary. The same tools father Arnall uses to such great effect in his sermons soon convert Stephen from a would-be priest of religion to a confirmed priest of art.

What role does Stephen's burgeoning sexuality play in his development as a character? How does his Catholic morality complicate his experience of sexuality?

Stephen's early life is dominated by moral restrictions embedded in the society and family environment surrounding him, and his coming-of-age process involves confronting and dismantling these restrictions. Stephen grows up enthralled by the hierarchies and rituals of school and church, a structure in which his growing adolescent lust is not acknowledged or validated. His newfound sexuality is so alien, in fact, that he initially fails to recognize it, and it is not until he falls into the arms of the prostitute that he realizes what he has been longing for. The encounter with the prostitute awakens Stephen to a side of his character that has until then been hidden. The encounter symbolizes not only his awakening sexuality, but more generally, his awakening to the power of emotion and art. It also illustrates his extremely polarized conception of women: on the one hand are prostitutes with whom he can express his feelings of sexual desire, and on the other are revered, distant, near saintly figures such as Emma, whom he loves from afar but can never approach.

Compare and contrast Stephen's perception of art with his perception of religion, family, school, or country. What makes art such an appealing escape for Stephen?

For Stephen, art offers an escape from the constraints of religion, family, school, and country. Constrained by his surroundings and even his own self-imposed restraints, he looks to art as an independent, abstract realm where he can create a world that suits him. Stephen's obsession with aesthetic theory indicates that, for him, art is an abstract idea. Unlike the abstractions of religion, however, the abstractions of art are tied to the emotions with which Stephen struggles. In his love poem "To E— C—," for instance, he finds an outlet both for his aesthetic leanings and for the emotions that he is too restrained—or afraid—to express.

Why does Stephen turn down the offer to become a Jesuit?

Religion is Stephen's life up until the point when he is offered the possibility of entering the Jesuit order. After confessing his sins, he has tried to purify himself, and his superiors notice this remarkable devotion. It would seem that an offer to join the Jesuits is the perfect culmination of a life that, aside from occasional lapses such as liaisons with prostitutes, has been destined for religion. Stephen, however, rejects the Jesuit offer as soon as it is made. Joyce suggests that Stephen clings to religion not because it is his calling, but merely as a source of stability within his turbulent life. He uses religion in an attempt to erect a barrier against the emotions that rage within him. Furthermore, Stephen has a strong aesthetic objection to the idea of being a priest, an objection that is emphasized by the washed-out character of the priest who offers him the position. Even if the religious life appeals to Stephen on a religious or abstract level, the idea of walking, dressing, talking, and living like a priest is aesthetically unpleasant. At this point in the novel, Stephen's aesthetic inclinations have become so strong that he almost inevitably rejects anything that contradicts these aesthetic values.

Suggested Essay Topics

How do Stephen's parents affect his development throughout the novel? How does he react to his father's patriotic nostalgia? To his mother's solemn Catholicism? At the end of the novel, why does Stephen feel he needs to escape from his family?

The passages at the very beginning of the novel recreate Stephen's early childhood in a sequence of memories and perceptions. Are these passages effective in recreating the thoughts and feelings of a very young boy? Why or why not?

How does Stephen's aesthetic theory relate to the doctrine of Christianity or the behavior of hedonism?

Compare and contrast Stephen with some of the other boys and young men with whom he associates. How is he different from them? How does he feel about being different?

How does the setting of the novel affect the characters and the plot?

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us