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James Joyce was born into a middle-class, Catholic family in Rathgar, a suburb of Dublin, on February 2, 1882. He was the oldest of ten children born to a well-meaning but financially inept father and a solemn, pious mother. The family’s prosperity dwindled soon after Joyce’s birth, forcing them to move from their comfortable home to the unfashionable and impoverished area of North Dublin. Joyce's parents managed to scrape together enough money to send their talented son to the Clongowes Wood College, a prestigious boarding school, and then to Belvedere College, where Joyce excelled as an actor and writer. Later, he attended University College in Dublin, where he became increasingly committed to language and literature as a champion of Modernism.
In 1902, Joyce left the university and moved to Paris with the intention of studying medicine. However, once there he soon abandoned medical studies and devoted all of his time to writing poetry, stories, and theories of aesthetics. Joyce returned to Ireland in 1903 upon the death of his mother. He stayed in Dublin for a year, during which he met his future wife, Nora Barnacle. Joyce also began work on an autobiographical novel that he called Stephen Hero. Joyce eventually gave up on Stephen Hero but reworked much of the material into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which features the same autobiographical protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, and tells the story of Joyce’s youth up to his 1902 departure for Paris.
Joyce left Dublin again in—this time for good—with Nora in 1904. They spent most of the next eleven years living in Rome and Trieste, Italy, where Joyce taught English, and he and Nora had two children, Giorgio and Lucia. In 1907 Joyce’s first book of poems, Chamber Music, was published in London. He published his book of short stories, Dubliners, in 1914, the same year A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man began to published as serial installments in the London journal The Egoist.
In 1914, Joyce began writing his best-known work, Ulysses. It maps the Dublin wanderings of its protagonist in a single day—June 16, 1904. When World War I broke out, he moved his family to Zurich, Switzerland, where he continued work on the novel. In Zurich, Joyce’s fortunes finally improved as his talent attracted several wealthy patrons, including Harriet Shaw Weaver. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was published in book form in 1916, and Joyce’s play, Exiles, in 1918. Also in 1918, the first episodes of Ulysses were published in serial form in The Little Review. In 1919, the Joyces moved to Paris, where Ulysses was published in book form in 1922. In 1923, with his eyesight quickly diminishing, Joyce began working on what became Finnegans Wake, published in 1939. The outbreak of World War II prompted Joyce and Nora to return to Zurich in 1940, where Joyce died in 1941.
Published in serial form in 1914–1915, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man draws on many details from Joyce’s early life. The novel’s protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, is in many ways Joyce’s fictional double—Joyce had even published stories under the pseudonym “Stephen Daedalus” before writing the novel. Like Joyce himself, Stephen is the son of an impoverished father and a highly devout Catholic mother. Also, like Joyce, he attends Clongowes Wood, Belvedere, and University Colleges, struggling with questions of faith and nationality before leaving Ireland to make his own way as an artist. Many of the scenes in the novel are fictional, but some of its most powerful moments are autobiographical. Both the Christmas dinner scene and Stephen’s first sexual experience with the Dublin prostitute closely resemble actual events in Joyce’s life.
Read about the how Joyce’s works reflect the struggle for Irish Nationalism.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man shares this autobiographical, real-life based aspect with Joyce’s short story collection, Dubliners. In fact, one reason that Dubliners was not published until 1914 (several years after it was written) was concern over libel laws. Its stories contained characters and events that were alarmingly like real people and places, raising concerns about libel. Suggestive details about real people—coupled with the book’s historical and geographical precision and piercing examination of relationships—flustered anxious publishers.
There are parallels between A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Joyce’s best-known work, Ulysses (1922), as well. One is that Stephen Dedalus figures prominently in the openning chapters of Ulysses as well. In Ulysses, Joyce made extensive and convincing use of his signature stream-of-consciousness prose style, which mirrors characters’ thoughts without the limitations of traditional narrative. The technique is used in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man too, mostly during the opening sections and in Chapter 5.
Read about Joyce’s use of the literary techniques of epiphany and stream of consciousness.
Ace your assignments with our guide to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man!