An introduction to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man follows the development of a young Catholic Irishman from early boyhood to young adulthood. Here Dr Katherine Mullin examines Joyce’s portrayal of artistic expression, sexual transgression, and the repressive forces of culture and church.

From its opening page, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man proclaims its difference from earlier fiction. It begins:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.
His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.
He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt.
       O, the wild rose blossoms
       On the little green place.

He sang that song. That was his song.
       O, the green wothe botheth.
When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oilsheet. That had the queer smell.[1]

Instalment of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in The Egoist, February 1914

Instalment of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in The Egoist, February 1914

The opening of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The novel first appeared in print in The Egoist, where it was serialised from 1914 to 1915.

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Readers were immediately in territory both familiar and strange. On the one hand, this novel begins with a child narrator, like earlier novels of personal development, or Bildungsroman. Charles Dickens's Great Expectations (1861), for example, similarly begins with a first-person account from a small boy's perspective: 'My father's family name being Pirrip, and my christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.'[2]

But the difference is striking. Dickens's child uses sophisticated grammar ('name being Pirrip') and word choice ('my infant tongue'). James Joyce's child speaks like a child: 'hairy face', 'moocow', 'baby tuckoo'. He has a lisp: 'the green wothe botheth'. Joyce shows the interior thoughts of a character expressed in the language he might use at the time his thoughts are occurring. This technique, called 'coloured narrative', reveals with new intensity how the young Stephen experiences the world around him through sensory perception: the sight and touch of his father's 'hairy face', the sound of the song, the smell and temperature of urine on bed sheets. Most importantly, it shows the young Stephen struggling to translate his experience into language.

Stephen, Joyce's title promises, is destined to be an artist. Indeed, the shape of Stephen's young life, from early childhood to student days at University College, Dublin, closely shadows Joyce's. But, from the start, Joyce gives us clues about how Stephen's 'destiny' as artist is inhibited from the cradle. Stephen is listening to a story read to him by his father, about a 'moocow' meeting a ‘nicens little boy called baby tuckoo’. Stephen is placed into a narrative by somebody else, but instead of passively listening, longs to create a story of his own. The song he claims as ‘his song’, ‘O, the wild rose blossoms / On the little green place’ becomes changed to ‘O, the green wothe botheth’. Significantly, the song Stephen sings has been altered from the original popular song, sung by a male mourner about his dead lover, ‘poor lost Lilly Dale’. The chorus should be ‘Oh, the wild rose blossoms / On the little green grave’. However, for a child, the song has been censored, the word ‘grave’ replaced with ‘place’. This has the double effect of eliminating the song’s ‘unsuitable’ topics of sexual desire, death and grief, and implying that the young artist is born into a culture where artistic expression will be repressed.

The green rose, Oscar Wilde and Ovid

Tellingly, Stephen changes ‘wild rose’ to ‘green rose’ – Ireland's national colour. There's no such flower as a green rose, as Stephen is aware: ‘But you could not have a green rose. But perhaps somewhere in the world you could’ (p. 8). However, green carnations, artificially tinted, were worn in his buttonhole by Oscar Wilde as a symbol of the transforming power of art – and, more riskily, of his homosexuality. Wilde, the most famous Irish writer of Joyce's and Stephen's youth, was prosecuted for 'gross indecency' in 1895, and sentenced to two years' hard labour in Reading Gaol. Stephen’s longing for a green rose, then, associates him with an Irish forebear for whom artistic production, sexual transgression and brutal suppression were connected.

The ill omen is underlined in Stephen's curious second name, Dedalus. Joyce's allusion is to Ovid's story of Daedalus, who makes a pair of wings from beeswax and feathers to enable his son Icarus to fly. When Icarus flies too close to the sun, the wax melts, the wings disintegrate and he plummets fatally to earth. For Wilde – and for Stephen too – the ambition to soar into the heights is similarly fraught with danger.

Photographs of a production of The Importance of Being Earnest

Photographs of a production of The Importance of Being Earnest

Photographs of Oscar Wilde, 1895. In several of the portraits Wilde is wearing a carnation in his lapel.

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Church and state

The first pages of the novel introduce themes of artistic expression, sexuality and censorship which become more pertinent to Stephen as the novel develops. The political is the personal, as Stephen is forcefully reminded during the Christmas dinner episode. His family quarrel bitterly about Charles Stewart Parnell, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, who fell from office when his adulterous relationship with the wife of a colleague was exposed. For Stephen's nationalist father Simon and his friend John Casey, Parnell's resignation, driven by the Roman Catholic Church, is a betrayal of Ireland, then on the brink of achieving limited independence under Home Rule. But for Stephen's devout aunt Dante Riordan, the Church's moral teaching is paramount. Stephen watches, terrified, as Mr Casey shouts across the table 'No God for Ireland!' and Dante 'shoved her chair violently aside' to leave, 'upsetting her napkin ring which rolled slowly along the carpet and came to rest at the foot of an easy chair' (p. 32). Focussing on the napkin ring, Joyce shows Stephen's perspective: looking anywhere except at the adults' furious faces, he is attempting escape. But, when Stephen returns to his Catholic-run boarding school after the holidays, he learns escape is impossible. The school is in uproar because some boys from the year above have been caught 'smugging' (p. 35) together. Stephen doesn't understand what 'smugging' is – though adult readers can work out it is probably a schoolboy masturbation game. Nonetheless, when the masters react by imposing a stringent regime of punishment, Stephen is singled out. 'Pandied', or beaten across the palm by vindictive Father Arnall – himself queasily eager to beat small boys – Stephen learns what it is to become a scapegoat, like Wilde and Parnell before him.

Manuscript drafts of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses by James Joyce

Manuscript drafts of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses by James Joyce

Fragment from a manuscript draft of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, c. 1912–13, containing the end of the Dedalus Christmas dinner episode.

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‘Non serviam: I will not serve’

Joyce describes Stephen's struggle to realise his destiny against the restrictions his culture imposes. In Ulysses (1922), Stephen declares he is ‘a servant of two masters’, ‘The imperial British state’ and ‘the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church’ (1: 299–300). A Portrait traces his journey towards his declaration ‘non serviam: I will not serve’ (p. 99), and his decision to pursue his art through ‘silence, exile and cunning’ (p. 208). The strategies are necessary to evade restraints on body and mind, evident in attempts to police his sexuality, and, more subtly, his creativity. Desire and creative fulfilment are paired as A Portrait develops. Stephen experiences an artistic epiphany when he encounters a girl, resembling ‘a strange and beautiful seabird’ at the seaside, her skirts ‘kilted boldly about her waist’, revealing, enticingly, her ‘long slender bare legs’ (p. 144). Later, Stephen's first poem, his ‘villanelle’ of a ‘temptress’ (p. 187), is inspired by an erotic reverie of ‘ardent ways’ and ‘enchanted days’ (p. 185). But it was Joyce's commitment to mapping Stephen's progress as an artist onto his sexual destiny which would trouble his novel's first appearance in print.

'The Holy Office', a poem by James Joyce

'The Holy Office', a poem by James Joyce

James Joyce’s concept of the artist as exile is also explored in ‘The Holy Office’, a poem written in 1904.

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Portrait first appeared in serial form in The Egoist on Joyce's thirty-second birthday, 2 February 1914. Serialisation would transform Joyce's fortunes, transporting the unknown Irish writer from expatriate obscurity in Trieste to international acclaim. The Egoist was a 'little magazine', published in London and aimed at a small audience of intellectuals. It gave space to work unattractive to commercial publishers, often because of its experimental nature, but also because sometimes explicitness risked prosecution. Joyce's first novel was both creatively and sexually daring. Its publication, and Joyce's subsequent fame, was partly down to the courage and integrity of Harriet Shaw Weaver, The Egoist's editor.

Photographs of James Joyce from the Harriet Shaw Weaver Papers

Photographs of James Joyce from the Harriet Shaw Weaver Papers

Photograph of Harriet Shaw Weaver, October 1916. Weaver, an editor and publisher, published James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the magazine The Egoist and as a complete novel.

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Letters on the printing of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses

Manuscript drafts of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses by James Joyce

This collection of letters reveals the setbacks Harriet Shaw Weaver encountered when trying to print A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

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The Egoist's attempts to serialise A Portrait soon ran into trouble. Under the terms of the 1857 Obscene Publications Act, publishers and printers could be held legally responsible for the dissemination of ‘indecency’. The printers approached by Harriet Shaw Weaver, wary of prosecution, refused to set the riskier parts of Joyce's daring novel. Chapter three opens with Stephen's visit to the brothel quarter of Dublin, and the second paragraph describing the prostitutes calling from doorways was 'deleted by the printers and is to be inserted as marked'. Other moments of indecorum were silently erased: a fart, a 'ballocks'. A Portrait's first appearance, then, was marred by mutilations. When Joyce could find no English publisher willing to take a chance, Weaver offered to bring the novel out under The Egoist imprint. In order to restore the deletions, she had to outsource its printing to New York. Ironically enough, censorship and suppression marked both the content of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and the circumstances of its first appearance.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, 1916 US edition

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, 1916 US edition

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was finally printed by the New York publisher B W Huebsch in 1916.

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[1] James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ed. by Jeri Johnson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 5.

[2] Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, ed. by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst (Oxford: Oxford World's Classics, 2008), p. 3.

  • Katherine Mullin
  • Dr Katherine Mullin teaches Victorian and Modernist literature at the University of Leeds. She is the author of James Joyce, Sexuality and Social Purity (Cambridge University Press, 2003) and Working Girls: Fiction, Sexuality and Modernity (Oxford University Press, 2016).

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