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A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man by James Joyce

Updated on February 8, 2013
Front cover
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James Joyce's ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ presents a description of the influential years of aspiring artist Stephen Dedalus. The title of the novel is suggestive, in that Joyce's focus throughout will be of aspects of Stephens life that are significant to his artistic progression. It also allows the readers to consider each event in Stephen's life, from the introductory story of the ‘moocow’ to his experiences with religion and prostitutes, as having a significant role in his growth as an artist. Richard Brown in the introduction to James Joyce and Sexuality says “the treatment of the sexuality ways of the utmost to Joyce’s creativity and at the heart of what his fiction might be trying to investigate” (Brown, 1985). A Portrait investigates Stephen’s development from an insecure adolescent to uncertain adult through his time at church, school and at home but also through his interactions with classmates, family and prostitutes and sexuality plays a role in all. The use of train-of-thought style narration helps the reader see particular experiences and how Stephen observes and understands these experiences and his surroundings, as well as his views on faith, family, sexuality and church. It also portrays to the readers how these perceptions often conflict with those imposed for him by society. What we are shown is Stephen’s uncertainty not just about his sexuality but about his body and women also. Joyce’s writing is extremely autobiographical and his works often trace his own sexual awareness’s as a youth, interested in women and consorting with prostitutes, as seen in Portrait, and as an adult, concerned with improper attractions and extramarital relationships, as explored in another of his works, Ulysses. Gender is obvious in A Portrait and affects Stephen as a young man. Men are portrayed as hard and quite ‘manly’ while women are nuns, wives or prostitutes. The female role in APortraitis less about arousal and more about clarifying masculine desires.

As Portrait is ultimately a story of a search for true identity and we know from the title that his fate is to become an artist, yet there are still emotional periods of uncertainty and confusion for Stephen. In his search for his true identity, sexuality plays an important role. At first he fantasises about three girls, idealizing and romanticizing them; Emma, a girl to whom his affections are never revealed, Mercedes, a fictitious character from ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ and a prostitute. Then he meets the ‘Bird girl’ and she changes his life. The roles these women play have a significant role in the development of Stephen’s sexual awareness but all in very distinctive ways. Another major impact on Stephen is the influence of the church and this completely conflicts with his sexual awakening at adolescence. After his meetings with the prostitutes, Stephen is hounded with feelings of guilt and has urges to repent. These feelings were caused by the churches dominant views on sex and sexuality. His adolescent desires are condemned by the church and this impacts him so much that he takes on a devoutly religious way of life with the priesthood. Up until this point the catholic views on sexuality and his young urges had intertwined in his mind. Joyce shows the reader Stephen’s sexual anxieties and fears through many interactions with both women and the church, depicting the confusion between the two in his early years. After his short-lived time with the priesthood, he finally acknowledges sexuality and his moral imperfections. Again, a woman plays a part in his life when he sees the ‘Bird girl’, so beautiful he decides to devote his life to art.

A lot of Stephens confusing growing up stemmed from a lack of self recognition and awareness. Chapter two reveals how his desire to elevate women to a non-sexual aesthetic ideal, the desire within him to find motherly comfort that he eventually found within Emma, Mercedes and the prostitute. Emma is a character that never materializes in the novel, she is an experiment in making women the centre of his aesthetic notion which he never obscures with sexual desire or lust. At one point, Emma offers him an opportunity for a kiss, a kiss he does not desire. Instead the scene is filled with confused oedipal attraction and a desire, instead, for comfort. Emma is an inspiration for Stephen’s first experiments with poetry and he writes an over romanticized poem to her. Stephen is more in love with the thought of being in love with Emma than Emma herself. She is a concept and a focus of admiration. She is compared to the Virgin Mary and glorified immensely by Stephen for a ten year period. When we finally see her come to life towards the end of the novel in her meetings with Stephen, we see her as a normal Irish girl, with little special about her. When Stephen, about to leave Ireland, says that he’s seeking a “reality of experience” it is an indication that some of what we observed lacked ‘reality’, like his glorified and overrated relationship with Emma. Stephen is introduced to Mercedes when he reads ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ and falls in love with the idea of her and the count’s relationship. He finds her desirable because she offers him an aesthetic ideal, a romantic story which young Stephen finds worthy of replication and imitation. He does not wish for sexual experiences from Mercedes, instead he looks to her to fulfil a longing, for comfort and safety. He thinks of meeting her in gardens and says “The peace of the gardens and the kindly lights in the windows poured a tender influence into his restless heart” (Joyce, 1964, p. 66). She is a comfort to Stephen’s ‘Restless heart’ and he wishes she will teach him how to behave and interact with women.

Another female figure introduced to Stephen is the prostitute, who is the most significant in the novel regarding his sexuality. He visits the “young woman” (Joyce, 1964, p. 103)and gives in to her advances mostly because he has a desire to sin but also because he hopes it will give him an insight into women and to overcome his own sexual insecurities. He falls into the prostitutes arms as a child would into his mother’s arms. He describes her as embracing him ‘gaily’ (Joyce, 1964, p. 103) rather than giving sexual descriptions, indicating it may not be about the act of sex, but rather the comfort. He also refuses to kiss her saying “his lips would not bend to kiss her” (Joyce, 1964, p. 104) as undertones of oedipal confusion fill his mind “he wanted to be held firmly in her arms, to be caressed slowly, slowly, slowly” (Joyce, 1964, p. 104). In refusing to initiate sexual contact, Stephan appears feminine being timid, reluctant and in a position to be “penetrated” (Joyce, 1964, p. 102) Stephen is longing to create an ideal experience with a woman based on the satisfaction he experiences when next to his mother and cries when he feels insecure in the prostitutes company. The act of sex is never portrayed in the scene, simply because it was not as important as the safety and comfort he felt in the prostitute’s arms. The whole scene is romanticised and glorified as a beautiful experience, he uses words like ‘embraced’, ‘joy’ and ‘delight’ to convey the feelings and actions. He describes the prostitute as a ‘young woman’ but by the beginning of chapter three he refers to them all as ‘whores’. This dramatic change in opinion portrays how his views of them have been changed from women who are sexually experienced to ‘whores’ only there to fulfil the desires and needs of men. This may also imply the gender roles at play. While Stephen himself was timid and shy in the exchange with the prostitute, indicating a feminine role, the prostitute was frank and dominant, taking on the masculine role. The male characteristics in the prostitute signify that the ‘working’ women at the time needed to take on the male role. She also takes on characteristics similar to the other women in his life. She is comparable to Mercedes when she embraces him “gaily and gravely” and to his mother when she calls him a “little rascal” (Joyce, 1964, p. 104). This may be why she is the most important female figure to Stephen, she is a real women-unlike Mercedes, but also a woman that can help him break away from the good and know what it feels like to sin, a parallel of Adam and Eve.

Women and sexuality are huge influences on young Stephen’s life but a more important aspect is the dominance of the Catholic Church. The church and women/sexuality conflict greatly which affects Stephen in a big way. Stephen’s early life was completely dominated by moral restrictions seen both in society and at home. He was fascinated by the rituals and hierarchy of school and church, a structure that does not acknowledge adolescent lust or sexual exploration (Mullin, 2003).

He questions his actions after his meetings with prostitutes and contemplates his sins, realizing his current path doesn’t match the idealized aesthetic pursuit. We can see how the Church and women intertwine and become confused in young Stephens mind especially in the scene where he sits at the ‘adult’ dinner table for the first time. The adults are talking politics and religion and as Stephen’s mind wanders, he is brought to thoughts of Eileen-a girl he fantasized about marrying as a young boy. She is described as having ‘ivory hands’ and ‘golden’ hair, phrases Stephen confuses with Roman Catholic expressions like “Tower of Ivory”. The Catholic Church interferes with his exploration of sexuality on more than one occasion. With his very first sexual experience, Eileen puts her hand into his pocket to touch his hand. We know he enjoyed feeling her hand when Joyce writes “he had felt how cool and thin and soft her hand was”. Eileen, however, is a protestant, and so he cannot continue the adolescent relationship with her. As an adolescent, Stephen finds his sexual development subject to the persistent constraints of the church. There are many examples of the inescapable catholic dominance throughout the novel, most notably the schoolmaster priests at Clongowes who are determined to beat the sin of ‘smugging’ (an adolescent word denoting the act of masturbation) out of the boys. Stephen struggles with sexual anxiety and the feeling of constant observation and surveillance from church and society.

Stephen becomes remorseful after his meetings with prostitutes after hearing a sermon from Father Arnall. We know it affected him greatly because he says “The faint glimmer of fear became a terror of spirit” (Joyce, 1964, p. 115) He feels as if it is directed straight at him and no-one else, as the priest says “Why did you sin? Why did you lend an ear to the tempting of fiends?” (Joyce, 1964, p. 127) The fact that he feels to isolated and focused on portrays his shame and regret over his actions when he repeats the words “And I detest my sins” (Joyce, 1964, p. 139). This sermon has such a hold on Stephen that he decides to wholly focus his attention back on the church. In his first confession he tells the priest he “committed sins of impurity” (Joyce, 1964, p. 147). The fact that sexual contact of any kind is considered ‘impure’ portrays why the church was such a huge influence on young sexuality. Without being able to explore sexuality, it hinders the maturity of adolescents and stifles their sexual awareness. After giving himself completely to the church, he becomes so good at being ‘holy’ that he is offered a place in the priesthood.

It is at this point in his story that the ‘Birdgirl’ comes into play, as one of the most powerful symbols on Joyce’s Portrait. Before seeing her Stephen is still pondering whether or not to become a priest, with incompatible thoughts and emotions about the purpose of his life. When he sees her a sudden and unquestionable change comes over him and she ultimately serves as an epiphany for Stephen. He achieves a moment of clarity and realises who he is and what he wants to become-a moment symbolizing maturity and recognition of self. He sees her as a symbol of pure beauty, portrayed when he says she is “touched with the wonder of mortal beauty” (Joyce, 1964, p. 175) as she wades in the water, hitching up her skirt baring her ‘long slender’ legs. Looking at her, Stephen gets an “outburst of profane joy” (Joyce, 1964, p. 176) and she is such an inspiration to him that he realises he has to “live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life” through art. He calls the joy and ecstasy he feels ‘profane’ because of his inner conflict due to his strict catholic rearing. He has been brought up to think that any sexual feelings outside of a marriage are wrong and sinful. Looking at the beautiful girl a change comes over him, he is exhilarated rather than ashamed of what he feels and this is completely new to him. He recognizes the beauty as something he has been searching for the whole way through the novel.

A Portrait is a story of a young man searching for his identity, and sexuality plays a significant contribution to his growth both as a man and as an artist. Joyce portrays the important aspects of Stephen’s adolescence as he searches for his own identity, what he is to become and what he wants to achieve from life. A lot of his confusion growing up stems from a lack of self recognition and self awareness. He explores his sexuality through female figures, sometimes real, sometimes fictitious, but nevertheless important to his growth and maturity. His experience with the Dublin prostitute marks the end of his childhood and beginning of his life as an artist. She awakens a side of Stephen that had been hidden and also symbolizes his sexual awakening and recognition of emotion and art. We read all about Stephen’s bodily urges and the vague references to masturbation, after losing his virginity to the prostitute, he is sent into a stage of regret and shame. Seeking refuge from the fires of hell for his sins he immerses himself completely in Catholicism trying to avoid ‘impure’ and erotic thoughts. Sexual desire is brought back into the equation when he sees the Birdgirl and realizes that his sexuality is not ‘wrong’ or sinful, it is inspiring and beautiful. She also helps him recognise what he is ultimately searching for- a way of expressing the beauty he experiences through art. At the end of the novel, Stephen is leaving Ireland a more confident and self aware man, which would not have been the case save for his sexual experiences with various women.


Brown, R. (1985). James Joyce and Sexuality. london: Cambridge University Press.

Henke, S. (1990). James Joyce and the Politics of Desire. New York: Routledge.

Hill, S. (n.d.). His Cheeks were Aflame: masterbation, sexual frustration and artistic failure in Joyce's portrait of Stephen Dedalus. Retrieved October 10, 2012, from

Joyce, J. (1964). A Portrait of the Young Man as an Artist. Britain: Flamingo Modern Classics.

Mahon, P. (2009). Joyce: A Guide for the Perplexed. Continuum International Publishing Group.

Mullin, K. (2003). James Joyce, sexuality and social purity. Cambridge University Press.


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    • belleart profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Ireland

      Thank you so much, I'm glad you liked it. I absolutely loved reading portrait and Ulysses so I'm delighted there are others who can truly appreciate both his stories and literary techniques.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      5 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Excellent analysis, Belleart. James Joyce is one of the greatest writers ever. Both for his colorful prose and for his insight into the human condition. His work is timeless.

    • belleart profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Ireland

      Thanks, I love Joyce and his works, especially because I'm Irish with a catholic background. Glad you enjoyed it!

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 

      5 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Great job. I never appreciated the book when I first read it in high school. But as I got older, Joyce appealed to me. It's the Irish Catholic in me. Voted up.


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