A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: A New Historical Perspective (draft)
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:
A New Historical Perspective
Mehdi Hassanian esfahani (GS22456)
Modernism and Beyond (BBL5106)
Mr. Rohimmi Noor
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce is a semiautobiographical
novel, in which Joyce narrates the story of a young man (Stephen) who has the same
situation as Joyce had, and decided to become a writer. Following his protagonist through
his childhood and monitoring his fears, pleasures and frustrations, Joyce meticulously
records a part of Ireland’s history and the society of the time in which Stephen grows up
and experiences new things to find an answer for his needs.
In this study I will read the novel with a New Historical prospective in search of
juxtapositions and explanations for references within the book. I will also examine
protagonist’s character development which leads eventually to his rebellion, to find the
roots of his rejection of society, his family, and religion. In this way, I would explain
briefly about New Historicism, and read the novel in parallel with records of history and
society of Ireland during the time presented in the novel. This reading will lead to a better
understanding of A Portrait, and explains the significance of portrayed political / social
characters of the novel.
“When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung
at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality,
language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.”
—A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, chapter 5
Before 1980s, the common approach to a text in literature was to analyze it in
deep, examine the syntax and interpret it based on the present elements of the text. New
Criticism had focused on imagery, metaphor, rhythm, meter, and the like to understand a
work of literature, and believed that extra-text materials (such as the biography of the
author, as well as the social condition of the society in which the text is produced) are
needless and misleading.
In 1980s, a new approach was suggested by Greenblatt which was a reaction to
New Criticism, and claimed that the text is a product of its context. They began with a new
motto: “The text is historical; and history is textual” (Brook, 7). This literary theory, which
was New Historicism asserted that any work of art is structured by its own particular
condition of time and place, and as a result, paid more attention to the social, cultural,
political and economical conditions and the actual happenings which led to the creation of
a particular text.
It had two basic assumptions; that history is not an absolute record of happenings
but a subjective reading of past, and works of literature are not detachable from the society
and culture which has demanded such a work to be written. The mixture of these two leads
to the identification and re-reading of literary works in order to examine the presented
picture of history and culture of the time in the book, and to explore the society of the time
to find a clue for better understanding of the references within the book.
In his notes to New Historicism and besides argues about the subjectivity of
history, and the production process of the discourses in society which interact with each
other and influence a work of art, Foucault wrote about the notion of ‘power’ and the
distribution of power in society. According to him, power is not held by the ruling class of
society, but exist among the individuals and works out through interactions, conflicts and
communications. To escape the autocratic authority of majority over minority or people in
lower classes, he states that we should disobey and reject the absolute force. According to
Veeser, it requires “abandoning pleasures that we know as cultural treasures and as forms
of daily life” (125). He asserts that we need to learn to resist the offer which strengthens
system of dominations.
Rejecting the authority, and believing that there is no right for a particular idea to
be considered dominant and privileged, Tyson also explains that New Historicism insisted
on various ways in which individual identity can challenge the society. This struggle and
also the history of Ireland, as presented in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, are
what I am to examine in the following study. Although Stephen is a fictional figure and
may not be an accurate representation of Joyce, being an autobiographical novel, it
strongly lends itself to a New Historical reading, and “the historical and cultural context of
Dublin in the 1980s is … crucial toward our understanding of Stephen Dedalus” (Mitchell,
5). Therefore, I will explore the history of 1890s Ireland, and the religious condition of the
time, to expand the situation depicted through the novel (and particularly in the first
chapter) and I will go through an observation of protagonist’s character development,
which is an essential key to understanding his rebellion. There will be a time in my study
when these two are connected and the revolt of Stephen symbolizes the only way out for
every Irish individual of that time, as it happened in A Portrait, too.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man which was born after the revision of an
incomplete novel named ‘Stephen Hero’ first appeared in serial form and was published in
1916. It is a semiautobiographical novel in which the protagonist, Stephan Dedalus, is a
fictional alter ego for Joyce. As the setting of place is in Dublin, it records a part of
Dublin’s history, culture and depicts society and their interests. A Portrait is a journey in
which Stephen learns and grows up. It is an observation of a society and the treatments
and instructions it provide for a young individual Irish, which leads to his awakening and
makes him question Catholic and Irish conventions.
According to Magill, Stephen is a highly intelligent and sensitive young man who
tries to understand his society. “He is bewildered and buffeted about in a world of political
unrest, theological discord, and economic decline”. Living with a religious mother and a
patriotic father, he attempts to bring peace to himself when his mind is preoccupied with
the notions of faith, morality, patriotism and art. But it is only in art that he feels tranquil
There are three major themes in this novel, which develop together and challenge
the protagonist at the same time. For young Stephen, Catholic Church and religious
beliefs, his family (which represents his nation) and Ireland are three obstacles to
overcome, at the time politicians and political unrests are not apart from this country. As
his surname Dedalus, which is an allegory to Greek mythology and the myth of Icarus,
suggests, he needs two wings to fly and escape from the tribulations of early 1900s of
Quoting from Wagner that “rebellion against society can occur when people feel
too oppressed or feel a need to stand out”, McManus suggests that social and political
atmosphere of Ireland brought about the need to rebel, to Stephen, “to break into a new
setting – one in which he could be free to express all his thoughts”. He was simply a
reaction to the political unrest of the time, when fighting for freedom and Ireland’s
independence was a duty and following ‘Home Rule movement’ an obligation for
educated people and patriots.
In the first chapter, Stephen remembers a memory about Dante, his Antie, when
the family is gathered for a Christmas dinner and he is allowed for the first time to sit with
the adults. It is when he sees a political debate which happens over Parnell. He observes
how a Christmas dinner changes to an argument about politics and religion. Wondering
about the relationship they have and his family, he sees different points of view that
oppose and condemn each other. It is the point, when Stephen turns into his adulthood. He
begins “to view the world with more cynicism and apathy” (Arndt). Despite his earlier
sense that ‘respect’ was an obligatory thing regarding adults, he sees how political issues
can affect a close family to insult and ignore each other, to argue and condemn another.
When he was a child, Dante was a supporter of Parnell and Stephen. Therefore he
followed her and Parnell became a hero for Stephen as well. Earlier in the novel, he tells
us that “Dante had two brushes in her press. The brush with the maroon velvet back was
for Michael Davitt and the brush with the green velvet back was for Parnell” (2). But one
day, telling him that Parnell is ‘a bad man’, Dante ‘rips the green velvet back of the brush
with her scissors’. This is a point to remember, when Stephen begins to think and choose
for himself. He doubts in what Dante says. She is the one who hates and scorns whatever
which is against her point of view. Parnell is his hero anyway. Taking “the first steps of
developing his own political idea”, he concludes that “just because Dante doesn't like
Parnell is no reason for him to have to give up his hero” (McManus). So he remains
faithful to Parnell, because he believes that Parnell has tried his best for this country; he is
a nationalist who has fought for the independence of Ireland, and his private life has
nothing to do with his beliefs. In this spot, Stephen is not alone. The whole nation of
Ireland was in doubt, onetime, to decide whether to support or condemn Parnell. However
history shows that Parnell was a great man and one of the most important figures in 19th
century Ireland and Great Britain.
But who was he and what is the significance of him in A Portrait? Charles Stewart
Parnell (1846-1891) was an Irish landowner with very radical nationalist ideals. He was
the founder and leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, who were in favor of a Home Rule
program with electoral functions to bring independence for Ireland and Irish nation. The
concept of ‘Home Rule’ was considered Irish legislature with responsibility for domestic
affairs, and Parnell sought for a parliament in Dublin with limited legislative powers, and
for that, he was jailed and fought against.
He was accused of ‘encouraging Irish violence’ but the most notorious repost
about him, was about his affair with Mrs. O'Shea, the wife of William O'Shea who was
one of Parnell's party aides. It was revealed that they had a long relationship and Parnell
has fathered three of her children. This ruined his career and made some of his followers
angry. “Parnell was incriminated in the suit and intimate details that were exposed became
an embarrassment for all” (Arndt). According to her, this created a “storm of protest by the
Catholic Church in both England and Ireland” and affected not only his reputation, but
also his carrier. As a result, he was dismissed from the Irish party.
In A Portrait, Stephen remembers an argue between Mr. Casey and Dante, when
he declares that “I am a Catholic as my father was as his father before him and his father
before him again when we gave up our lives rather than sell our faith” (30). This is when
Catholic Church has condemned Parnell and ceased to support him. Stephen realized that
his hero is against the current religion. At this moment he has attended Jesuit school and
he is involved with religious beliefs. He knows that one should be wrong; Parnell or Mr.
Casey; patriotism and his respect toward an Irish liberalist or Catholic church and religious
beliefs. But he will not find comfort in leaving either, though it is a beginning to question
and become estranged with religion.
Political debates presented in A Portrait are examples of the political unrest of
1890s. The republic of Ireland didn’t exist at that time and Ireland was a part of British
crown. But the struggle was not just among the nations, it was a theological one as well.
“Battle lines were drawn between Protestants and Catholics”. Mitchell explains that
“institutionalized religious discrimination had long been used by the protestant British
government as a means of division and control of Irish-Catholic population, and this
naturally trickled down into day-to-day hostility and resentment between Protestants and
Catholic people in Ireland” (5).
But still among the Protestants, there were few patriots to fight against for
liberation. Parnell was among them. Being a protestant, he was a great hope to reach a
compromise between Ireland and Britain, and his belief in their path to an independence
country brought him many advocated supporters. As a result his law case was of high
importance in society of that time.
After Parnell’s scandal, Dante who was of admirers denounces him in sake of her
church. The Catholic Church comes first. She shouts “devil out of hell! We won! We
crushed him to death! Fiend” (36). There is another scene when Stephen wakes up and
hears words of Brother Michael reading about death of Parnell. He was sick, but didn’t
receive a prescription or medicine, as if it was not physical. He looks at the window, it is
cloudy and ‘the daylight has grown weaker’. Frightened about death and preoccupied
about his illness, he mixes his dreams with death of Parnell; hears people wail “Parnell!
Parnell! He is dead” (21). Everything blends together, and “he begins to identify his own
plight with that of the rejected hero” (Arndt). Accordingly, he sees himself as Parnell's
Back home and at school, he was grown up and educated by religious principles.
Religion has always had an important role in his life, as he believes onetime that it is his
faith to become a priest. But he doubts, as he experiences more, and questions everything
when there is no reason to accept it. He admires the priests, but a day when he cannot do
the homework because his glasses were broken, this priest punishes him and addresses
him as: “Out here, Dedalus! Lazy little schemer. I see schemer in your face” (47). Stephen
is unable to forgive a person who is such unfair. Religion fades away from his life, and he
becomes indifferent toward church. This is equal to the world outside, when policy of
Catholic Church denies Irish Home Rule movement and convicts their national leader; it
loses its advocators in Ireland. After the scandal of Parnell, his devotees criticized
Catholic Church for their role in condemning their hero.
From 1890 to the end of the century, Ireland was “a country torn apart by politics
and religion” (Mitchell, 5), and the anti-Catholic emotion was the result of downfall of
Parnell. According to Mitchell, Joyce used Parnell to depict the problem which was
infectious in that time: “he was persecuted and discredited, on moralistic grounds, by the
same people he had spent his life trying to liberate” (6). It was the main problem of
Eventually, it comes a time when Stephen becomes disappointed of his
countrymen and church. When his nationalist friend, Davin asks him: “Are you Irish at
all? [...] Why don't you learn Irish? Why did you drop out of the [Gaelic] league class after
the first lesson?” (183), he answers at last that “…when the soul of a man is born in this
country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality,
language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets” (185).
He remembers a memory of going to Cork with his father; the trip which was
planned to sell the remainder of their property at auction, when they had plunged into
poverty and needed the money. Bored from train and distance, Stephen observes his father
carefully. He is drunk and boasts a lot of his past, he talks about his youthful and Stephen
listens critically. After selling, they go to a pub to celebrate, where they find an old friend
and his father throws himself into nostalgia. Hearing about his father’s flirtation and his
teenage, Stephen is interested at first but becomes slowly detached from the pub crowd,
and his own father. When his father spends almost the whole money they received from
selling the property, and claims that he was a better man, compared to his son, Stephen
“loses all respect he once had for his father; any sentimental bond they once had was
broken from that moment on” (McManus).
Referring to Wagner, McManus explains that “Most of the time, rebellion against
society is also rebellion against the family. When a teen does something against the
'regular', they are probably doing something their parents would rather they didn't do”, and
for Stephen, the unfair world doesn’t change at home. He feels distanced from his family,
as well as the society. He is ashamed of his father, and believes that it is not his true
family, he is like a foster child among other members of family, and cannot cope with
them at all (Brauer). His mother strongly believes in church and perceives that the only
salvation for Stephen (after his disinterest in religious ceremony and conventions) is
wearing the robe and becoming a priest.
In another conversation with Emma, the girl he admires for beauty and considers
as the pure love and the feminine ideal, when he explains that he cannot seek her as he is
born to be a monk, she replies: “I am afraid you are a heretic” (201). This is the last link
he had to his country and his people, and now it is broken. He fails to find a hope for
future, and decides to leave this country to become an artist. When his friend, Davin tells
him, that “a man's country comes first, Ireland first” (185), he replies “do you know what
Ireland is? [...] Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow” (185). It is the most biting and
direct claim of Stephen about his country, and shows his anger toward the ‘Ireland of the
time’. He never was, as he proves with his action, tired of Ireland, but he couldn’t tolerate
the present situation which had nothing to do with Stephen’s (Joyce’s) interpretation of a
country. He cannot bear the political, theological and social condition, in other word; there
is nothing left for him to accept to be pleased and proud of
When the dominant atmosphere was political and it was a common thing to
participate in political or religious activities, Stephen detaches himself from his friends,
and it happens as Joyce distances from Irish society. In a conversation, Stephen, who is
here a voice of Joyce claims that “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe,
whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express
myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my
defense the only arms I allow myself to use, silence, exile and cunning” (231).
Like the mythical Daedalus, the most skillful artificer, who was imprisoned in his
labyrinth, Stephen is put behind the walls of Ireland. “Dublin is more than the backdrop of
Portrait of the Artist. It is also the symbol of Stephen's discontent. The drab, stagnant city
is seen as the heart of a paralyzed Ireland that stifles the aspiring young artist” (Brauer).
Walking and constantly wandering along the city’s streets, he finds no way out except
flying. There is no other answer, neither for our young Stephen, nor for Joyce.
However, he never [at least emotionally] abandons Ireland. Like Parnell, he feels
the responsibility to write for his country and fight for its independence. “Welcome O life,
I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy
of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. ... Old father, old artificer, stand me now
and ever in good stead” (236-7). He prays, and mentions his nation. He goes away, but
cannot forget his past; he is a successor of Parnell!
McManus explains that “Stephen separates himself from the daily squabbles of his
life by finding a release in his writing, and later he is released from his dead-end life when
he leaves his homeland”. Rejecting his county, religion and family is the price he has to
pay to become an artist. Perhaps his name, Stephen, referring to Saint Stephen, the first
martyr to Christianity, underlines his character.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is more than a fictional story or a semi-
autobiography of the author; it is a part of the history of Ireland. It depicts Irish nation and
their attempt to reach their independence, as well as the religious mood of 1980s. Despite
the fact that there are many references to the personal life of James Joyce, his story can be
generalized to all Irish individuals. Even his attempt to become a writer and thing he
should scarify are accepted generally as the price of being different for anyone who plans
to act beyond his society. Reading this novel gives one cultural, political and historical
information of the time presented, and knowing about the history of Ireland, can help to
understand the underlying theme of the novel.
Arndt, Melanie. "Joyce's Hero Mythicized: Charles Stewart Parnell". The Modern Word.
Feb 27, 2009 <http://www.themodernword.com/joyce/joyce_paper_arndt.html>.
Brauer, Arlette. "James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man". Barron's
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Brook, Thomas. The New Historicism and other Old-Fashioned Topics. Princeton NJ:
Princeton UP, 1993
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. USA: Kessinger Publishing, 2004
Magill, Frank Northen, A. J. Sobczak, and Janet Alice Long. Cyclopedia of Literary
Characters. CA: Salem Press, 1998.
McManus, Will. "Flying by the Nets. Stephen Dedalus's search for personal definition".
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