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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

By: James Joyce

A Portrait... follows Stephen Dedalus from his babyhood into early adulthood. One of the most remarkable things about Joyce's style is that the early chapters are expressed in childlike language. For instance, the famous opening lines of the book are, “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down the road....” These are lines from a story that Stephen's father tells him as a baby. The final lines “Welcome, O Life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience...” Between these two lines lies the story of Stephen's growth and development. He goes through phases of religious obsession, where he passionately follows his church's teachings and is often racked by guilt and despair. However, as he attains manhood, his rational, adult faculties begin to emerge and he goes forth to meet life as a fully conscious, aware individual, enriched by all that has happened to him. Joyce explores the ideas of the overriding role of religion in the life of the Victorian Irish people, their extremism and their fanaticism. He also explores the role of the artist in society and their responsibilities. Finally, Joyce delves into the larger questions of Irish nationalism and their need for self-government. A Portrait... is a book that young people should read for its passionate optimism and older people should read for the recollections it evokes of their own past.

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.

— James Joyce, Opening to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

The childhood of Stephen Dedalus is recounted using vocabulary that changes as he grows, in a voice not his own but sensitive to his feelings. The reader experiences Stephen's fears and bewilderment as he comes to terms with the world in a series of disjointed episodes. Stephen attends the Jesuit-run Clongowes Wood College, where the apprehensive, intellectually gifted boy suffers the ridicule of his classmates while he learns the schoolboy codes of behaviour. While he cannot grasp their significance, at a Christmas dinner he is witness to the social, political and religious tensions in Ireland involving Charles Stewart Parnell, which drive wedges between members of his family, leaving Stephen with doubts over which social institutions he can place his faith in. Back at Clongowes, word spreads that a number of older boys have been caught “smugging” (the term refers to the secret homosexual horseplay that five students were caught at); discipline is tightened, and the Jesuits increase use of corporal punishment. Stephen is strapped when one of his instructors believes he has broken his glasses to avoid studying, but, prodded by his classmates, Stephen works up the courage to complain to the rector, Father Conmee, who assures him there will be no such recurrence, leaving Stephen with a sense of triumph.

Stephen's father gets into debt and the family leaves its pleasant suburban home to live in Dublin. Stephen realises that he will not return to Clongowes. However, thanks to a scholarship obtained for him by Father Conmee, Stephen is able to attend Belvedere College, where he excels academically and becomes a class leader. Stephen squanders a large cash prize from school, and begins to see prostitutes, as distance grows between him and his drunken father.


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The work and life of Joyce is celebrated annually on 16 June, known as Bloomsday, in Dublin and in an increasing number of cities worldwide, and critical studies in scholarly publications, such as the...

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