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THE PLOT - SHORT SUMMARY (SYNOPSIS)
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man opens with the earliest childhood memories of its hero, Stephen Dedalus. Some of these memories are happy and musical. Others hold terror. His governess threatens that if he does not apologize for a mysterious misdeed, eagles will pull out his eyes. This is the first time-but not the last-the sensitive and gifted boy will be pressed to conform to the ways of his world, Roman Catholic Dublin in the late nineteenth century.
Stephen becomes one of the best students at the fashionable boarding school, Clongowes Wood College. Socially, however, he is an outsider, bullied by the other boys. When he returns home to spend Christmas with his family, the holiday proves a disappointment. The festive dinner is disrupted by a bitter argument over Ireland's political idol, Charles Stewart Parnell, whose affair with a married woman has divided both the nation and Stephen's home. His father, Simon; a dinner guest, John Casey; and his governess, Dante Riordan, go at each other's throats. The small boy is dismayed to see his hero, Parnell, attacked, and to see such hate and intolerance among the adults he has been told to respect.
Back at school, Stephen learns that men of God can also behave with cruel injustice when the harsh Father Dolan punishes him unfairly. The outraged Stephen musters enough courage to complain directly to the school's head, Father Conmee, who promises to straighten out the "mistake" with Dolan. The exultant Stephen enjoys a moment of triumph as his schoolmates salute his spunk. But he learns later that Conmee and Dolan merely had a good laugh at his expense.
The Dedalus family suffers the first of many financial reverses and can no longer afford to send Stephen to Clongowes. He goes instead to Belvedere College, a Jesuit school, on scholarship. There he is singled out for his writing skill and discovers the world of books. He is chosen to lead one of the college's two religious brotherhoods. Yet, as before, he feels alienated from the other students. His classmates respect him, but also resent him.
Stephen grows estranged from his family as well. During a trip to Cork, a city on the southern coast of Ireland, his father's drunken bragging embarrasses him, and he is forced to face the fact that Simon Dedalus is a failure who has squandered the family's income. The Dedalus family sinks lower into poverty. The prize money Stephen wins for earning high marks on national exams occasionally helps to brighten a dreary life, but when the money is spent the family's troubles return. He is left isolated from his uncultured parents, feeling not like their true son but like a foster child.
Stephen is also tormented by wild romantic and sexual longings. He focuses these feelings on a young woman, called E. C. or Emma, for whom he has written some verses. But Emma disappoints him when she doesn't wait after he has finished a performance of a school play. The restless, moody lad, now about fourteen, finally satisfies his sexual urges in the arms of a prostitute.
Soon Stephen is regularly visiting Dublin's red-light district and exulting in what he feels is his liberation. He prides himself on not going to confession or to Mass. But guilt lurks under his swagger. The fiery sermons of a Jesuit priest, Father Arnall, evoke the tortures of a Hell to which Stephen fears he may be condemned. In an agony of remorse, he attends confession and returns home, feeling holy and happy.
Stephen's new piety seems so heartfelt that the director of his school gives him the opportunity to join the Jesuits. He finds the vision of priestly knowledge and power briefly tempting, but then rejects it because he prefers "the disorder and misrule" of a nonreligious life to the austere and bloodless order of the priesthood. His true calling, he believes, is to the world of the intellect. As he walks along the shore of Dublin Bay, he spies a girl walking. She seems to him as free and proud as a seabird, and she becomes a symbol of the new creative life he hopes to lead.
Stephen's years at University College reinforce his decision to become a great writer. While his classmates concentrate their energies on Irish politics and culture, Stephen buries himself in his own personal artistic theories and in his poetry. His self-absorbed brilliance causes his friends to consider him an intellectual freak. In turn he feels superior to them.
Romantic and sexual longings still trouble him. When he believes Emma is flirting with a young priest, he grows jealous and convinces himself that she is unworthy. Yet in his fantasies, he continues to transform her into an erotic temptress.
Proudly, regretfully, Stephen sees that he has made himself a stranger to the world that was his at birth-to his family, to Dublin, to Ireland, to Catholicism. He can no longer believe in them, and he proclaims that he can no longer serve what he does not believe in. The artistic and intellectual world beyond Ireland beckons to him. Like the mythic Greek hero, Daedalus, whose name Stephen's recalls, Stephen Dedalus seeks to fly from the forces that have entrapped him. Will he fail or will he succeed? It is not clear. But he is ready to sail to the continent, there to begin a new life as a writer.