How Joyce’s Language Suggests the Consciousness of a Baby, Then a Student, in the Opening Section of ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, Essay Example

James Joyce’s seminal work ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ traces the development of Stephen Daedalus, an awkward, introverted young Dubliner, from baby to student. Part of how the author reflects the ongoing development of the character, as both a man and potential artist, is in his use of language, with vocabulary and, crucially, sound.

This effect is created right from the start in the novel, which opens with Stephen’s father telling him a story. The use of words such as “moocow” and phrases such as, “met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo,” (p. 2313) offer some of the best examples of words which suggest childhood or babyhood in this opening section. These words do not only look like made-up baby words, they also sound like them when read aloud. The sound of words is a continual theme through all of Joyce’s work. As Kevin McDermott has suggested, “And it is abundantly clear from the very first page of the book that, while Stephen perceives the world visually, as an artist would, like a musician he appreciates it aurally.” (Music in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)

There is also the almost list like way in which Joyce recounts seemingly disconnected incidents from childhood. The apparently disjointed way in which they appear helps to suggest the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique for which Joyce is so famed. Thoughts leap into the child’s mind at random, to be recalled in a disjointed narrative which runs from the bed being warm and then cold when a child wets it, to thoughts of Eileen Vance, to a rhyme about apologising. There is a real sense that the character who is recalling these incidents is struggling to contextualise them. They occur in a list, and the sense of their possible meaning will only come later.

As the narrative moves towards Stephen being a young student at school, the language alters from that employed by a baby, to that of a young child. Nasty Roche is described as a “stink” (p. 2314), and “a toe in the rump” is described as being “not a nice expression.” (p. 2315). There is clearly a disconnect between Stephen’s experience of the world, and the way his mother has told him it should be. He also recalls his mother with the equivocal feelings of the child, referring to her as “Nice Mother,” but also stating, “She was a nice mother but she was not so nice when she cried.” (p. 2314) These sort of mixed feelings are typical of the simplistic way in which children often view the world.

Overall, Stephen is presented as a child who is facing very unfamiliar and intimidating events, at least they seem that way to him. Joyce’s use of childish language and references to a lack of comprehension from Stephen help to show this.


Greenblatt, Stephan.  The Norton Anthology of English Literature.  W. W. Norton and Company.  New York and London. 9th Edition, Volume 2.

McDermott, Kevin, ‘Music in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, retrieved from:, 05/08/2013