Review: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce book cover
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) (1914) is James Joyce’s semi-autobiographical bildungsroman, and consideration of the development of an artist. It is simultaneously placed in a Dublin particular to the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, and a wider, global context; applicable to artists everywhere. The narrative follows Stephen from his early years, through his time at a Jesuit boarding school, and into adulthood, concluding as he sets out from his homeland to explore the world and create the art he has so assiduously prepared himself to make. Through this time Stephen struggles with religious angst as his na├»ve faith in Catholicism is slowly broken, and his sexual and creative instincts take over.

In some ways Portrait is Joyce’s evaluation of the playing field; a first look at the landscape, both cultural and political, that surrounded him. Stephen’s character is so heavily based on the very specific religious, political and colonial background in which he is raised, that his internal struggle represents the struggle of a race, of a people in need of turning from the past and looking, as Joyce himself does, very firmly to the future, but unsure of themselves and racked with doubt. That Stephen runs increasingly into conflict with the atmosphere that surrounds his upbringing and eventually forces him away from Dublin (a nod to the Irish diaspora) can be read as representative of the more common adolescent imperative to escape the home. There is a restlessness that underpins Portrait, with Stephen’s environment changing from one section to the next, providing a strange, disharmonious rhythm to the novel, that represents not only Stephen’s inner dissonance with his surroundings, but also Ireland’s within the world. The odd rhythm also relates to the many threads of Stephen’s personal development – the parallels steps and set-backs analogous to the creative process itself – but it’s important to remember that the novel is not only concerned with Stephen’s bildung as an artist, but also with entbildung; the dissolution of previous formations.

In Greek mythology Daedalus created the Labyrinth of Crete, in which the Minotaur was kept. A fitting allusion to Joyce’s psychologically and stylistically labyrinthine prose, which interweaves the simple, lucid thought with the complex, and provides an almost constant paradox. Though written in third person, the narrative subtly changes to represent Stephen’s own mind in each passage of his life; an intricate technique, and one that draws the reader closer to the protagonist’s mental state almost imperceptively. Like Stephen’s, Joyce’s own classical and philosophical education shines through as the book progresses, with increasingly rich passages drawing on a range of sources. But, whilst he had a firm grounding in literary and cultural tradition, Joyce was fiercely modern and forward-looking. He was one of the earliest writers to use a stream of consciousness style, and Stephen’s meditations in these passages are profound not only for their classical content, but for the original technical achievement that they represent. Joyce would go on to refine the style in Ulysses, but Portrait paved the way for this, and for many other writers.

Joyce aspired to complete objectivity and, whilst writing an extremely personal portrait, he achieved this for the most part (considerably more so than in the earlier Stephen Hero), and went on to develop this further in his later novels; a testament to his own commitment to the theory. Despite its objectivity Portrait is shot through with ambiguity. From the earliest chapters one finds a disparity between the narrator’s knowledge and that of Stephen – particularly noticeable with reference to sexual topics – and this discrepancy strikes an odd chord as the narrator both captures Stephen’s mentality and sets himself apart from it. Indeed, that these are early screen memories, recounted from a later perspective, suggests that the reader is not presented with a full picture, and thus one is immediately alerted to the ambiguities that follow. Later, sexuality becomes ambiguous, with gender stereotypes frequently inverted, and the ambivalence of burgeoning sexuality during Stephen’s adolescent years is captured subtly and beautifully.

On top of ambiguity, there is a consistent duplicity about the novel; it is libertarian, but at the same time entirely conscious of the difficulties of freedom for both the Ireland, and for the individual. Both forward looking and steeped in tradition: the irony that Stephen, and by extension Joyce, was prepared to defend his position as an aesthete and his move away from the church, by his thorough religious upbringing and classical education at the hands of the Jesuits, should not be lost.

For a debut novel, Portrait makes a bold statement. That Joyce went on to fulfil the ambition that he set himself is admirable, but it does not lessen the bravery that it must have taken to set out one’s hugely ambitious life goals in literary form. Many novels deal with the development of the artist, but few will ever reach the heights of Joyce’s Portrait. As a first novel it is stunning and captures the spirit of disharmony from which the artist develops exquisitely, whilst proving an astonishingly rich commentary on the very specific socio-political atmosphere from which Dedalus/Joyce springs.

James Joyce has long been an author I am simultaneously intimidated by, and excited to read. Having finally plucked up the courage to begin my journey through Joyce, I'm pleasantly surprised to find the writing less heavy going than I had anticipated. Thankfully, it is, however, as brilliant as I'd hoped it would be.


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Movie Adaptation of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on Amazon (US) 

2 comments:

The Young Book Collector said...

Sounds like he quite an interesting life; I did a quick look-up one him and it said he was a poet as well, I'll have to read some of his work and put them on my blog since its national poetry month.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

I've not read any of Joyce's poetry, but from the style of his prose I can easily see how his writing would lend itself to poetry. You'll have to let me know if it's worth reading once you've had a look.