Portrait of the Artist is, first and foremost, a portrait of the Stephen Dedalus. It is, in many ways, a traditional coming-of-age story, following our hero from his youngest school days through college and his budding life as an artist. What separates Portrait from other coming-of-age stories is the style. To give the reader a proper portrait of Stephen, Joyce uses a free-indirect style in which the narrator is colored by Stephen's perception and knowledge. The descriptions, imagery, and style all reflect Stephen's mental and aesthetic development. This allows the reader to see the world as Stephen sees it. When Stephen is very young, the descriptions and ideas expressed by both Stephen and the narrator are the kind of thing that a young child would notice. The dramas of school life, the stories told to him by his parents, and family arguments over politics all loom large in Stephen's mind. As he gets older and his mind is occupied by religious uncertainties, the style becomes more like a sermon and religious imagery creeps into normal descriptions. As he looses his faith and becomes more interested in poetry and aesthetics, the style becomes more luminous and lyrical, images become symbols, and the words themselves are filled with poetic beauty. The limited narrator and the matching of style, word-choice, and imagery to Stephen's mental state make reading this book the closest thing to plunging into a character's consciousness that you can get short of Ulysses.
|Portrait was one of my Classics Club books.|
Portrait of the Artist is a very different kind of book than Dubliners. Unlike Dubliners, which had a mostly traditional realistic style, Portrait of the Artist represents Joyce's first real move toward the experimentation with style for which he is famous. As such, it is the perfect choice for those who have read Dubliners and want to read more. While Portrait of the Artist was, admittedly, not my favorite of Joyce's works that I read this semester, this is possibly only because of how much I enjoyed both Dubliners and Ulysses. If you are interested in reading Ulysses (hint: do it) you should definitely read Portrait of the Artist first, because Stephen comes back to play an important role in Ulysses. But even without the connection to Ulysses, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is an impressive book in its own right. With lyrical prose, psychological depth, and social commentary, it is truly an impressive first novel.
Rating: 4 Stars
Recommendations: don't try to catch everything at once, just enjoy it. Read it slowly when you have enough time to concentrate. Enjoy the prose and the plays on words.
If you're interested in Joyce, take a look at my review of Dubliners and stay tuned for my upcoming review of Ulysses.