Sunday, December 23, 2012

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

As I mentioned in my review of Dubliners, I recently took a seminar class on James Joyce. After we finished discussing Dubliners, our next book was Joyce's first novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Filled with lyrical prose and vivid imagery, this semi-autobiographical story of Stephen Dedalus’s "intellectual and religio-philosophical awakening" and "passage from university student to independent artist" is an excellent first glimpse into the experimental style of Joyce's mature works.

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 isn't just an incredibly realistic coming-of-age story; it is also filled with social, political, and religious commentary. One of Stephen's early memories is of his family arguing about Parnell and Irish revolutionary politics. In this one scene the reader is shown the conflict between Ireland and the colonial power of England and the way that the Catholic church becomes tangled in the political struggles of the time. These themes, Irish nationalism, English oppression, and Catholicism, come back throughout Joyce's work, and make up a realistic (if not always flattering) portrait of Dublin. Stephen's time in a Catholic school, his brief desire to join a monastery, and  his eventual loss of faith show the many ways in which people could react to the Irish Catholicism of Dublin. His encounters with Irish revolutionaries and his reluctance to join them provides a commentary both on British colonialism and on the occasional dogmatism of the Gaelic movement in Ireland. These themes, along with other Joycian themes such as loneliness, paralysis, and alcoholism, recur throughout his works, and add yet another dimension to this already multifaceted book.

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.


  1. Great review. Very impressed that you've reviewed Joyce, I just don't have the gumption :)

    I made the humongous mistake at university of reading (well, trying to read) 'Finnegan's Wake' before anything else by Joyce. It was, I admit, a coupla years before I even attempted anything else by JJ after that umm... experience.

    Now though, I love, love, love modernism/avant-garde, and many of my favourite recent novels are kinda call-backs to what Joyce started (and I can't recommend enough 'Remainder' by Tom McCarthy, 'The Great Lover' by Michael Cisco or, of course, DFW and Pynchon et al).

    Merry Christmas!

    1. Thanks Tom. I haven't read Finnegan's Wake yet. Even after Ulysses it still intimidates me. I've always wanted to read some DFW. I think I have something of his on my Classics Club list. I haven't heard of McCarthy or Cisco before. I'll have to check them out.
      Merry Christmas to you too!