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

Anyone visiting an art gallery, particularly one with a collection of works by Old Masters, is likely to encounter paintings simply entitled 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man'. The phrase normally refers to a self portrait painted early in the artist's career. In using the phrase as the title for his Bildungsroman Joyce is probably suggesting that the work is in some respect a portrait of himself, in some sense autobiographical. But he is also emphasising that it is an artist who is the central figure. The work is not the equivalent in words of a photograph: it allows itself artistic freedom in what it presents, and its focus is not merely on growing to maturity, but on artistic development (or perhaps more accurately on the intellectual and emotional development which provides a basis for an artistic career).

There are clear and obvious autobiographical elements. James Joyce (1882-1941), like the novel's central figure Stephen Dedalus, was born into a Dublin-based Irish Catholic family which in his early years was well off. Like Stephen in the novel, Joyce attended the elite Jesuit Clongowes Wood schook, and later Belvedere, and like Stephen he studied Arts subjects at University College Dublin. The Joyce family, like Stephen's descended from wealth into dire poverty, thanks largely to the improvidence of the father. James Joyce, like Stephen, considered and rejected a career as a Jesuit priest. But Stephen Dedalus is an artistic creation, and it would be naive to believe that everything he thinks, feels, and does reflects similar elements in Joyce's own life.

Portrait is a relatively conventional novel, and presents the reader with little of the obscurity for which Joyce later became famous, or notorious. But it does employ elements of a stream of consciousness technique that was still radical when the novel was published in 1916. Perhaps the most striking and impressive examples of this occur early in the book, when Joyce presents the impressions and sensations of a very young child.

The now ageing Penguin Modern Classic edition in my possession quotes in its 'blurb' the verdict of H.G. Wells: 'By far the most living and convincing portrait that exists of an Irish Catholic upbringing'. Certainly it was this element of the book which remained most in my memory from last reading the book thirty-five years ago. The Christmas dinner argument over that once classic Irish bone of contention, Parnell and the Catholic Church's attitude to him, is a vivid, shrewd and humorous portrayal of an encounter beween people determined at all costs to have the last word, though aware that it is not the time or the place for such a dispute. Not easily forgotten either is the vivid hellfire sermon preached by Father Arnall during a retreat when Stephen is a sex-obsessed teenager at Belvedere school. But readers expecting primarily a narrative of what it was like to grow up Irish and Catholic in an age of growing nationalism and repressive religiosity may be disappointed. The primary focus is not on the typical but on the individual. Stephen's development towards being an artist, his passage through the conventional to a realisation of a distinctive destiny which seems to require the rejection of everything in his upbringing, is at the centre of the novel. There is much in the later pages about aesthetics, and much of this may well seem a rather dry read to many readers. It is probably near heresy to say it about one of the most generally acknowledged masterpieces of twentieth century fiction, but this reader was at times bored, if never blind to the power of the presentation of the central character, whose limitations and sometimes bombastic characteristics Joyce presents vividly.


Faye said...

Thank you for this fine review of this fascinating book. I am very glad I read it - I found it quite different from most novels I have read and a good expereience.

I would like to make a couple of points on the comments you have made.

re the early family sections - I found this part delightful and a great introduction to the novel,

re the Retreat and young Stephens reform and heightened consience about his sins - I thought this was very cleverly written - even searingly honest at times. The most typical Rites of Passage section of the novel for me.

re the end section when Stephen is in Unuversity College and becoming aware of his future as an artist - a difficult part of the book but one I enjoyed a lot. I found I had to re-read some passages in order to "get it" sometimes. The experimentation elements of the novel come out very strongly here I think.

Thank you aagin for putting it on our list and the inciteful review.

John Kennedy said...

Thanks, Faye. Glad you found it interesting. I agree with you wholeheartedly about the early family sections and about the schooldays parts. They are exceptionally vivid and convincing. I did find some of the university parts tough going, especially when ideas about aesthetics, rather than people, become the central focus. Perhaps I was a little disappointed in not finding as much vivid description of undergraduate life as I might have hoped. My mother did Arts at UCD in the 1930s, only about thirty years after Joyce was there, and perhaps I had hoped for more light on what her experience was like. Joyce, of course, is not documenting the typical but exploring the special experience of the developing artist.

Thank you again.