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

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is the first published novel of James Joyce (1916) following his short story collection Dubliners (1914). Joyce began writing it in around 1903 as Stephen Hero but after numerous rejections he threw the manuscript into the fire. It was quickly rescued by his sister Eileen, but Joyce decided to re-write his novel and so produced A Portrait, which is classed as a 'künstlerroman': an artist's novel, and its hero is Stephen Dedalus, Joyce's fictional alter ego. 

It begins with the very famous opening sentence:
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo... 
His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.
This is about the young Stephen, and this sentence represents his early 'self' and sense of awareness. In Portrait Joyce will develop Stephen's perception and character and his intellectual growth, but in this first chapter we see it in an early form - not the earliest where consciousness is minimal, but just at the point whereby Stephen recognises not only his self but the outside world, and he begins to relate the two. This chapter, then, is a kind of bridge between the basic, selfish, subjective, impulsive and physical understanding of being to the more social, objective, and complex methods of understanding life and self. We learn that Stephen still wets the bed, and, as Joyce interprets, "When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oilsheet. That had a queer smell." Still then young Stephen interprets the world in a physical sense, through touch and smell and lacks the awareness that wetting the bed may be inconvenient for his mother, but as Joyce names family members then goes on to mention by name other boys, Stephen's friends and acquaintances, Joyce the interpretor tells us that Stephen is aware that he is part of something greater - a social body.

And so the novel continues, subtly marking these changes in Stephen. He goes to school and writes on his exercise book,
Stephen Dedalus
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
Sallins
County Kildare
Ireland
Europe
The World
The Universe
On the opposite page is written by someone else,
Stephen Dedalus is my name,
Ireland is my nation,
Clongowers is my dwellingplace,
And heaven my expectation.
Here this theme continues - we have in the same exercise book Stephen's own knowledge of belonging to a larger order, and then someone else's definition and understanding of him: there are two ideas of what "Stephen Dedalus" is - simply the boy at school existing somewhere in the universe, and then the Irish Catholic schoolboy called Stephen Dedalus.

Stephen gradually becomes more involved with this "bigger picture". He observes a furious disagreement at a dinner party about Charles Stewart Parnell, an Irish nationalist, however he doesn't grasp the argument. During this time, very unhappy at school, his imagination is growing and developing and he begins to interpret events further, slowly piecing together the fragmented and apparently disjointed elements of his life that will become his narrative - the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. "Facts" are no longer necessary parts of his self-image - he may have been brought up a Catholic but that does not mean that he must be Catholic, and same with being a nationalist: these beliefs may have shaped his childhood but he learns he does not have to accept them. In Portrait we soon see him rebelling: at the age of sixteen he is already visiting prostitutes and indulging in the 'deadly sins', but for a while he is confused and he seeks forgiveness from the priest and from that which he was rebelling from. But still he grows older and the rebellion is no longer a crisis and he can come to accept his beliefs and world view without any drama. With the help of his friends, art, music, and literature he becomes free of the limitations imposed on him by his family, society, and his former, earlier self.

A Portrait of the Artist is a complex psychological work. Joyce explores the notions of self and identity, what it is to be an artist, and what it is to be Catholic and to be Irish in the late 19th and early 20th Century. It is a great work, immensely challenging and not so easy to grasp. I've tried (and struggled!) to write about an element of it, but it is far deeper than I've given it credit for! I did enjoy it, and came close to loving it. It's my second read; the first time, a few years ago, it was fairly lost on me but as I enjoyed Stephen Hero so much (which, I dare say, I enjoyed reading more) I was eager to give it another go. It is a satisfying and provoking read: well worth it, in short, and one to keep reading and re-reading.

Comments

  1. Well done! I think Joyce, like few others, succeeded best in presenting a biography of an era and cultural contexts within the disguise of a fictional (autobiographical) representation. You read Joyce, and you begin to understand history in Ireland.

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    1. Thanks RT for commenting - I remembered you loved this book so I was hoping you'd comment and like what I'd written :) It does give enormous insight into Ireland, something I'm lacking so for that too I'm glad I read this.

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