Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

A Novel by James Joyce (1882-1941)

The revolutionary author, James Joyce, is best remembered for Portrait, Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake, and Dubliners (a collection of his short stories). Few fiction writers have been the subject of more critiques, biographies and raging debates to this day. Portrait is considered to be, in large part, autobiographical. It is an object lesson in writing about what you know.

Joyce was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, in a sometimes impoverished family, but he was schooled by Jesuits, where he was an exemplary student and coveted as a prospective monk by The Church. Portrait expends much of its text on Joyce’s school days, his friends, various monks, Catholicism, and the pros and cons of religion. Joyce, for a time devout beyond comprehension, was ultimately torn by the antipodal attractions of faith and atheism, asceticism and hedonism, unanswered questions and contradictions (like so many of us).

In the end, Joyce (Stephen Dedalus in the book) rejects the priesthood, The Church and even Ireland for artists’ enclaves in Paris. Interestingly, the name of his character, Dedalus, is based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which Daedalus and his son, Icarus, were imprisoned, prompting Daedalus to construct two pair of artificial wings to enable them to escape, but Icarus flew to close to the sun, which melted the wax casings on his wings, and he perished in the Aegean Sea – an eternal warning to those of vaunting ambition.

Joyce is admired and chastised for his “unique voice”. He speaks in all persons randomly and emotes most from his subconscious mind, springing among topics, images and characters, forging a sometimes maze-like riddle, in this almost plotless novel. While most lives revolve around time and clocks, Joyce measures existence by the altered states of consciousness which time effects. He begins the novel with incomprehensible baby talk and ends it in staccato bursts in his diary; thus, except for his abandonment of his faith and Ireland and the emergence of the young artist, everything else is left hanging, pending, open, and unresolved. The text is disturbingly fragmentary and ambiguous; it is interspersed with dialogue, thoughts and random snatches of song and verse (including a lovely villanelle – a poem of 19 lines with an aba rhyming scheme), a veritable study of memory in action. Joyce does not over-punctuate (to be charitable), which compounds the difficulties of grasping his meaning. As to the character development, other than Stephen’s, well, it just isn’t there. His protracted discourses about Aristotle, Epictitus, Aquinas, et al., render Portrait more like essays than a novel.

How can such a book be so widely acclaimed, studied and admired? It traces the evolution of an artistic sensibility and the conflicts of a moral person; it reveals much about early 1900’s Ireland; it challenges our assumptions about religion; and, especially in the last 20% or so of the book, he sporadically erupts, as if awakening from a slumber, into poetic and appealing prose, while injecting random lines of Stephen’s poems, revealing unique images and concepts. On balance, however, this reader didn’t really “get it”; that is, grasp the greatness of the book. Joyce was brilliant and different; he could have written anything, but his Portrait doesn’t compel the reader to keep reading, or thrill the reader, or touch the emotions in a griping or unforgettable way. One reads Joyce nonetheless, because he is so well known, discussed and respected.