Columns > Published on March 26th, 2014

Culling the Classics: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I must still be high on that St. Patrick's Day excitement, because I couldn't think of anything I'd rather read this month than James Joyce. However, one does not simply read Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, so I decided to start with something that you (and I) would be more likely to pick up and finish.

The Book

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce (The Egoist [serialized, Britain] 1914-1915; B.W. Huebsch [complete volume, US], 1916)

The Numbers

Joyce doesn't create symbolism for the reader; he acknowledges the symbolism that Stephen sees in his everyday life, the symbolism that we already see each day but aren't always able to process, and certainly not in such magnificent form.

Considered one of the greatest Bildungsroman (coming-of-age) and the greatest Künstlerroman (artist's journey) novels ever written in English; introduced Joyce to the world as one of the preeminent literary writers of the early 20th century; Goodreads rating of 3.56; #3 (board) and #57 (readers) on Modern Library's 100 Best Novels List.

The Spoiler-Free Skinny

Young Stephen Dedalus has a lot of questions about the world. He questions the fairness of the priests and prefects at his boarding school. He questions the personal politics of his parents and their close friends. He questions whether he is destined for Heaven or Hell, and whether the two even exist in the first place. He questions art and Ireland and every form of societal structure, to which he doesn't quite seem to belong. Most of all, though, he questions himself: who he is, where he comes from, and who he wants to be in this life.

You'll Love It

Well, there's no plot, so if you're intrigued by the idea of an actual literary "portrait," then ho boy, you are in luck. Portrait follows Stephen not just chronologically, but also developmentally. The book starts from the very beginning, with some of his first conscious thoughts, giving us one of the most famous opening lines of all time.

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 down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo....

We very quickly move on to a slightly more complex mental and emotional style of narration, but the first chapter focuses on Stephen's formative years at Clongowes Wood College, a Jesuit boarding school, and so does not progress beyond the language of a pre-teen boy. The book differs from many other coming-of-age stories, though, in that it only presents what is absolutely necessary to paint the portrait of what Stephen considers to be formative life events. We aren't given a full picture of his life at boarding school, but instead only the important moments and memories that lead towards his becoming an artist later in life (though neither he nor the reader really consider that much at the time). The emotional and intellectual evolution that takes place is such that almost nothing can be considered exposition. There is no real plot to further, so each scene/detail/thought/moment is like a brushstroke on the canvas of Stephen's young life.

There is also a significant portion of the novel that discusses the nature of aesthetics and what constitutes art and beauty, which is really cool.

You'll Loathe It

Well, there's no plot, so if you're bored to tears by the idea of an actual literary "portrait," then sweet sassy molassy, this one may be tough for you. The prose is some of the most beautiful that has ever been written in English, but because the narrative focus is so heavily geared towards Stephen's experience, it's often difficult to understand what's going on. In fact, the story is told in what is known as "free indirect speech," a narrative style that doesn't distinguish much between dialogue and narration. (There are no quotation marks around dialogue in the novel, or in any of Joyce's other novels.) This lends itself to Joyce's judgment-free depiction of the critical events of Stephen's life—we're never once told how to think about anything—but creates a kind of structural malaise that can be difficult to overcome.

There is also a significant portion of the novel that discusses the specific punishments of various sins in Hell and what constitutes a good soul, which is really long, boring, and to be honest, terrifying.

Read It Or Leave It

Many novels tell stories, but few tell actual lives, rummaging through the real questions that a young boy struggles with, the ones that shape him into the man he is to become. In this semi-autobiographical work, there is no structural beacon that the reader is running towards, or instigative light that shines upon the story from beginning to end; instead, there is a kind of casual brilliance that illuminates each moment, important on its own and not just for the level to which it serves a plot. Because they are both coming-of-age novels, it is often compared to The Catcher in the Rye (which, as you'll recall, I loathed more than loved), but in many ways Portrait is that book's opposite. Catcher also lacks a distinct plot, but every movement that Holden Caulfield makes is plot-based; there is much direct agency and goal-oriented motion in the book, and Holden is constantly directing the reader's view of situations. In Portrait, things just happen, without judgment, and Stephen Dedalus is forced to adjust his worldview to incorporate more and more experience and information.

He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld.

Both protagonists question the world around them and suffer at times from crises of faith of one kind or another, but where Catcher makes direct statements and arguments regarding these crises, Portrait merely presents situations for consideration. In every way imaginable, I found A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to be the better book.

The Final Verdict

Oh god, you should absolutely 100% read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or at the very least give the first chapter a try. There are only five chapters, but the first two are possibly my favorite consecutive chapters ever written. Even if you don't share my views on The Catcher in the Rye or my reasons as to why Portrait is the better of the two, there are still countless things to love about this book. The prose is phenomenal, as is the presentation of the love object that flits in and out of Stephen Dedalus's life. I say "object" not to be misogynistic, but because Emma, the girl with whom Stephen is allegedly in love for years, barely makes any appearance in the novel. Instead, she is more of an ideal of art and beauty, an excuse for Stephen to make changes in his life or consider certain problems in new ways, and a muse for his burgeoning desire to become a writer.

The veiled windless hour had passed and behind the panes of the naked window the morning light was gathering. A bell beat faintly very far away. A bird twittered; two birds, three. The bell and the bird ceased: and the dull white light spread itself east and west, covering the world, covering the roselight in his heart.

It's a very honest portrayal of what love is and means to someone who constantly has other things on his mind. While Stephen is deeply conflicted over the fate of his soul—at one point considering taking up a pious, priestly life, then later considering giving up his Christian faith altogether—there is always the beatific vision of Emma influencing his decisions. At times Emma isn't even Emma, but his thoughts of Emma as inspired by various aspects of other girls and women he sees around him, further cementing her in a symbolic existence. But then, that's everything about A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. As Samuel Beckett, another great Irish writer, once said, "Joyce's work is not about the thing—it is the thing itself." Instead of writing a series of conversations and scenes-as-metaphors strung onto an allegorical plot as a way to give the reader a sense of what Stephen's Dedalus's life means, Joyce presents Stephen's life as a series of universal sensations and allows the reader to create his or her own meaning. Joyce doesn't create symbolism for the reader; he acknowledges the symbolism that Stephen sees in his everyday life, the symbolism that we already see each day but aren't always able to process, and certainly not in such magnificent form.

About the author

Brian McGackin is the author of BROETRY (Quirk Books, 2011). He has a BA from Emerson College in Something Completely Unrelated To His Life Right Now, and a Masters in Poetry from USC. He enjoys Guinness, comic books, and Bruce Willis movies.

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