A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Silence, exile, and cunning.”- these are weapons Stephen Dedalus chooses in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. And these, too, were weapons that its author, James Joyce, used against a hostile world.
Like his fictional hero, Stephen, the young Joyce felt stifled by the narrow interests, religious pressures, and political squabbles of turn-of-the-century Ireland. In 1904, when he was twenty-two, he left his family, the Roman Catholic Church, and the “dull torpor” of Dublin for the European continent to become a writer. With brief exceptions, he was to remain away from Ireland for the rest of his life.
It was a bold move for several reasons. In spite of his need to break away from constrictions on his development as a writer, Joyce had always been close to his family. He still admired the intellectual and artistic aspects of the Roman Catholic tradition that had nurtured him. And the city of Dublin was in his soul.
(Asked later how long he had been away from Dublin, he answered: “Have I ever left it?”) But Joyce did achieve his literary goal in exile. The artistic climate of continental Europe encouraged experiment. With cunning (skillfulness) and hard work, Joyce developed his own literary voice. He labored for ten years on Portrait of the Artist, the fictionalized account of his youth. When it appeared in book form in 1916, twelve years after Joyce’s flight from Ireland, it created a sensation.
Joyce was hailed as an important new force in literature.
Portrait of the Artist is usually read as an autobiography, and many of the incidents in it come from Joyce’s youth. But don’t assume that he was exactly like his sober hero, Stephen Dedalus. Joyce’s younger brother Stanislaus, with whom he was very close, called Portrait of the Artist “a lying autobiography and a raking satire.” The book should be read as a work of art, not a documentary record. Joyce transformed autobiography into fiction by selecting, sifting, and reconstructing scenes from his own life to create a portrait of Stephen Dedalus, a sensitive and serious young boy who gradually defines himself as an artist.
Still, Joyce and Stephen have much in common. Both were indelibly marked by their upbringing in drab, proud, Catholic Dublin, a city that harbored dreams of being the capital of an independent nation but which in reality was a backwater ruled by England. Like Stephen, Joyce was the eldest son of a family that slid rapidly down the social and economic ladder. When Joyce was born in 1882, the family was still comfortably off. But its income dwindled fast after Joyce’s sociable, witty, hard-drinking father, John Stanislaus, lost his political job- as Stephen’s father Simon loses his- after the fall of the Irish leader and promoter of independence Charles Stewart Parnell. Although the loss of the post was not directly related to Parnell’s fall, Joyce’s father worshipped “the uncrowned king of Ireland” and blamed his loss on anti-Parnell forces like the Roman Catholic Church. (Joyce portrays the kind of strong emotions Parnell stirred up in the
Christmas dinner scene in Chapter One of Portrait of the Artist.) Like Simon Dedalus, the jobless John Stanislaus Joyce was forced to move his family frequently, often leaving rent bills unpaid.
Joyce, though, seems to have taken a more cheerful view of his family problems, and to have shown more patience with his irresponsible father, than did his fictional hero. He seems to have inherited some of his father’s temperament; he could clown at times, and he laughed so readily he was called “Sunny Jim.” He also inherited a tenor voice good enough to make him consider a concert career. Many believe that musical talent is responsible for Joyce’s gift for language.
Joyce’s father was determined that his son have the finest possible education, and though precarious family finances forced the boy to move from school to school, he received a rigorous Jesuit education. In Portrait of the Artist Joyce relives through Stephen the intellectual and emotional struggles that came with his schooling. Joyce’s classmates admired the rebellious brilliance that questioned authority, but- like some bright students whom you may know- he remained an outsider, socially and intellectually.
The religious training he received in the Jesuit schools also shaped Joyce, giving him first a faith to believe in and then a weight to rebel against. Like Stephen, he was for a time devoutly religious- then found that other attractions prevailed. By age fourteen he had begun his sexual life furtively in Dublin brothels, and though he was temporarily overwhelmed with remorse after a religious retreat held at his Catholic school, he soon saw that he could not lead the life of virtuous obedience demanded of a priest. Instead, he exchanged religious devotion for devotion to writing.
As a student at University College in Dublin, Joyce studied Latin and modern languages. Although the Gaelic League and other groups were hoping to achieve Irish cultural independence from Great Britain by promoting Irish literature and language, the nonconformist Joyce spurned them. He felt closer to the less provincial trends developing in continental Europe. He memorized whole pages of Gustave Flaubert, the French pioneer of psychological realism and author of Madame Bovary, whose precision of style and observation he envied. He also admired the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, who shocked the world by introducing previously forbidden subjects like venereal disease and immorality among “respectable” citizens in his works. Both these writers drew, as Joyce would, on all parts of life- the beautiful, the sordid, and the commonplace.
But realism wasn’t the only influence on the young Joyce. The subtle and suggestive poetic imagery of French poets like Stephane Mallarme and Arthur Rimbaud, who used symbols to convey shades of meaning, appealed to his love for the musicality of words and for the power of words to evoke unexpected psychological associations. Their example, too, is followed in Portrait of the Artist.
Before Joyce had left the university he had already written several essays- one of them on Ibsen- and he had formulated the core of his own theory of art, a
theory similar to Stephen’s in Chapter Five. The renowned Irish poet William Butler Yeats was impressed by the unkempt but precocious youth, and tried to draw Joyce into the ranks of Irish intellectuals. But once again the arrogant newcomer rejected his homeland, choosing to stay aloof because he felt Yeats and his group viewed the Irish past too romantically and viewed its present with too much nationalism.
Instead, at the age of twenty, Joyce did what Stephen Dedalus is about to do at the novel’s end, and turned away from his family, his country, and his church. He ran off to the continent. In 1903 he returned to Ireland to visit his dying mother, but soon after her death (1904) he was again bound for Europe, accompanied by the chambermaid with whom he had fallen in love, Nora Barnacle. The uneducated, sensual Nora seemed an unlikely mate for Joyce, but she proved (despite Joyce’s cranky suspicions of her) to be a loyal, lifetime companion.
In Trieste (then a cosmopolitan city of Austria-Hungary), Joyce wrote incessantly and eked out a living teaching English. He put together Dubliners, a group of stories based on brief experiences he called “epiphanies.” For Joyce, who believed in “the significance of trivial things,” an epiphany was a moment of spiritual revelation sparked by a seemingly insignificant detail. A chance word, a particular gesture or situation could suddenly reveal a significant truth about an entire life.
He also continued work on a novel he had started in Ireland. The first, brief version of what we know as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man had been
curtly rejected in 1904, before Joyce left Ireland. “I can’t print what I can’t understand,” wrote the British editor who refused it. Undaunted, Joyce expanded the story to nearly one thousand pages. It now bore the title Stephen Hero, and was a conventional Bildungsroman- a novel about a young man’s moral and psychological development. Other examples of such novels might include D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913) or Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh (1903). (Some critics would be more specific and call Stephen Hero and A Portrait of the Artist Kunstlerromane- novels about the development of young artists.) Then, dissatisfied, Joyce decided to recast his novel into a shorter, more original form. The final version of Portrait of the Artist was stalled by British censorship and it was not until 1914 that Joyce, with the help of Yeats and the American poet Ezra Pound, was able to get it printed in serial form in a “little review,” The Egoist. Dubliners, long delayed by printers’ boycotts because of its supposed offensiveness, also appeared the same year. In 1916 Portrait of the Artist was published in book form in England and the United States, thanks only to the efforts of Harriet Weaver, editor of The Egoist, and Joyce’s faithful financial and moral supporter.
When Portrait of the Artist did appear, critical reaction was mixed. It was called “garbage” and “brilliant but nasty,” among other things. Some readers objected to the graphic physical description, the irreverent treatment of religious matters, the obscurity of its symbolism, and its experimental style. But it was also
praised by others as the most exciting English prose of the new century. Joyce, who had fled to neutral Switzerland at the outbreak of World War I, was hailed as “a new writer with a new form” who had broken with the tradition of the English novel.
What sets Portrait of the Artist apart from other confessional novels about the development of a creative young man, like D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh is that the action takes place mainly in the mind of the central character. To portray that mind, Joyce began to develop a technique called the interior monologue, or stream of consciousness, in which he quoted directly the random, unshaped thoughts of his hero. Joyce used this technique sparingly in Portrait of the Artist; he exploited it more fully in his later novels.
Portrait of the Artist also differs from more conventional novels because it doesn’t show Stephen Dedalus’ development in a straightforward chronological progression. Nor do you see it through easily understood flashbacks to the past.
Instead Joyce presents a series of episodes that at first may seem unconnected but which in fact are held together by use of language, images, and symbols. Joyce’s language changes as Stephen moves from infancy to manhood. The boy who is “nicens little baby tuckoo” becomes the proud young artist who writes in his diary brave promises about forging “the uncreated conscience of my race.” Images and symbols are repeated to reveal Stephen’s innermost feelings. For example, a rose, or rose color, represents a yearning for romantic love and beauty; the color yellow a revulsion from sordid reality; and birds or flight, an aspiration to creative freedom (and, less often, the threat of punishment and loss of freedom). Such images often relate to larger motifs drawn from religion, philosophy, and myth. Joyce framed his novel in a superstructure of myth (see the section on the Daedalus myth) to relate his hero’s personal experience to a universal story of creativity, daring, pride, and self-discovery.
This constellation of words, images, and ideas gives Portrait of the Artist a complex texture that offers you far more than a surface telling of Stephen Dedalus’ story ever could. It’s not easy to explore all the layers of the novel.
Joyce removes familiar guideposts. Cause and effect is lost; scenes melt into one another, and the passage of time is not specified. Joyce doesn’t explain the many references to places, ideas, and historical events that fill Stephen’s mind. It’s up to you to make the connections. But if you do, you’ll find the effort worthwhile.
You’ll be participating with Stephen Dedalus in his journey of self-discovery.
After Portrait of the Artist, Joyce went even further in transforming the novel in his later works, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Both are virtually plotless and try to reflect the inner workings of the mind in language that demands much from the reader. Stephen Dedalus appears again, though in a secondary role, as a struggling young writer in Ulysses. This epic novel connects one day’s wanderings of Leopold Bloom, a Jewish Dubliner, with the twenty-year wanderings of the ancient Greek hero Ulysses recounted in Homer’s Odyssey.
Ulysses is in some ways a continuation of Portrait of the Artist.
Again, no English publisher would print Ulysses because of its sexual explicitness and earthy language. It was printed privately in Paris in 1922.
Although its early chapters were published serially in the United States, further publication was banned and it was not legally available in the United States again until 1933, when a historic decision written by United States District Judge John Woolsey ruled that it was not obscene.
By then Joyce was living in Paris, an international celebrity and the acknowledged master of the modern literary movement. But even his warmest admirers cooled when Finnegans Wake was published in 1939. He was disheartened by the hostile reactions to the extremely obscure language and references in what he felt was his masterwork, the depiction of a cosmic world, built from the dreams of one man in the course of a night’s sleep.
Joyce was also increasingly depressed by his failing eyesight, as well as his daughter Lucia’s mental illness. His reliance on alcohol increased. Once again a world war sent him into exile in neutral Switzerland. Joyce died in Zurich in 1941.
James Joyce had lived to write. He became a priest of art, as he (Stephen) had promised in Portrait of the Artist. Because of his original use of language to tell a story that simultaneously combined mankind’s great myths, individual human psychology, and the details of everyday life, Joyce is now held by many to be the most influential prose writer of this century. His influence was felt by many others, including Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, and Samuel Beckett. He has left his mark on any writer who uses the stream-of-consciousness technique (see the section on Style), or employs language in a fresh and punning way. And for many writers, like the Anglo-American poet T. S. Eliot, his use of myth to give shape to the chaos of modern life had “the importance of a scientific discovery.”