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

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I still treasure the memory: a sunny spring afternoon in the year 2000, the last class of the school day, AP English. Mrs. Hannah distributed Perma-Bound school copies of the Signet Classics edition of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. A few students read the back cover or paged through the volume or skipped to the end to see how many pages they were obligated to read; but the ones who sampled the novel’s first lines—

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….

—looked up from the book puzzled, and one finally exclaimed to Mrs. Hannah, “What the hell?” Later, my friend and I—he was budding painter and musician, I an aspiring writer, and we edited the school’s literature and art magazine together—agreed that this was the ideal reaction to the opening of a novel, that novelists should do their best to provoke it.

Once the initial surprise passes, though, Joyce’s gambit—more uncharitably, his gimmick—becomes clear. His 1916 autobiographical Künstlerroman, a decade in the making and much revised and condensed from a longer, and more conventional draft, doesn’t narrate his hero’s coming of age either in the historical third person (like Tom Jones) or the retrospective first person (like David Copperfield). Instead, Joyce dramatizes the development, from infancy to college graduation, of the languages in which the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, understands himself and his world; the novel, therefore, begins in babytalk and ends in aesthetic philosophy. To accomplish this end, Joyce uses the technique that had been ripening throughout the 19th century from Austen to Flaubert to Chekhov: free indirect style, in which a third-person narrator’s language blends intimately with the inner monologue of the viewpoint character to create an objective representation of subjective states.

Like Freud, his synonymous contemporary (both names mean “joy”), Joyce wants a technique to bring to light all that is repressed in the shaping of a personality; and like the European theorists that will follow him—Lacan, Foucault, Althusser—he believes that language is the medium in which the psyche grows. Accordingly, we are at every moment in the novel restricted to what young Stephen Dedalus knows and the vocabulary in which he’s able to comprehend it.

Joyce’s effects are most impressive in the opening chapter. He recreates a late-19th century Irish Catholic boyhood in a downwardly-mobile family, surrounded by political controversy over how best to resist the British Empire’s continuing dominance of the island, and subjected to the rigors of a Jesuit boarding school education. While not thought of as Dickensian, Joyce gives Stephen such a bewildering and sometimes violent environment to endure, and such an expressive if limited lexicon of understanding, that we can’t help but pity the sensitive child’s travails.

First, Stephen falls ill with a fever at school. Then Christmas dinner is ruined when a ferocious political argument breaks out, with his father and his father’s friend—both ardent, irreligious nationalists—shouting down his devoutly Catholic governess over whether or not the church was right to disavowal Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell over the extramarital affair that ended his political career; this scene, given mostly in dialogue, is a tour-de-force of the realist theater (Joyce worshiped Ibsen), even though young Stephen understands little of what he’s hearing. Finally, back at school, Stephen accidentally breaks his glasses and is unjustly beaten by a priest for not being able to complete his assignments. Joyce expertly and almost uncomfortably recreates the helpless confusion of childhood, which we gloss over in our sentimentalizations. Stephen, already thinking like a writer, tries to place himself in the widening contexts at the center of which he stands powerless, even though to name these contexts is already to attain a measure of power:

He turned to the flyleaf of the geography and read what he had written there: himself, his name and where he was.

Stephen Dedalus
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
County Kildare
The World
The Universe

The end of the chapter accordingly gives Stephen his first triumph, when he reports his unjust beating to the rector of the boarding school and is assured he will be spared further unwarranted discipline. After this, the myopic boy thrills to the multisensory beauty of his surroundings in language charged with poetic artifice:

In the soft grey silence he could hear the bump of the balls: and from here and from there through the quiet air the sound of the cricket bats: pick, pack, pock, puck: like drops of water in a fountain falling softly in the brimming bowl.

Yet Joyce’s narrative design never lets Stephen rest. He seems to succeed in some domain at the end of each of the novel’s five chapters, but the beginning of each subsequent chapter qualifies the previous one’s climax by introducing Stephen to a new circumstance that entangles him in a more complex conflict. After Stephen scores his boyhood win against the sadistic priest, he finds, in chapter two, that his father’s profligacy necessitates the family’s move from the country to the city. His developing literary tastes—which run, Romantically, to Dumas and Byron—also conflict with the sham piety of his bullying classmates. Moreover, the erotic reveries his reading inspires can find little outlet in a social milieu run more or less as a Catholic theocracy. At end of chapter two, the post-pubescent Stephen loses his virginity in a brothel, bringing his adolescent romanticism to its ambivalent head:

He stretched out his arms in the street to hold fast the frail swooning form that eluded him and incited him: and the cry that he had strangled for so long in his throat issued from his lips. It broke from him like a wail of despair from a hell of sufferers and died in a wail of furious entreaty, a cry for an iniquitous abandonment, a cry which was but the echo of an obscene scrawl which he had read on the oozing wall of a urinal.

In chapter three, our Jesuit-educated protagonist repents his sexual incontinence during a retreat, when a priest gives a two-day sermon on the tortures of hell. The lengthy homily is a Joycean masterpiece of parodic ventriloquism; he perfectly captures the intellectual cleric’s calm, logical, and orderly recitation of the absurd horrors that await the sinner:

—The horror of this strait and dark prison is increased by its awful stench. All the filth of the world, all the offal and scum of the world, we are told, shall run there as to a vast reeking sewer when the terrible conflagration of the last day has purged the world. The brimstone, too, which burns there in such prodigious quantity fills all hell with its intolerable stench; and the bodies of the damned themselves exhale such a pestilential odour that, as saint Bonaventure says, one of them alone would suffice to infect the whole world.

Stephen, recommitted to his faith, becomes extravagantly pious, conceiving his whole life in terms of spiritual credit and debit—when he envisions “his soul in devotion pressing like fingers the keyboard of a great cash register and to see the amount of his purchase start forth immediately in heaven,” Joyce can be heard parodying Ireland’s provincial debasement of spirituality to utilitarian calculus—until, in chapter four, he is invited to become a Jesuit priest himself. Having swung from the basest sensuality to the most exacting idealism, precisely what one would expect given his dualist religious training that sunders soul from body, he flees this vocational call and for the first time understands his true life’s task. He will become an artist, a poet, one who finds spiritual radiance within the material world. This epiphany manifests itself to him as he walks along the strand and spies a girl wading in the sea:

Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy. Her eyes had called him and his soul had leaped at the call. To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life! A wild angel had appeared to him, the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life, to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory.

Chapter five revokes this consecration to ecstatically late-Romantic art—Joyce was again parodying prior discourses in Stephen’s epiphany, written as it is the tones of England’s art-for-art’s-sake late-Victorian prose master, Walter Pater—and dramatizes the travails of Stephen’s college years. There is his friction with his pious mother as he comes to refuse his religion and his not dissimilar conflicts with his classmates over his aloof refusal to commit to the two fashionable causes of the moment, the Irish cultural revival and international socialism. Instead of religion or ideology, he attempts to assemble his own aesthetic theory to ground his future artistic productions. Joyce, a master dialectician, shows that Stephen’s secular philosophy of art depends on the theology he so flagrantly rejects, as the young theorist approaches Flaubert’s formulations about a necessarily impersonal fiction by way of Aquinas’s aesthetics:

The lyrical form is in fact the simplest verbal vesture of an instant of emotion, a rhythmical cry such as ages ago cheered on the man who pulled at the oar or dragged stones up a slope. He who utters it is more conscious of the instant of emotion than of himself as feeling emotion. The simplest epical form is seen emerging out of lyrical literature when the artist prolongs and broods upon himself as the centre of an epical event and this form progresses till the centre of emotional gravity is equidistant from the artist himself and from others. The narrative is no longer purely personal. The personality of the artist passes into the narration itself, flowing round and round the persons and the action like a vital sea. […] The dramatic form is reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round each person fills every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible esthetic life. The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalizes itself, so to speak. The esthetic image in the dramatic form is life purified in and reprojected from the human imagination. The mystery of esthetic, like that of material creation, is accomplished. The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.

From this, we conclude that the novel itself is a dramatic epic about an artist who develops and then outgrows a purely lyrical sensibility. More personally—though Stephen spends more time thinking about art than life—there is his attenuated romance with a girl named Emma and his fraught, vaguely homoerotic relationship with his best friend, Cranly, to whom he declares, at the novel’s climax, his famous credo of artistic independence from all the institutions that had tried to claim him, whether empire, church, family, or nation:

You have asked me what I would do and what I would not do. I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile and cunning.

The novel ends with a selection of Stephen’s unconvincingly waggish diary entries as the young man plans his flight from Ireland. Named for the first Christian martyr and the Greek builder of labyrinths, our hero sacrifices himself to the ideal of involute artifice as recreation of experience, a goal he couldn’t have formulated without the whole of his education, from overheated Romantic literature to cool Jesuit dogmatics, from political quarrels over nationalism and socialism to sensual dissipation in the red-light district. It takes everything to make him what he becomes, and by the end of the novel he is on his way to becoming the person capable of writing it, of arranging into a crystalline drama all the languages and discourses that have molded his psyche at every moment of his life.

There is no space here to account for the novel’s formal genius, especially the intricate pattern of repeating motifs, such as water, bird, and rose imagery and the rhetorical figure of chiasmus, each of which indexes by its successive reappearances the stages at which Stephen has arrived. The novel is as closely composed as a poem; Joyce, in revising it down to a slim 250 pages from the lengthy Dickensian manuscript with which he began, seems to have wanted to write a novel with no stylistically dull passages. Hugh Kenner long ago noted the book’s Cubist form—among his contemporaries, Joyce shares as much with Picasso as with Freud—in its fragmentary scene-by-scene approach to Stephen’s development, as opposed to the 19th century’s continuous chronicle-style narration.

Does Joyce pay any price for this unsurpassable formal genius? He does: he pays the price of the literary theorists he will later inspire, with their doctrines half-inadvertantly destructive of literature itself. If our subjectivity is exhaustively constituted by the languages that surround us at any given time, then where is the artist’s capacity to create anew? By the end of this Portrait, Joyce’s irony toward Stephen—an irony accomplished simply by setting up the expectation that his present “language” will always be displaced by a new one—comes to feel punitive, even when Joyce clearly satirizes targets he expects his audience to revile, such as Catholic dogma or the priggish, idealist misogyny created both by Stephen’s religious faith and his Romantic enthusiasm. Stephen declares his freedom at the narrative’s conclusion, but he is caught in Joyce’s net. Is our Daedalian artificer free to create anything other than cages for the Minotaur of human emotion? Are all Icarian flights doomed to end in the sea?

Compare Anglophone modernism’s other great male Bildungsroman, Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, a novel at the opposite extreme from A Portrait, long and almost formless, stylistically inert and merely journalistic for long stretches, and yet capable of passionate heights that Joyce’s infinitely more controlled performance cannot attain for all its imagery of flight. (Someone should write an essay contrasting the two novels as examples of what the Protestant and Catholic imaginations can and can’t accomplish in modern fiction.)

But why go so far afield as Lawrence when we could compare A Portrait to the published Stephen Hero, what remains of the novel’s earlier draft, rescued from the fire into which Joyce had thrown it by his companion Nora Barnacle. A much more Lawrence-like performance, stolid and realist, lacking the final version’s poetic language and insights into the linguistics of psychology, it nonetheless affords us a broader perspective on the action. Almost no character aside from Stephen really exists in A Portrait, aside, perhaps, from his charmingly dissolute father. We hardly notice when his boyhood crush Eileen is supplanted by his adolescent girlfriend Emma, and as for Cranly’s motivation, we’re told next to nothing. This limitation is implied by Joyce’s technique, which restricts us to the mind of a man who has, for example, no real relations with women but only puerile obsessions with the trope of “Woman” in a sensibility conditioned by Catholicism and Romanticism. Yet other possibilities for exposing this dilemma exist. Something like the following, a scene from Stephen Hero where the youth discusses Ibsen with his obviously intelligent and open-minded mother, wouldn’t have trespassed on the later novel’s order, yet Joyce wouldn’t risk it:

—I quite agree with you that Ibsen is a wonderful writer.


—Yes, really. His plays have impressed me very much.

—Do you think he is immoral?

—Of course, you know, Stephen, he treats of subjects…of which I know very little myself…subjects…

—Subjects which, you think, should never be talked about?

—Well, that was the old people’s idea but I don’t know if it was right. I don’t know if it is good for people to be entirely ignorant.

—Then why not treat them openly?

—I think it might do harm to some people—uneducated, unbalanced people. People’s natures are so different. You perhaps…

—O, never mind me…Do you think these plays are unfit for people to read?

—No, I think they’re magnificent plays indeed.

—And not immoral?

—I think that Ibsen…has an extraordinary knowledge of human nature…And I think that human nature is a very extraordinary thing sometimes. (Joyce’s ellipses)

These misgivings aside, we know that Joyce will introduce contingency into his corpus in the polytropic person of Leopold Bloom when he composes A Portrait’s stupendous sixth chapter, Ulysses. Even if he hadn’t, though, this book taught me as a young man, from its fairy-tale commencement to its equivocally triumphant conclusion, that there is no limit to the languages a novel can contain and therefore no limit—Joyce’s ironic mortifications notwithstanding—to how creative a novelist can be.



  1. I also read “A Portrait” for AP English and had a similar reaction to that first page.

    BTW have you read Alasdair Gray’s “Lanark”? The realistic half of that novel is the closest thing I’ve seen in contemporary literature to Joyce’s Bildungsroman, though set in Scotland rather than Ireland.

Comments are closed.