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

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By Edited Aug 6, 2016 0 2

A Book Review

James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is an exploration of the mind and social influences that create, control, and eventually include internal struggle for the character Stephen Dedalus. Joyce makes use of intensely vivid language and linguistic devices to provide the reader with clear imagery, thought provoking and emotional issues. This paper is a brief essay on the artistry, method, and ideas presented in Joyce's book. Included in this essay are the views of two critics (Sheldon Brivic and Norman N. Holland) of this book PORTRAIT.

Joyce draws upon experiences from his early life in Ireland, but not so much as to be an autobiography. Many of the events and characters in his book were representatives of real people and events in Joyce's life that impacted his beliefs. Irish colloquial language is dispersed throughout PORTRAIT. This use of native language helps pull the reader into the time period portrayed by Joyce. Joyce also uses Latin to help formalize the experiences he describes in the church and college. However, the use of Latin is not unusual in stories that include or involve the Catholic Church.

Joyce uses interesting choices of words to describe and build images in the readers mind. Let's take for example his description of the flight of a football; a "greasy leathery orb flying like a heavy bird through the gray light." He portrays Stephen Dedalus's prayers as "ascending to heaven from his purified heart like perfumed streaming upwards from a heart of white rose." In describing a sermon, Stephen feels "his soul . . . congealing into the gross grease." These three examples cause the reader to stop momentarily to evaluate the image and its' meaning.

Joyce's protagonist, Stephen, is written as a naive victim of his circumstances, always questioning and never receiving answers that are consistent or confluent to his needs. Several ideas appear to help explicate Stephen Dedalus's character and his development. These ideas include Stephen's belief that he is a weak child as compared to other regular children. While playing football as a child, he describes himself as small and weak. Not just weakness, but his fear of injury and the violence associated with the sport. Stephen's presents an image of this fear and weakness as he describes a scrimmage as fearing the opponents "flashing eyes and muddy boots." Stephen finds himself early on becoming alienated from his classmates when he takes a stand in support of the poet Byron, whom his classmates consider a heretic and immoral. He further begins to experience a sense of alienation within the church school environment as he begins to question the rationale of what the Priests tell him.

Stephen's father is presented as ineffectual, a father who doesn't provide mentoring to his son. Yet, his father is also described in contradiction as stern and just. He does not receive fatherly counsel and valuable advice, with the exception of the warning never to tell on another fellow. During a scene after Stephen proudly reports to his parents how he righted a wrong done by one of the Fathers who wrongly punished him, Stephen overheard his father speaking of his son's act in jest, resulting in Stephen's feeling betrayed.

For Stephen, even the Priests fail to provide the male role models, mentorship, and positive motivation for him to follow and emulate. These religious leaders instead begin to be the vision and embodiment of evil and fear. Stephen finds their actions and treatments unjust and eventually he becomes angered with them. The intense and vividly description of fire and brimstone sermons given to the students does more to feed fear and confusion in their young minds, and as well, resentment by Stephen. However, as the story moves on Stephen begins to recognize the Priests as human and not as something more than that as his family (particularly Dante) describes them. With this new view of these religious leaders, his fear, as well as his respect, for these men faded.

Joyce writes each chapter with Stephen facing a scale of turmoil and triumph. The scale leans towards triumph at the end of each chapter until the next chapter begins when turmoil overtakes once again. Neither side of the scale clearly overtakes the other for long, as if to keep some sense of balance. There always exists an element of faith. For Joyce this faith is linked to perseverance and confidence. Stephen's triumph over Father Dolan's unjust discipline is followed by Stephen's classmates' celebration of his victory. Later Stephen's meets with a prostitute and as a result, he feels strong and sure of himself. Eventually he hears inspiring sermons in that motivate him to begin, "a life of grace and virtue and happiness!" In chapter four, Stephen swears to himself to follow the "name of (his) fabulous artificer." However, he views a girl looking out to sea, and the experience causes a feeling in him that makes his "body . . . aglow" and experiencing "profound joy." Finally, Stephen, determined to leave Ireland, has a change in attitude and proclaims, "Welcome, O life." Joyce ends each chapter on somewhat of a positive or consoling note with Stephen prepared for the next phase of life.

Sheldon Brivic, using Freudian psychoanalytical theories, critiques Stephen's development from childhood to adulthood as linked to "an oedipal desire for the mother," presenting the "romantic fantasies and feelings of guilt attendant upon the oedipal complex explain everything from Stephen's " . . . relationship with Eileen, fear of "castration, violence, and homosexuality (245)." Brivic explores this view by critiquing this book on three levels. The first level is that of Freudian analysis, noting that "Joyce knew about Freud" and that PORTRAIT is Joyce's illustration of Freud's theories. The second level of discussion is a psychoanalytical analysis of the literary character Stephen, arguing that his (Stephen's) goals and struggles are the product of his unconscious motivations (246). The final level is the analysis of PORTRAIT itself, "a structure whose motivation is . . . unconscious, an artifact that contains and describes dreams and at the same time functions something like a dream, revealing what its author (and reader) might not otherwise speak (or hear) of (246)."

Brivic believed some of the story was designed to present Freud's ideas. Yet, most of the "novel's motivation" was still unconsciously designed (251). He also believed "the different sides of Stephen in PORTRAIT express different intentions of Joyce" (251). Joyce is portraying cycles of life, of triumph and falls, "encounters of life," over and over again, and "Stephen's commitment "to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!" (152 - PORTRAIT) makes him aware that any position he takes is only a stage in a process of reversals (266)."

In Norman N. Holland's "Reader-Response" critique of PORTRAIT, he argues against the idea that the symbolism in this story has universal meaning "that holds true for believer and nonbeliever, feminist and masculinity, teenager and old-time" (279). For Holland, the overriding theme of this story is "to have faith." And his (Holland's) response to this idea, "non serviam, is I refuse." The arguments presented in this critique attack the very language used by Joyce, as Holland sees it, to control the reader. Holland is especially critical of Joyce's choice of vocabulary attributed to the baby talk in the very beginning of the book and the "schoolboy and his collegian's" bantering. Holland does however, find in Joyce's writing, the power to provoke with words, ideas, and thoughts in the readers mind, as though controlling the reader.

Holland's response to this control is, "I choose what to admire, and I choose the sermons, knowing I can and do limit them (293)." There are two points to this statement by Holland: first that we choose what we like and choose what to find meaning in, as we read any story; secondly, that for Holland, the sermons presented in this story are the "centerpiece of the novel" (282). Each sermon was setting the stage for the others. The words of the Fathers create and answer the conflicts embroiled in Stephen. "Stephen/Joyce writes as though the words were the things themselves (282)."

PORTRAIT is the story of Stephen Dedalus, his alienation, disillusionment, and the mental and moral anguish he feels from his relationship with his family and church. Joyce's PORTRAIT is a formidable piece, not written for mere entertainment of the reader, but as thought provoking and thought challenging. Holland describes this challenge best as, "It lets us see ourselves as we make our own sense of what we read. When we do, Joyce makes into an artist not only himself, but every one of us (294)."


Joyce, James (edited by R. B. Kershner). A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1993. 3-294

James Joyce, 1915

James Joyce
Credit: Alex_Ehrenzweig,_1915_restored


Sep 9, 2014 1:03pm
I have often wanted to read James Joyce, particularly "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man."
You have great insight and understanding of the work - you are a true intellectual.
Sep 9, 2014 7:21pm
Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed it.
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