Reading ‘Portrait’ as a Young Man

Karl Ove Knausgaard
The New York Times

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Its genesis was long and tortuous — Joyce began writing his novel in 1904 — and the road to its canonisation as one of the seminal works of Western literature was not short either: The reviews spoke of the author’s “cloacal obsession” and “the slime of foul sewers,” comments that seem strange today, insofar as it is the subjective aspect of the book, the struggle that goes on inside the mind of its young protagonist, that perhaps stands out to us now as its most striking feature. What appeared at the time to be unprecedented about the novel seems more mundane to us today, whereas what then came across as mundane now seems unprecedented. Joyce’s novel remains vital, in contrast to almost all other novels published in 1916, because he forcefully strived toward an idiosyncratic form of expression, a language intrinsic to the story he wanted to tell, about the young protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, and his formative years in Dublin, in which uniqueness was the very point and the question of what constitutes the individual was the issue posed. Continue reading “Reading ‘Portrait’ as a Young Man”

Consciousness of the Young Artist

PortraitPericles Lewis
‘The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’
Cambridge Introduction to Modernism

Like T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), though a work of youth, seems prematurely aged. Joyce treats his fictional version of his younger self with a mixture of irony and sympathy. The novel tells the story of Stephen Dedalus, a young Irishman, from earliest childhood until his decision to leave Ireland for Paris and become a writer. Before achieving his destiny as an artist, however, the young man experiences various epiphanies, mostly misleading ones.

The early chapters of the novel chronicle Stephen’s confusions as a small boy at a strict Jesuit school; in his adolescence, he visits prostitutes and wallows in sin; later, he becomes deeply religious and considers entering the priesthood; finally, he recognizes that his destiny is to become not a Catholic priest but a writer, “a priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life.” Joyce signals Stephen’s premature agedness when, after hearing the catalogue of his sins, “a squalid stream of vice,” at confession, a priest asks him his age and Stephen responds: “Sixteen, father.” Continue reading “Consciousness of the Young Artist”