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NA307012 - JOYCE, J.: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (A) (Abridged)
A Portrait of The Artist
as a Young Man
‘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…’
So begins the first great novel by one of the twentieth century’s most innovative writers. Here, in the opening pages of A Portrait of the Artist a Young Man, Joyce recreates not merely the memories of childhood but the language, sounds and
sensations of childhood too. He recreates them rather than describes them, and
the reader is immediately drawn into the half-remembered world of infancy by the rhythm and flavor of Joyce’s poetic prose. The childhood remembered is that of Joyce himself (though for the purposes of the novel he has another name: Stephen Dedalus), and the incidents recalled are all incidents from Joyce’s own early days growing up in Ireland at the end of the last century. The biography is in many ways unremarkable — a school life, family background, growing political and religious awareness and transition to manhood undoubtedly shared by Joyce with countless other young Irishmen. What makes this biography so special is that its protagonist is clearly not unremarkable, and that his perception and analysis of events and people around him mark him out from others. His description of a Christmas dinner, which turns into a rowdy political argument about the role of the church in the downfall of the nationalist leader Parnell, is more than a vivid memory for Joyce. It marks the beginning of his own awareness of the meaning of betrayal. And when at school he suffers the indignity and pain of a wrongful thrashing, his success in demanding justice gives him his first lesson in self-confidence and his first taste for heroism.
With the second chapter of the book Stephen begins his long journey to
independence. On his journey to Cork with his father, he senses already that his father’s world is one he cannot share. Here, Joyce introduces the first startling moment of realization, an epiphany of sorts, when Stephen observes the word foetus carved into a desk at his father’s old college. The word both revolts him and reminds him of his own need to grow from his embryonic and vulgar state, returning to his mind for several hours afterwards. Soon after this, a further significant step towards manhood is encountered in the dark streets of the brothel area, and Stephen begins a swift descent into inner turmoil, made more unbearable by the vivid imagery of a sermon on Hell delivered to pupils during a weekend retreat at his school. “Every word of it was for him. Against his sin, foul and secret, the whole wrath of God was aimed. Shocked into repentance, Stephen makes confession and adopts a more sober way of life, even being offered the opportunity to put himself forward for training to the priesthood. The realization that such a life is not for him, however, is most vividly conveyed when he experiences another ‘epiphany’ in the form of a girl standing in the shallows gazing out to sea. The magic of this moment and the meeting of their eyes trigger the start of the final phase of Stephen’s journey to freedom. In the final chapter, the confident young university student grapples with matters of language and aesthetics. In a delightful scene with the Dean of Studies, the use of the word ‘funnel’ rather than the Irish word ‘tundish’ reminds Stephen that for him the English language is “an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words.”
Here, finally, is Stephen/Joyce, the artist who is about to leave Ireland forever,
to continue to grapple with and force into submission the words of the English
language, and with them to paint the Ireland of his youth for the enlightenment of readers in all parts of the world. For Stephen, like the Daedalus of mythology, is to soar high above ordinary folk, above matters of race or religion, and ultimately above art.
Notes by Roger Marsh
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