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NA736612 - JOYCE, J.: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (A) (Unabridged)
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 as a Young Man, James Joyce recreates not merely the memories of infancy but its language, sounds and sensations too. He recreates them rather than describes them, and the reader is immediately drawn into the half-remembered world of childhood by the rhythm and flavour of Joyce’s prose: ‘When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oilsheet. That had the queer smell.’
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 Dublin at the end of the nineteenth century. The biography is in many ways unremarkable—the trials of school life, family tensions and financial insecurities, growing political and religious awareness, and the transition to manhood—a biography shared in outline 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 of people around him mark him out from others. His description of a Christmas dinner—the first in which the young Stephen is allowed to participate, rather than being banished to the nursery—begins as the description of a warm family occasion, but ends in disarray as discussion turns to violent political argument about the role of the church in the downfall of the Nationalist leader Parnell. This Christmas day was clearly a vivid memory for Joyce:
More than simply vivid, though, this memory has a special significance, marking the beginning of his own awareness of the meaning of betrayal, a theme which runs throughout Joyce’s work from Dubliners to Finnegans Wake. Other themes encountered in the novel also carry forward into the later work, and a full understanding of his great novel Ulysses – where we again encounter Stephen Dedalus and members of his immediate family—is probably dependent on familiarity with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The novel also serves as a transition from the comparatively conventional style of writing in the earlier collection of short stories (Dubliners) and the radical literary techniques of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, we quickly become accustomed to sudden shifts forward in time, from one moment of significance to another, without any attempt to chronicle the events of the intervening period. Immediately after the Christmas dinner, we find ourselves with Stephen at his boarding school on a summer’s afternoon (the sound of cricket bats can be heard in the distance: ‘pick, pack, pock, puck’) and follow a sequence of events which culminate in Stephen suffering the indignity and pain of a wrongful thrashing from an overzealous housemaster. Stephen’s 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. A series of isolated moments—epiphanies—are presented in quick succession without comment: the contrast between ‘the beautiful Mabel Hunter’ photographed in his aunt’s evening paper and the dirty boy bringing in coal for her fire; the strange apparition of ‘a feeble creature like a monkey’ calling from the darkened hallway; a moment of intimacy with a childhood sweetheart. Finally, Stephen takes a trip to the southern city of Cork with his father. Here there is a startling moment when he observes the word foetus carved into a desk at his father’s old college. The word revolts him, but returns to his mind repeatedly, reminding him of his own need to grow from his embryonic and vulgar state.
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. This is in many ways the crux of the novel, and the subject of the original 1904 article which Joyce developed over the next ten years, through the abandoned novel Stephen Hero which preceded A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Here, in the third chapter, Joyce charts Stephen’s battle to renounce his addiction (at 16) to the sins of the flesh. Joyce frames the stages of this battle with a series of long and vivid sermons on Hell delivered to pupils during a weekend retreat at his school. It’s terrifying stuff—‘walls four thousand miles thick’, ‘a neverending storm of darkness, dark flames and dark smoke’, and ‘fetid carcasses massed together in the reeking darkness, a huge and rotting human fungus’—and it finds its mark:
Shocked into repentance Stephen makes confession and in chapter four he adopts a more sober way of life, and finds himself being offered the opportunity to be put forward for training to the priesthood. The realisation 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 of Dublin bay gazing out to sea. The magic of this moment and the meeting of their eyes, triggers 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, but also with family and homeland. A true story told to him by his simple friend Davin, about an encounter with a seductive peasant woman, symbolizes for Stephen the dangerous lure of Ireland from which he must break free. 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.’
Meanwhile, in a meandering conversation with his intellectual sparring partner Lynch, he attempts a definition of Art, and expounds on Aquinas’s theory of beauty. Though pretentious in tone, as befits the arrogant would-be poet, the theorising makes perfect sense, and ends with an ambitious mission statement: ‘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.’
Here, finally, is Stephen/Joyce, the artist who is about to leave Ireland for ever, 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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