James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist” has had a powerful impact on me every time I’ve read it. It’s similar to D. H. Lawrence’s autobiographical novel, “Sons and Lovers,” which I also read in my twenties and felt inspired by. Both of these autobiographical novels opened my mind and heart up to the idea of becoming a writer and being, like them, a creator of larger worlds of experience out of stories deriving from one’s family history and one’s personal experiences. We all tell stories to get at the truth about ourselves and our experiences. That’s what has always motivated me to write, and to read biographies, memoirs, novels, etc. and to watch movies sit.coms and plays—to learn more about ourselves and others.
“A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” appears at first to be the usual coming-of-age novel, like “Wilhelm Meister,” ”To Kill a Mockingbird,” or “A Separate Peace”. But Joyce’s novel is only similar to others on the surface. The plot of “Portrait” follows the youth of Stephen Dedalus, as he grows from a child to an adult But underneath that narrative a deeper story is unfurled.Through his imaginative use of the English language Joyce invites his readers to see the infinite in and through through the finite, as William Blake, whom he so admired, did. “A Portrait of the Artist” is truly a great autobiographical novel, a model to learn from and to emulate.
The book also touches on many of the major issues of Ireland in the early 20th century, including Irish nationalism, home rule, a Jesuit education, and the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. These issues however are of secondary importance; what Joyce focuses on is Dedalus’s cognitive, emotional, and spiritual development— learning to deal with the influences that are pushing and pulling him in various directions.
There’s a wonderful scene in the book called “the bird girl scene” where Stephen, the narrator, is watching this young woman standing on the beach. It is an incredible moment, erotic, artistic and worshipful all rolled up into one. He had the intuition and the know-how to be able to put a string of words together so as to point to a much bigger meaningful picture, like any great poet would.
In a later section, the adolescent Stephen, who has been indulging himself with excessive, rich food and in sex with prostitutes, attends a Roman Catholic retreat. Being a Roman Catholic myself, I can assure you of the accuracy of the voice of the uncompromising priest, whose HELLFIRE speech is far worse than anything in Dante’s INFERNO and will leave your head spinning. Is this the religion of the gentle loving and all-forgiving Jesus? I’m afraid not!
However, in my favorite section Joyce describes Stephen’s solitary trek into the countryside during which he brings himself into accord with the universe and is blessed with an epiphany (Joyce’s term) of a young woman standing ankle deep in a river, whose beauty touches his soul, but whom he has no desire to possess physically.
Joyce later uses the term from Thomistic philosophy, AESTHETIC ARREST, to identify this moment of maturity.
A PORTRAIT ends with a most satisfying feeling of finding one’s own true vocation, having already achieved the freedom to follow it. It’s breathtaking!
In Joyce’s next novel, ULYSESS, the protagonist is still Stephen Daedalus, but now through further experiences in the wider world he has returned to Ireland, a wiser but a sadder man. But that is another story.
A PORTRAIT is one of the most beautiful novels ever written, or at least, that I have ever had the opportunity to read and re-read. One dimension of that beauty are the frequent passages of luminous poetic prose; however, other passages lack any trace of poetry. This is because the prose style of each sections reflects the CONSCIOUSNESS of Stephen Daedalus. This is not yet the STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS technique of Joyce’s two last novels, “ Ulysses” and “Finnigan’s Wake,” but it was a big step toward it.