Sunday, January 10, 2010

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

The novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (1882 – 1941) is a semi-autobiographical novel where one Stephen Dedalus finds himself as an artist and in the process refuses to be bound by family, country or religion. The story takes places at the end of the nineteenth century, 1880 – 1900, when Ireland is dealing with questions of autonomy and the role of the Catholic Church.

Luckily I stumbled on to Spark Notes for Portrait about halfway through the book, because it was in those notes that I realized I missed the point of some key events that happened in the first few chapters. Oops. I could not tell what was real and what wasn’t with the stream of consciousness style of writing. I guess I’m a little rusty without an English teacher to walk me through a novel like this. (There is also a good 40 minute discussion of the book on the BBC radio show In Our Time located here.)

Joyce is considered to be one of the most influential writers of the 20th century or so I’m told. Okay, but something still doesn’t sit well for me after finishing the book. It’s a combination of the following: I feel slighted because I don’t “get it” as in it was too artsy for me; there were too many footnotes (50 pages worth in the edition I read) and it was overwhelming; I just didn’t care much for the intricacies of Catholicism like that a chaplet is one third of rosary; and perhaps mostly, while I identified with Stephen’s quest and the difficulty of it (re: breaking free), I just didn’t care much for Stephen the character/person.

Travelmarx Quicknotes for ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’: Boy has sing/song, stream of consciousness memories when young. Gets thrown in a sewer while at school, catches a cold, and reader is treated to dream sequence where boy thinks he is dying. ‘Christmas dinner’ incident – basically, a huge family fight – adds nervous energy for dozens of pages. Fast forward some years and visits to prostitutes start – he can’t stop it and it feels good. But eventually, a long sermon (and I mean a really long sermon) from a priest scares the bejesus out of him. Boy rebounds to be dogmatic in his religious practice and walks around counting rosaries in his pocket. But it’s no good, he can’t take it and he wanders back to middle ground. Meanwhile, boy dreams of this one girl who he never ‘gets’ and disparges all other female characters in the novel. (But, doesn’t seem to like his father either or really anyone for that matter.) Boy, now getting in his late teens and the oldest in family, seems to wander in and out of his family’s house and his siblings seem to be ghosts who sacrifice to send him to good schools. At good schools, boy misses classes and wanders around aimlessly with deep thoughts. Then, an epiphany moment, boy decides to dedicate himself to be an artist after seeing a girl on the beach (called ‘bird girl’ by scholars in the know). More sulking occurs and the reader is treated to converstations with other students whom the boy seems to despise but whom, you the reader, will probably like. Boy starts to lay out his artistic principles in these conversations. Last few pages of book, boy’s journal entries, in first person, tell reader he is about ready to fly the coop.

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