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[650] A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce

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” I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.” (Chapter V, p.268-9)

The novel portrays Stephen Dedalus’s childhood and youth up to the age of about 20. “This race and this country and this life produced me,” declares Stephen, an alter ego, and artistic image of James Joyce himself. As a young boy growing up in Ireland during a period of political turmoil, Stephen’s Catholic faith and Irish nationality heavily influence him. The world presses on him incessantly and he cannot tolerate the painful form form of reality—the dread of boarding school life, bullying, class difference, poverty, perpetual struggle between catholic and Protestant, and a continuing quarrel with his mother.

He had known neither the pleasure of companionship with others nor the vigour of rude male health nor filial piety. Nothing stirred within his soul but a cold and cruel and loveless lust. His childhood was dead or lost and with it his soul capable of simple joys, and he was drifting amid life like the barren shell of the moon. (Chapter II, p.102)

Joyce has a cunning capacity to externalize Stephen’s consciousness. Reader is given only some highly concentrated sense of home, school, and streets that presses so intensely upon Stephen’s spirit. While he is acutely sensitive to all that happens around him, he doesn’t necessarily understand everything. As reality slowly encroaches upon his internal reveries and teenage angst, he becomes alienated from his peers as his family struggles from one property to another and his father, for whom he loses respect, from pub to pub seeking work. Straitened finance also means withdrawal from boarding school. The prize from an essay contest also becomes succor for family rent and provision. During his attendance in a prestigious day school in Dublin, Stephen, in defiance of religious upbringing, throws himself with debauched abandon.

All through his boyhood he had mused upon that which he had so often thought to be his destiny and when the moment had come for him to obey the call he had turned aside, obeying a wayward instinct. (Chapter IV, p.179)

Recognized he might be condemned for his sins, he is immersed in a pronounced but short-lived religious devotion. His fate is almost sealed as he is invited to take Holy Orders, which he rejects with conviction, at the realization that he must arrive at his conviction through spiritual agony.

The novel, retrospective speaking, heralds Stephen’s rejection of the environment and traditional voice of authority that eventually shapes his artistic talent. He must break away from the consciousness of the boundaries of family and religion in order to be in touch with his consciousness of the world. Wisdom of the priest didn’t touch him quick because he must experience the snares of the world to see sensual beauty. Joyce’s style is direct and visceral, but memories are recollected in a disjointed manner—so capricious and random is his perception of events. The prose gives reader the sense that he is seeing what Stephen sees and experiencing his life first hand.

329 pp. Penguin Classics 2003. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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