Wednesday, May 2, 2007

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

This book is largely autobiographical, and Joyce invents Stephen Dedalus, whose name I love, to play the role of himself. The name comes from the Catholic Saint Stephen and the pagan legend Dedalus. This juxtaposition perfectly characterizes, and foreshadows, a lot of the internal struggle that Dedalus goes through in the novel. He alternatively devotes himself to and draws away from what he ultimately comes to view as the narrow-mindedness of Irish-Catholicism. Though it isn’t stream of consciousness, like I’d been told, the novel mostly follows Stephen’s internal musings (in the third person), and the occasional dialogue with another, very minor, character. Stephen is the only character that really gets any room to grow in the book, and others come and go without fanfare whenever they prove useful to some point in his development.

The story follows Dedalus from birth to age 22, usually skipping a few years between each episode. He grows up, over about 300 pages, from a schoolboy in rural Ireland to a university student in Dublin. I can relate completely to the narrative of his personal growth: he grows up Catholic, slowly rejects his beliefs, has a brief, dramatic reunion with the church, and then, once again, lets his beliefs slide away and educates himself through what he calls the snares of this world. I know what it’s like to have an estranged relationship with family over the same issues he does. I could even relate to the embarrassing pseudo-intellectualism, the secular humanism and the wanderlust that he passes through between ages 16 and 22. At some points of the book his sense of superiority and literary name-dropping turned him into a less likeable character, but he always redeemed himself with some epiphany as to the futility of whatever he was involved in. At one point he wanders along the oceanfront all night, inspired, by way of an epiphany, to re-create himself through dwelling on his namesake:

What did it mean? Was it a quaint device opening a page of some medieval book of prophecies and symbols, a hawk-like man flying sunward above the sea, a prophecy of the end he had been born to serve and had been following through the mists of childhood and boyhood, a symbol of the artist forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being?

Dedalus struggles against Irish culture at a time when Irish nationalism was gaining popularity. He’s initially embarrassed by his people’s history, their language and their religion, which is another thing that he slowly comes to terms with. Joyce left a lot of pieces of the story to be filled in by the reader; a lot of important events in Stephen’s life are only vaguely alluded to in the narration of his train of thought. Also the reader is subjected to a miserable thirty pages of fire and brimstone sermon, and, later, another equally miserable thirty pages of philosophical discourse on the aesthetic. There’s a lot to dig through, but there’s also a lot to say about personal growth, and “finding yourself.” I’ll bet it spoke volumes to the Irish in the early 1900’s. I, unfortunately, cannot identify myself as such, but thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Note: I’d recommend this version (pictured at the top of this review), published by Penguin, with a black cover and a picture of Joyce, for its great introduction and tremendously helpful notes in the back. I, regrettably, bought the shittier version, and had to borrow a friend’s to find out what doing something “for a cod” meant (it does not mean doing something in order to get a fish, as I had previously assumed).


Brent Waggoner said...

I haven't read this, but I've heard a lot of people cite the sermon as their favorite part.

Nathan said...

It was great at first, evoking all kinds of emotions in Dedalus (you could really feel him squirming), but I was about to fall asleep by the end of it.

Brent Waggoner said...

In that sense, it accurately reflects people's reactions to real sermons.

Nathan said...

Haha, that's true, I didn't think of that. There were a few other spots like that, where I couldn't tell if I was supposed to dislike the character for being pretentious, or if it was just Joyce himself being pretentious.