Saturday, June 26, 2010

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

His sins trickled from his lips, one by one, trickled in shameful drops from his soul festering and oozing like a sore, a squalid stream of vice. The last sins oozed forth, sluggish, filthy.

A month or so ago, Randy posted a scathing review of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and he and I (and Christopher) had a short discussion about it. You can read it in the comments for the post, but it boiled down, I think, to this: Randy felt like nothing that happened in the book was particularly interesting or significant. He felt like the events were interesting only to the extent the reader was invested in the character of Stephen Dedalus, the titular artist. I responded out of ignorance, not having read Portrait, but now, having finished it, I have to say, while I disagree with many of Randy’s conclusions, I do agree with one thing: Stephen is a difficult protagonist to really like.

The extent to which a character must be likable to be successful is variable; Ignatius Riley is an ignoble beast, but since A Confederacy of Dunces spends time pointing out his follies, he’s paradoxically easier to forgive. Stephen, on the other hand, seems to be presented as exactly the artist he believes himself to be. Reading Portrait, it’s difficult to determine the extent to which the reader is meant to like Stephen. On the one hand, it’s easy to cheer for his progression from mousy, guilt-ridden child to independent young artist; on the other, Stephen’s attitude changes from subservient and weak-kneed to almost unbearably arrogant and self-important.

Ok, so a quick summary for those who didn’t read the review linked above: Stephen Dedalus, a young man growing up in Dublin, Ireland around the turn of the 18th century, grows up in a factitious family, headed by a once great father who now lives mostly in a whiskey-clouded past and a mother whose only identifiable characteristic is her passive love for her son. He attends Catholic school, hears a lengthy sermon about Hell, turns devout, gets cold feet when approached with the idea of the priesthood, turns agnostic, seeks to find his purpose in art rather than Catholicism, and finds it. The end.

The novel is structured around two Joycean epiphanies, mentioned above: first, Stephen’s venture into devout Catholicism, and second, his change of direction into the world of art. Portrait seems to present the second of these as the more legitimate, ending with a blissful, purposeful Stephen out to face the world with his newfound philosophy. Is Stephen a successful character? Well, that depends. Had I only read Portrait, I think I would feel that the story was unfinished and that Stephen, as a character, was a bit simple. However, having read Ulysses last year, my feelings about Artist are significantly more positive. Spoilers for Ulysses follow, such as they are.

While Ulysses doesn’t spend most of its time on Stephen, he does appear as the most important secondary character in the novel, and what we see of him shows us where his path will eventually lead. Education and art, far from being the void-filling purpose Stephen believed them to be in Portrait, have proven just as stifling as his pursuit of religion, leaving him a depressed, empty intellectual who garners little respect and still lingers in the shadow of his father. This, to me, seems rather in keeping with Stephen’s character: every epiphany satisfies, but only for a little while. There is, in Joyce’s world, no one solution to the human problem, and so there is none for Stephen’s either. End Ulysses Spoilers.

If I may leave Portrait behind for a moment, I’d like to say that, brilliant as his novels are, Joyce’s books make me feel sad. It’s sad to imagine that such a brilliant man spent his entire life trying to create art that would satisfy him, and, though he went blind and died nearly friendless in the pursuit, he, like Stephen, never achieved it. It’s hard to read Stephen as anything but a surrogate for Joyce, the artist as an old man who ended up exactly like I imagine Stephen will.

So, to return to the point: Is Stephen, and by association, Portrait, successful on its own terms? Stephen, with all of his ambiguities, is successful in portraying the sort of man he is. If the novel seems a bit empty to me, it’s only because, ultimately, it is, but in the best possible—and I think, intentional—way.

Read Nathan's much more coherent review

3 comments:

Christopher said...

To what extent can we see Stephen's forsaking Catholicism for art as reflective of the rise of Modernism?

R.M.Fiedler said...

So, would you recommend Ulysses to someone who read Portrait and didn't like it?

Brent Waggoner said...

I like Ulysses a lot better than Portrait. That said, the first section (about 1/3) of Ulysses is sort of similar, and it'll take longer to get through. I think it's well worth reading though.