Saturday, 17 March 2001

James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man (1916)

Edition: Granada, 1977
Review number: 785

The autobiographical elements in this novel perhaps tend to distract the reader from its purpose. As its title implies, it is intended to show something of what it is which makes someone an artist (in this particular case, a poet). The scenes from the life of Stephen Daedalus - the novel is not a continuous narrative but a series of chronologically organised episodes - show a boy who is never part of the world around him, always observing it as a stranger.

The relationship between Stephen and his Catholic faith is a vitally important part of the novel. Like most Irish children of the time, his education was provided by the church, and at one point he seriously considers entering the priesthood. (It is his need to be an outsider which convinces him that he doesn't have a vocation.) A mjor part of the central chapter is taken up by a long talk given by a priest to schoolboys on the subject of hell and its torments, and Stephen's reactions are very revealing of both his character and his background.

The relationship is quite complicated, with Stephen both yearning to be freed from the restrictions of his upbringing and desperate to live the pure life of faith he feels is demanded from him. Neither side is going to have an easy victory and of course internal division is central to Joyce's view of the life of the artist. (He of course spent his life as an Irish author writing about the essence of Irishness while in exile.) Given the Catholic virtual monopoly on education, many boys must have had similar experiences, and I suppose that it is the nature of the artist to be particularly sensitive to it, as Stephen is.

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