“A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” by James Joyce (1916) ★★★★

The Secret Double (Le Double Secret). René Magritte, 1927.
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL, US

“Will the freshness, lightheartedness, the need for love, and strength of faith which you have in childhood ever return?”

― Leo Tolstoy, Childhood (Chapter XV)

Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s pretentious alter-ego, undergoes a vivid transformation from a naive, susceptible infant into an imaginative, though cynical, young adult. The rhythm, one of the most powerful techniques used by the author, carefully follows the intricate metamorphosis of Stephen’s identity. The novel itself opens with a classic children’s tale about a “baby tuckoo” [ sic ], with whom the young narrator instantly identifies, acquiring the tune of the story, as if it was his own:

 “O, the wild rose blossoms
    On the little green place.

He sang that song. That was his song.

    O, the green wothe botheth.”

By including this childish passage into the beginning of the novel, Joyce instantly made Stephen the sole creator of the narrative, so that the readers may witness the gradual expansion of his vocabulary and the development of an individual style as the book progresses. Just like a cuckoo fledgling from the song, Stephen seems to be out of place in his family. His susceptibility to colours, sounds, and feelings, turns young Dedalus into a white crow among his peers (forgive these ornithological metaphors for now, we will return to them later). While other boys play soccer, Stephen is daydreaming and pondering on his place in the world. There is a memorable scene where the young boy tries to figure everything out by elucidating his location – from the objective and coherent “Clongowes Wood College” to the vague, ungraspable “The Universe” (Chapter I). This rumination serves as the birth of an artist; by putting his words into the geography book, Stephen acknowledged his own identity and artistic mission – pursuing the unknown, searching for the truth. Consequently, the boy’s mind landed on an all-encompassing and reassuring, though also terrifying explanation – religion.

The Lovers II (Les amants). René Magritte, 1928.
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York City, NY, US

No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist.”

― Oscar Wilde

Childhood gradually turns into boyhood in the second chapter, as Stephen becomes obsessed with the romantic novel “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Enamoured of the fictional love interest, Stephen embarked on a journey to find its copy in reality. Eventually, he succeeded, falling for a girl named Emma. Even though they have barely spoken a word to each other, enamoured Stephen is convinced – his feeling is real and profound, “an enchantment of the heart” (Chapter V). Nevertheless, all of his thoughts and love poems are addressed to an elusive phantom, a figment of the imagination. The artist neither knows nor wants to know the object of his desire, for he is infatuated with the feeling of love itself. Therefore, Stephen’s poetic vision obscures reality, and only the farewell meeting lifts the lover’s veil from his eyes.

The romantic longing, in turn, was overtaken by “the wasting fires of lust” (Chapter II). As Stephen’s thoughts become more and more obscene, drifting from the romanticism of boyhood into youthful maximalism, the ascending Icarus faces an overwhelming cognitive dissonance. A choice between the pleasure of sin and the sublimity of religion seems impossible to make, thus throwing Stephen from the pinnacle of bliss to the pit of guilt, from one extreme to another. The ever-changing adolescent is forced into blindness again, drowning in self-loathing and utter confusion. At the end of the third chapter, the wholehearted confession had finally set his mind at peace, although the duality of human nature remained unavoidable – and so, even the strictest self-discipline had miserably failed to obliterate Stephen’s sins. Similarly to Magritte’s artwork, “Dieu n’est pas un saint,” where the heavenly creature is touching an earthly object, thus combining the sacred and the secular, Joyce’s protagonist comes to a realization – religious devotion is interspersed with carnal desires. Possessing one does not necessarily prevent the other – quite the opposite, they are two fragments of the whole, and one half would cease to exist without its counterpart. A fervent perfectionist, the aspiring artist then rejected both Heaven and Hell, dedicating himself to Art and Beauty instead. In this way, Stephen Dedalus combatted another form of human blindness – the self-denying faith.

24 thoughts on ““A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” by James Joyce (1916) ★★★★

  1. WOW!!!! It’s pretty rare that these jaded old eyes will tender their forks upon a digital meal of this length but in this case I dove in and delighted. Beautiful work!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for appreciating my writing! To be honest, I was worried about the length, but your reassuring words made me sigh in sweet relief. ☺️

      Liked by 1 person

      1. With attention spans these days, I admit that it’s likely few will do more than skim… but it’s in no way due to the writing. I do have a fondness for this topic (as well as for good writing ;)). Anyone else who does will likewise appreciate its length, I’m sure. :)) Thanks so much for liking and following my blog, which brought me here… I really loved this article, especially with the artworks throughout. Reminded me of university days, and thoughtful essays… beautifully done! 😊🙏🌷

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m incredibly happy to find a like-minded individual here. Your poetry is a splendid combination of wittiness and musicality, and it’s a joy to read every verse!

        Special thanks for appreciating the artworks – Magritte’s syle has always fascinated me, and it’s a pleasure to know someone feels the same. 😉

        It’s delightful that my words bring such fond memories! I’m about to start university – so, for now, writing helps to stay on track and prevents the last scraps of creativity from escaping.

        I wish you lots of inspiration and serene days filled with the warmth of spring!🌹

        Like

      3. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t that familiar with Magritte’s work, though your piece has majorly peaked my interest.

        It’s more the topic of creative energy, self and reflection/expression, illusion and reality that is my main muse, and though I haven’t read James Joyce I’ve read some things about his work, and I feel I can strongly relate, especially to the way you describe it in your piece.

        And… WOW!! again… you’re not even in university yet… you are truly incredible, in my books, to be so hard-working already, so diligent in craft and product. Miles ahead of the game!

        What you said about my poetry enlivened me so much… it means a huge lot to me, thank you very, very kindly. 🔆🌱

        I feel you’re a kindred spirit indeed, and I wish you all the same lovely things. 💖

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Hey there Veronika, just want to say first of all that you provide a very, very thorough and illuminating view of the work through the reading of Daedalus’s rampant and almost infectious ego, so infectious that one is lead into a self aggraindaising stupor that utterly shunts reality as it presents itself, seeing only what one wants to see, and recoiling in a vague yet certain terror and pain in response to the truest nature of the outer world. As we, as people, further form ourselves, as we do observe vicariously through the eyes of Stephen, we gain something of a conceit, somewhat similar to Hobbes’s view of our wisdom, however I do not believe this conceit aids us, rather it may aid us, but just as all things, be it joy, ardour, and even pain, these things, when overtaking us, consume us. But, we would agree I think that egocentrism is not the absolute theme of Portrait of the Artist, no, rather it is one of a myriad of literary themes and devices that permeate and are promulgated throughout the 200 or so pages (really, the book’s diminutive length in comparison to what one gains from a reading is magnificent). Of course, all these themes, from the holy trinity, to body and soul, and the self ego and exile, all spiral into one, singular point, which I think is James Joyce’s proposed meaning of life, one he perhaps knows to be fallible, and yet proceeds because he sees no other path. There is a line that I do not want to quote, but it goes something like “I do not want to mourn the joys of the past, but to create the joys of the future.” which I do believe is the core of Daedalus’s (and by extension, Joyce’s) desire, to build the future world, to take from what one has experienced and seen, what one has suffered and enjoyed, and to birth from their own womb from the sperm of the world the new age, that shall be itself ingested and reborn time and time again. Yes, Daedalus, you egotistical prick! You see yourself as such a god? You compare yourself to Daedalus, the grand artificer? You proclaim him your father and you his son? But alas, what other choice do we have to build the new world but to become so enraptured by our own selves that we consume the past and puke forth the next dawn, the next horizon? That we may be ourselves idiots, that all our ideas may be wrong, but we do not truly care if we are wrong, us artists, we only care if what we create becomes the foundations of the next world, and that as we die we may forever become forever laid into the groundworks of posterity. And it is a dillusion, for Daedalus himself does little but take from his namesake, and take from Aristotle, aquinas, and other egomaniacs of the past, but he does so for himself, that all surrounds and exists in accordance to him, and thus, he is an artist, creating life out of life! And yet, I have not surmised the whole work, nor did you, for how may we forget that of the body and the soul? To be touched and recieve pleasure, opposed to be not touched and recieve absolution? And that of the first person perspective, that we must ask which lense is best through which we view our world? Certainly the first person view is more acccurate, shall mirror us, our thoughts and feelings far greater, but what if we rather seek to unveil the falsity of the eye, and desire to show all our grand delusions as they act our their brief part on the stage? The delusions of the eye, the harshness of reality, what shall we artists focus on? I do not know, for I am only human.

      (forgive me for any typos or grammatic absurdities. I write this in something of a rush, as your work excited me and got my mind buzzing with info and opinions. Thank you so much for this article, truly Joyce is one of the preeminent modernists of ours and any age.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hello, Quinn!

        Words can’t express how happy I am that you not only read my review but also composed such an eloquent, thoughtful reply! I could spend hours arguing with you about Joyce’s intentions and literary excellence. Instead, I merely admire your poetic stream of consciousness. Indeed, we always ”seek to unveil the falsity of the eye.” Thank you for providing me with new insight and inspiration!

        I wonder if you could be induced to share your writing with me one day…

        Like

  2. It is a beautifully crafted work, with significant insight and multiple layers of depth. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this 😊

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I enjoyed reading your review of Joyce’s “Portrait”.

    I must confess to not having derived much pleasure from the novel. This may have been due to the fact that I had to study it for A-Level whilst at school. I did, however enjoy “Dubliners”, particularly “The Dead”.

    Being blind (I use screen reading software called Job Access with Speech which translates text into speech and braille enabling me to use a Windows laptop), I regret that I can not see your beautiful art. I can see outlines of objects, but not enough to be able to appreciate the visual arts, which is one of my regrets in life.

    Best wishes, Kevin

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dear Kevin, thank you from the bottom of my heart!

    From now on, I am going to attempt writing descriptions for the artworks. Sometimes I put my writing directly on the pictures for aesthetic reasons – I promise to add it into descriptions, as well.

    Thank you for the honesty about your reaction to the “Portrait”! Also, I completely agree, “The Dead” is a captivating story!

    Did you know, Joyce himself struggled with eyesight throughout his life, and wrote novels full of sensory richness?

    Your wonderful poems tell me that you see even more than others! You are a very inspiring person, and I feel lucky to know you.

    Sending you my warmest appreciation,
    Veronica.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Veronica,

      Thank you so much for your lovely reply, and for including descriptions of pictures on your future posts. I very much appreciate you doing that.

      I had heard that Joyce struggled with poor vision, however I had forgotten this and you mentioning it reminded me.

      I am touched by your kind words on my poetry. I also am glad to have found your blog and look forward to reading more of your poetry and short stories.

      All the very best, Kevin

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Dear Kevin,

        It is a pleasure to talk to such a creative individual! I have just added alt text to the paintings of John William Waterhouse I used for my latest poem. It’s not a lot, but I still hope these short descriptions will make your experience at my website better!

        Warmest Regards,
        Veronica.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi, Veronica. I think your comments on this book accurately capture its strengths and limitations. And you have used an image from one of my favourite artists to crown the post. How could I possibly disagree with a word you then said! Please keep reading and writing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Dear Pete, thank you so much for appreciating my work! Knowing that a true intellectual and a profoundly creative individual has praised my writing means a world to me. Undoubtedly, I’ll return to Joyce’s ”Portrait” many times, finding something new with every subsequent reading.

      I feel as if I’ve met a kindred spirit! It’s a pleasure to know you love Magritte, too. His captivating artworks masterfully convey the poetry of existence by illustrating the subconscious drives of the human psyche…

      Being only eighteen years old, I treasure advice from more experienced writers, and your words have inspired me to continue pursuing the creative path! I am eternally grateful for your generous support of my literary aspirations. ☺️

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I confess that I have avoided reading James Joyce’s work because he seems to be somewhat too cerebral for my taste… But thanks to your brilliant review, I will check the book out in the future. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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