Ulysses is sitting on the bookshelf that stands directly beside my bed. It stares at me before I go to sleep at night. I won’t look at it, for I am frightened by it. Beside it, however, is the much more approachable A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (followed immediately on the shelf by The Count of Monte Cristo). With a recent excursion to northeast Arkansas I decided that I would remove Portrait from it’s Star Wars-esq trash compactor and read it for the first time in a few years.
It is quite amazing how different a book can be with new eyes. Rewind four years and you see me as a religious fundamentalist; reading great classics as an English major but perhaps not letting them soak in well enough. It is shamelessly easy for me to say that nothing of Joyce’s work stuck with me from my 20th Century Literature class other than the memory of liking his work. The most I could have told you is potentially that Portrait was a story about a kid who wasn’t a very good Christian. I was not a thinker. Now come back to the present. I can now say that there has hardly been a character I have identified with more than Stephan Dedalus. His coming of age story is so eerily similar to my own I feel like I may have subconsciously taken in the plot of Portrait four years ago and enacted it in reality (sans all of Stephen’s visits to the red light districts and his rendezvous with prostitutes). This book frightened me while I read it because I kept saying to myself, “This was just yesterday for me.”
Young Dedalus struggles with his Christian faith (of the Catholic variety) and how it shapes him as a human being. He goes through the first four parts of the novel with what Joyce calls “quiet obedience.” There’s little thought in the young man, but what is there is interesting. He latches onto seemingly insignificant words or phrases and suddenly is brought to a dilemma of faith. Sometimes the questions seem silly and childlike, which is what Joyce is really trying to accomplish. Yet other times Dedalus produces a true question of faith that there is simply no answer to. As a result Dedalus convinces himself that he is a bad person. He finds himself believing that of all the qualities that could be found in a bad sinner, they are tenfold within him. He particularly struggles with lust and how to interact with women. They seem to control his life, though he does not ever seem to speak to them. This is all traced back to Dedalus’s religious piety and fear of Hell.
A great bulk of the book is spent with Dedalus listening to a priest’s sermon on Hell and its tortures. Joyce goes into graphic detail, examining the nooks and crannies of Christianity to develop a sermon that would make Jonathan Edwards blush. This leads to Dedalus’s repentance and confession to set up the climatic part five of Portrait.
In each section of the book we interact with a profoundly different Stephen Dedalus, yet he retains what makes him Stephen. We see his struggles to be an individual, to operate outside of an oppressive ideology, to understand masculinity, to walk a line that makes himself and his mother happy, and to establish any sort of control over his life. What perhaps is so striking about Joyce’s insights is the latent ideology that remains a deep part of who he is, even after he has “left” Christianity. Even then his “leaving” is not something he states but is rather something people tell him about his own self. Even then he struggles deeply with pleasing his mother who desperately wants him to return to the faith and claims that she knew this would happen when he “left for university.”
In the end what matters is the ability to act of his own accord. Dedalus wants to be free to make a decision that is his own, be-damned what anyone else thinks about such a decision. This is the struggle of many people and the side of Joyce that I believe is universally identifiable: the drive within ourselves to not care what anyone else thinks of our decisions. The drive to make the decision and that be the end of the trial. As Dedalus himself says:
“You have asked me what I would do and what I would not do. I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call myself 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 defence the only arms I allow myself to use, silence, exile and cunning.”
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
This novel was not the best novel I’ve read this year. It was not my favorite novel that I have read this year. However it is the novel I have most identified with. It is quite difficult to put into words just how much the novel feels like a reflection of myself. What I think it speaks to is the struggle that is found within every person no matter where they are from and no matter the time in which they lived their life. There are some stories that are timeless and I don’t think that “timeless” can be deemed an objective quality. For myself, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a timeless story that will always tell of something that stirs within me the deepest part of my being-here.
Recommended to: Those who are looking for a book that contains challenging prose that makes a reader work to derive from it the story, those who want to figure out what is happening “off of the page” for themselves, and those wanting to read a coming of age story that is from outside of an American perspective.
Avoid as if it were Iggy Azalea and you’re Robert Flores at a party: Those who don’t think a book has done it’s job if it requires a reader to infer what is happening outside of the pages, and those who don’t enjoy novels in which nothing “exciting” happens.
And warning: This is a novel that utilizes “Stream of Consciousness” style. It is very difficult at times and as a first time reader you will certainly get lost a some point and frustrated. Don’t worry. Just keep reading. Approach it such as this: If you were attempting to read someone’s thoughts- all of them- would you tell them to rethink what they just thought so you could get it a little better? No, because then their mind would jump again. The novel works as that. Just keep reading. There are points where it is next to impossible to understand why Dedalus went from speaking with his uncle to acting in a play to meeting a prostitute all in a matter of two pages. The prose works like the brain does. It just goes.