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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man ~ A Capsule Book Review

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

When we’re talking about books that are easy to read, James Joyce’s 1916 novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is not one of them. It’s a novel with no real story to speak of but is instead a disjointed collection of episodes in the life of Dublin youth Stephen Dedalus, who is in reality James Joyce himself. It’s written in the modernist style, which means it is a departure from the accepted ways of writing up to that time. Other writers of the time who espoused this style of writing were Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust and D. H. Lawrence.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is what is known as a Kunstlerroman, a German word for a narrative about an artist’s growth and maturity. When the book begins, Stephen Dedalus is a small schoolboy, with a devout mother and a blowhard father. The family has as many as ten children, some of whom die. Financial reverses force the family to have to move from a small town to Dublin. Stephen attends a boy’s
Catholic school, where the religious training there is fierce and traditional. In his mid-teens, when his interests turn to sexual matters (about which there are no details), he is certain he is going to hell. In a very vivid and beautifully written section of the book, an articulate priest puts the fear of hell into the young boys, fear not only of physical torment but also of mental and emotional anguish. Stephen believes every word is for him. At age sixteen, he believes he is destined for hell and nothing will help him. Up until that time, he has always been a doubter, but now he is a true believer. He seriously considers becoming a priest for a time, but changes his mind at the last minute.  

As a student at University College, Dublin, Stephen grows increasingly alienated from the institutions that have defined his young life: church, school, politics and family. He fights with his devout mother over attending services and his father berates him. He concludes that Ireland is too restricted for him and he chooses self-imposed exile. As he says, “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

The style of the work progresses through each of its five chapters, as the complexity of language and Stephen’s ability to comprehend the world around him both gradually increase. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is one of the great books in English of the twentieth century, a work of art, but not a book for the casual reader who wants only to be entertained.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

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