I’ve tried to read Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” at least 2 or 3 times in the past 30 years and finally succeeded. It’s not a very welcoming book for contemporary readers, unless (like me) you suffered a Roman Catholic education. My Catholic grade school was more like the one depicted in the 2008 movie “Doubt” by John Patrick Shanley than an Irish boarding school like Clongowes, but I did experience Jesuits in college. The novel is about a sensitive, intelligent boy growing up and making sense of his world.
Joyce uses a “stream of consciousness” technique to relay the thoughts of his autobiographical protagonist Stephen Dedalus, and the language reflects the boy’s intellectual development from early childhood until he enters university. Throughout the 5 chapters of this short book, we see Stephen as a very young child being read to by his father, a boarding school student at Clongowes being tormented by his classmates and unjustly punished by a cruel prefect, a 16-year old boy discovering sex with a prostitute and (overcome by self-loathing) desperately seeking confession and a return to God’s grace, and finally as a university student questioning his previous religious beliefs. Throughout the book, Stephen is portrayed as an outsider who doesn’t belong. He feels set apart from others due to his sensitivity and destiny to become an artist.
The transition in sophistication of language as well as the random jumping from thought to thought without logical connection may convey the way the mind actually works, but the technique makes for challenging reading. Some examples of a child’s perspective are amusing, such as when Stephen makes a game of modulating the sounds around him: “He leaned his elbows on the table and shut and opened the flaps of his ears. Then he heard the noise of the refectory every time he opened the flaps of his ears. It made a roar like a train at night. And when he closed the flaps the roar was shut off like a train going into a tunnel.” Earlier, Stephen tries to wrap his emerging intellect around the notion of infinity: “What was after the universe? Nothing. But was there anything round the universe to show where it stopped before the nothing place began? It could not be a wall but there could be a thin thin line there all round everything. It was very big to think about everything and everywhere.” Back at home for Christmas, Stephen witnesses a bitter political dispute between his governess “Dante” (Mrs. Riordan) and his father’s friend Mr. Casey. The scene is a nice example of the confusion children can experience when caught in the middle of adult conversations they cannot fully understand.
In addition to the development of individual consciousness, the book addresses other big themes such as religion and doubt, artistic sensibility, and the inferiority complex of the Irish and their cultural domination by the English. It rightly is a very famous book, and I’m glad I finally finished it. However, be prepared for it to feel like homework. It won’t be an easy read.