A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man

Most coming of age stories have middle aged creators reminiscing of what it was like to be young and there would be long winded discussions or depictions of the various clichés that have come to be associated with youth, like being carefree, impulsive, awkward and unable to handle the contrast between their external and internal worlds and their constant struggle to embellish their individuality on the worlds that they inhabit. Clichés run amuck in these art pieces and very rarely have anything insightful to offer to the questioning mind bored with the regular, mundane, allegorical tendencies that most ‘coming of age’ stories lean towards.

For a Joyce virgin, he can be a rather intimidating literary figure, one whose collection of works include Ulysses, Dubliners and Finnegan’s Wake (an incredible book that very few people, if at all anyone, have ever read). As a pioneer of the modernist literary movement, Joyce was instrumental in pushing the boundaries of literature and one whose stream of consciousness writing style influenced a multitude of writers- Virginia Woolf, Anthony Burgess, David Foster Wallace, T.S Elliot, etc. to name just a few. His unique use of the English language created a whole new style of expression that celebrated imperfection in the use of language and it is the language that makes the book, a sort of creative chaos that grumbles at the restraining banks. He used gloriously impure English, diverse styles and fantastic representations to depict the lives of the people of Ireland set against a vivid and deeply naturalistic background of his homeland.

A portrait … is a precursor to the style that he mastered in Ulysses. It traces the life of a young boy and his growth through his school life, how art redeems him and he alleviates himself from the claims of family, religion and his country. A number of characters that Joyce created here resurface in his successive novels, particularly in Ulysses. The young boy here is Stephen Dedalus, who is an isolated and a supremely self-conscious and aware boy. Joyce derives great meaning and depth from the name of his central protagonist Stephen- the first Christian martyr and Dedalus- the pagan god. Stephen, through the course of the story undertakes Oddysean wanderings, grappling with the rigid conventions of Catholic Ireland under the imperialist rule from Protestant Britain. Tormented by his transgressions from the accepted moral code (the Catholic Code), he feels great self loathing and also contempt for his fellow beings. Stephen feels an almost great chasm between his moral, rigid religious upbringing and the cravings of his flesh, to satisfy which he visits brothels/whorehouses (houses of ill fortune for the prudish!). He feels self loathing at not being able to contain his failings and yet he feels a curious indifference towards it. He comes to regard Ireland as a trap, and he realizes that he must escape the constraints of nation, family, and religion. He can only do that abroad. Stephen imagines his escape as something parallel to the flight of Dedalus, who escaped from his prison with wings crafted by his own genius. The book ends with Stephen leaving Ireland to pursue the life of a writer.

I found this incredible novel very resonating and insightful, in times when we are hounded with lowbrow art coming out with trivial and simplistic depictions of youth, here is a novel that does not use the patronizing tones with which the youth is viewed. For Joyce, this book paints an oblique self portrait of him and in the process he has not only spoken for himself, but for generations of young people grappling with their lives, unsure of the path to be taken and of the moral righteousness of their decisions.

Nithin Kumar

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