Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce

Why this book:  It was selected by my reading group.  Also, I bought a copy while an undergraduate, planning to read it and never did. The copy I read is that copy, paperback, with a price $1.65 on the cover.

My Impressions:   Not an easy book to read at all.  It is commonly believed to be semi-autobiographical retrospective by James Joyce on his childhood and coming of age, into his late teens.  The ‘Artist’ is a complex and sensitive young man growing up in late 19th century Ireland of an upper middle class family; he is trying to understand and come to terms with a variety of forces in his life pulling him in different directions:   His boisterous and irreverent friends;  his parents and family, in particular his father, who is a fairly conventional and gregarious middle class burger;  the growing power and force of his own sexual yearnings; the church and it’s dictates on his life; his own reason and growing sense of intellectual independence; his romantic idealism and sense of himself as a creative artist.

The book is written in the language of the educated middle and upper classes in Britain at the end of the 19th century, when language was one of the primary indicators of education and class.  It is written for readers of this time, and people of ‘education and class’ had the time and predisposition to savor the well constructed and articulate sentence, the nuances of a reference to an obscure piece of literature that the author could assume everyone of ‘education and class’ would have read.  He quotes liberally in Latin, without feeling the need to provide translations – all of the readers for whom Joyce was writing had studied Latin for years – it was  staple of Catholic education (was there any other?) in Ireland. 

The book provides the anguished and self-conscious perspective of the introverted, sensitive ‘young man’ from his childhood into late teens.  We see the world through his eyes, and we are listening in on his thoughts, dreams, insecurities, and concerns.  It is a ‘stream of consciousness’ style which Joyce was one of the first to use, and which opened up this genre for others who have used it differently ever since (Virginia Wolfe comes to mind to me). 

I asked the members of my reading group why this is considered a classic of English literature, especially when for young people today (and not so young people – I struggled with it too) it seems so labored and difficult (one member of my group called him ‘autistic’).   I think it is highly regarded for several reasons:  1) It was an early precursor to the stream of consciousness style of writing; 2) it provides what I believe to be a subtle and nuanced perspective on the development of the sensitive, creative, introspective, and well educated mind;  3) the English is beautiful and exquisite, though sometimes difficult to follow; and 4) it is a relatively short work with which to be introduced to James Joyce, without having to labor through Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake.

Though I can’t say I enjoyed the book, there were parts which I  will not soon forget:  1) how as a shy boy and young man he perceived his more gregarious, and boisterous classmates; 2) the emotional and intellectual disconnect between him and his firmly practical and middle class parents; 3)The moral agony he accepted from the Catholic church after his frequenting of prostitutes – and how he accepted (initially) all the guilt that the Church willed upon him.  4) His response to his sense of guilt by seeking  moral perfection through asceticism, and then his decision to embrace the world as it is, and essentially walk away from the church  and 5) How he gravitated to the aesthetic impulse as a refuge for his romantic idealism, while still struggling unsuccessfully to let go of his romantic attraction to women. 

Reading this book is a bit like look at a mosaic up close.  Each vignette at the beginning stands alone, but seems disconnected.  But as one reads further, it is like moving away from the mosaic, and one sees the patterns.  Toward the end of the book we see the picture that Joyce was painting of the development of this particular artist – himself – as a young man.

About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s