James Joyce’s loosely autobiographical novel spans several years in the life of young Stephen Dedalus. Observing him mainly in a school and university setting, the book focuses on significant events and stages in his development. These points are merely markers in the story, while the substance is Stephen’s inner struggle: his emotions, questions, doubts, fears, desires, responses to pressures of who is expected to be, and discovery of the man he is. The language is poetic, and the themes are deep. The reader can only empathise with Stephen as he follows the path to independence and manhood as best he can.
Family, nationalism, love and beauty all play their part in Stephen’s journey, but his greatest wrestle is with religion. As a Catholic in Ireland, to turn from the church is practically to deny God, family and country. The weight of religion’s influence is felt by the inclusion of a lengthy and frightening sermon, delivered by one of the priests teaching at Stephen’s school, about the eternal torments of hell, and man’s need for repentance. Stephen is asked to consider a future in the priesthood; we see his sincere attempts to serve God, and his natural yet guilt-ridden failures.
Amid all this is Stephen’s search for truth, which seems to be mingled with a search for what he would like the truth to be. He wants to cast off the old generation’s ways, many of which are corrupt, but some I think he just sees as inconvenient. Young people want to cut their own path, but while it is foolish to obey tradition merely because it is tradition, to reject it for the same reason is just as foolish. Youngsters would do well to give their elders some credit; experience is a good teacher. Having said that, I am reminded reading this book that I need to cut young people some slack. It’s not easy finding your way in this crazy world while your hormones are raging and everyone’s telling you what you ought to do without taking their own advice and you have no idea what on earth your purpose in life is and then you have to give a speech in English class and everyone laughs at your voice breaking and when you finally work up the courage to ask out Chantelle Westberry she just rolls her eyes and says, “As if”!
Excuse me. I got a little autobiographical myself there.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is exactly that, not so much a story as a window into this young man’s soul. It is interesting and beautiful, but I wouldn’t call it fun. And a word of caution: for authenticity I began the book with the reading voice in my head doing an Irish accent—that was a bad idea. It slowed me down as I repeated some sentences three times to get the pronunciation right. Just use your own inner reading voice. 6/10
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