1910s, Literature

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Here we are, over a week into March, and I’m just getting around to my last book of the 1910s. I guess I should have expected James Joyce to put me behind schedule. I bet putting readers behind schedule was one of his main goals with his writing. So anyways, I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published in 1916. It is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story of young-man/artist Stephen Dedalus. It follows his life and philosophical musings from a very young age into his twenties. Not too much in the way of plot. Just a lot of Dedalus talking to his family, peers, and teachers about life, death, and everything in between. Also, I guess reading PotA before Joyce’s magnum opus, Ulysses, makes the latter a lot easier to read. Though don’t expect me to read Ulysses anytime soon.

A small plot summary: Stephen Dedalus grows up in Catholic Ireland. He does well in school, but is bullied. He begins to think a lot about the culture in which he growing up, and starts to realize some problems he has with it. Eventually, after moving to Dublin with his family, Dedalus succumbs to his growing sexual frustrations and begins to see prostitutes. Some time later, he goes on a religious retreat with his class, where they listen to sermons designed to strike the fear of God into the students–and, in the case of Dedalus, they work like a charm. He decides that he will repent and excels in his religious studies. His instructors ask if he has aspirations of becoming a priest, at which point he accepts the fact that he was never as convinced by the religion as he should be to become a priest, so he gives up on religion. He then attends university, where he continues to be successful academically, but also begins to realize all the issues he has with Ireland’s religion, politics, and education. He eventually decides that he must leave Ireland to fully realize his potential as an artist and human, since his home country puts too many restrictions on his growth as an artist.

As dense as some parts of the novel were, I actually really enjoyed it. If you are a fan of a lot of angsty philosophical musings (imagine if Holden Caulfield got ahold of a thesaurus), then you will definitely enjoy this book. It is also apparently the most accessible of James Joyce’s novels, and while that is not saying a whole lot, it is not nearly as daunting as the behemoths Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake (not to say I have even attempted either of those two, nor will I for this blog). Definitely readable, if you have the time and patience.

Most of this book probably went right over my head, so I will spare any attempts at analysis, and, as usual, simply present some of my favorite quotes. Enjoy!

“He had to undress and then kneel and say his own prayers and be in bed before the gas was lowered so that he might not go to hell when he died.”

“And thanks be to God, Johnny, said Mr Dedalus, that we lived so long and did so little harm.”

“And if that mountain rose again after it had been all carried away, and if the bird came again and carried it all away again grain by grain, and if it so rose and sank as many times as there are stars in the sky, atoms in the air, drops of water in the sea, leaves on the trees, feathers upon birds, scales upon fish, hairs upon animals, at the end of all those innumerable risings and sinkings of that immeasurably vast mountain not one single instant of eternity could be said to have ended; even then, at the end of such a period, after that eon of time the mere thought of which makes our very brain reel dizzily, eternity would scarcely have begun.”

“To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!”

“This race and this country and this life produced me, he said I shall express myself as I am.”

“The soul is born, he said vaguely, first in those moments I told you of. It has a slow and dark birth, more mysterious than the birth of the body. When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.”

“The instant wherein that supreme quality of beauty, the clear radiance of the esthetic image, is apprehended luminously by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness and fascinated by its harmony is the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure, a spiritual state very like to that cardiac condition which the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani, using a phrase almost as beautiful as Shelley’s, called the enchantment of the heart.”

Stephen began to enumerate glibly his father’s attributes.

—A medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician, a small landlord, a small investor, a drinker, a good fellow, a story-teller, somebody’s secretary, something in a distillery, a tax-gatherer, a bankrupt and at present a praiser of his own past.”

“Whatever else is unsure in this stinking dunghill of a world a mother’s love is not.”

“I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.”

“I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake, and perhaps as long as eternity too.”

[Really the core of all atheism, I would think.]

“[I] Have read little and understood less.”

[I feel you there, Stephen. Though I don’t believe you.]

“Welcome, O life, 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.

APRIL 27. Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.”

[The very end of the book is composed of Stephen Dedalus’ journal entries from after the end of the narrative. These are the final 1.5 entries.]

Ok now that I’m belatedly finished with the 1910s, time to start with the 20s!!

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2 thoughts on “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

  1. Amie says:

    I was about to be so delighted with myself in making the connection of Stephen Dedalus as an allusion to Daedalus of Greek mythology but I just discovered that this connection was EASILY google-able. le sigh. also upon further wikipedia-ing, have also discovered that the epigraph quotes the story of Daedalus so I am really just here to tell you the obvious and let you know that at least one someone is reading this blog :)

    (full disclosure, fully learned the myth of Daedalus/the Labyrinth/the Minotaur/Ariadne/etc. from Percy Jackson and the Olympians, am not in the least bit ashamed [also love the connection between Ariadne, (who helps Theseus escape the Labyrinth with a golden string), and Ellen Page’s character in Inception, who is also named Ariadne presumably the only one who can pull Cobb out of limbo aka navigate the labyrinth. end tangent!])

    Currently on a children’s book fueled Greek mythology kick – should be fun to ride this one out and point out things that everyone who knows the least bit about Greek mythology probably already knew!

    can’t wait for the 20s (but ESPECIALLY can’t wait for the 80s!)!

    • I don’t really know anything about Daedalus, so I’m positive you know more than I do! I only made the connection because the characters in the story always mention what a weird name it is, so I figured it must have some sort of importance. Have you read PotA?

      I also may have to bring you in as a guest expert for the 80s. Or you can just visit and we can record ourselves lip-synching Thriller. You know, whatever.

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