19 December 2008

18. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

I had already read the Dubliners and quite enjoyed it, so this was a book I was looking forward to, and one that, as an English teacher, I should have under my belt (along with about 100 others).

This autobiographical novel was published in 1916, a fact that Joyce insisted on because of the political events in the same year. That was the year of the Easter Rising, the beginning of the end of the British dominance of Ireland.

This was a tough book, and I’m still trying to figure it out. I suspect that I’ll be thinking about it for a long time. And I’ll be teaching it, so I will have the opportunity to talk about it at length later in the year. That definitely helps with understanding a text.

The novel is divided into five sections, each of them covering a time period of young Stephen Dedalus’s life. This is the kind of novel that we English teachers call bildungsroman – just a fancy way of saying that the character is trying to find his way in the world, trying to find where he fits. This book is a great example of that theme (along with, say, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and Jude the Obscure by the great Thomas Hardy, two books that I am also teaching this year).

Joyce leaves a lot of the political and social context out which makes the book a bit harder to get into. But I found it to be quite liberating. If I wanted all of the context to be handed to me in the text I’d read Dickens. And I was taking a course on the Irish Renaissance – my reason for reading – and so I had a lot of that knowledge from the others. I strongly recommend a heavily footnoted edition, or better, a Norton copy that has political and background documents in it.

I’ll leave you to discover the subjects and themes of the five sections, but we follow Stephen as he grows up. We begin as he is getting ready to go to boarding school and we leave him as he finished college and decides to leave Ireland for good.

I don’t really even know what to say about the book except that it follows Stephen’s struggle with home, church, and state. Set in the early 1900s as Ireland and England are battling for control of the Irish state, we have to deal with issues involving Stephen’s mom, his feelings about the church (as he contemplates becoming a priest), and his feelings about his Irishness.

It’s complicated.

But the writing is most excellent.

Here’s a section from Book II, where Stephen and his father have traveled to Dublin together on a train:

“At Maryborough he fell asleep. When he awoke the train had passed out of Mallow and his father was stretched asleep on the other seat. The cold light of the dawn lay over the country, over the unpeopled fields and the closed cottages. The terror of sleep fascinated his mind as he watched the silent country or heard from time to time his father’s deep breath or sudden sleepy movement. The neighbourhood of unseen sleepers filled him with strange dread though they could harm him; and he prayed that the day might come quickly. His prayer, addressed neither to God nor saint, began with a shiver, as the chilly morning breeze crept through the chink of the carriage door to his feet, and ended in a trail of foolish words which he made to fit the insistent rhythm of the train: and silently, at intervals of four seconds, the telegraphpoles held the galling notes of the music between punctual bars. This furious music allayed his dread and, leaning against the windowledge, he let his eyelids close again” (II 967-83).


And here is another section, this from Book III. Stephen has spent his time in sinful, sexual pleasures with himself and others. After hearing a hellfire sermon he goes back to his room and feels sick. As soon as he can he heads into town, to a strange church where he won’t meet anyone he knows so he can give a confession. Here, he has just stepped into the confessional and the priest has slid back the bolt:

“His blood began to murmur in his veins, murmuring like a sinful city summoned from its sleep to hear its doom. Little flakes of fire fell and powdery ashes fell softly, alighting on the houses of men. They stirred, waking from sleep, troubled y the heated air” (III. 1422-27).


And another section, this one from Section IV. Stephen is torn about joining the priesthood, and as he thinks he wanders down to the beach. He paces along the beach, looking for some kind of answer, and finally he comes upon a beautiful girl fishing in the shallows. Stephen has his answer! He walks to clean his mind of the image of the girl.

“He climbed to the crest of a sandhill and gazed about him. Evening had fallen. A rim of the young moon cleft the pale waste of sky like the rim of a silver hoop embedded in grey sand: and the tide was flowing in fast to the land with a low whisper of her waves, islanding a few last figures in distant pools” (IV. 916-22).


I’ll leave the last book to you to discover; it’s a very satisfying end.

And now I have to go read Ulysses.

2 comments:

beemused said...

Nice review! I've never read Joyce, as I always thought he was a grown-up's writer, and difficult to read, but I think that's just Ulysses. may add Joyce in my continual exploration of classics come 2009. cool this book is getting covered in your english class.

Olman Feelyus said...

Hmmm, I've never read this either. I really feel like I should, but at the same time, those quotes, though quite amazing, seem to address themes for which I have little interest. I find catholic guilt particularly boring.