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Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man Essay

I found the novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man very difficult to read at first, and could make very little sense of it. After doing some background research I have some to understand some of the motives of Joyce, from which it seems that the difficulty was not due to any shortcoming on my part, because I know that that even the most sympathetic critics have faced the same difficulties. Joyce does not intend to offer a conventional narrative. Indeed his motive is to deconstruct convention.

The protagonist of the novel is described as relinquishing all forms of convention, in his effort to forge for himself a new existence in the capacity of a true artist. But Joyce does not want to offer this theme in the conventional mode either. Not only the substance, but the means and the language must also be suffused by the same theme. In its effort not to depend on any cultural norms, it employs the method of “stream of consciousness”. This is the technique where raw consciousness of thought is seen as the basis for truth, and it is meant that these thought patterns be transposed directly onto the page.

It is not to effect realism, as might be thought at first hand. Realism is art is a very conscious and calculating mode. The underlying philosophy is better described as existentialism. It recalls the existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre’s epithet “existence precedes essence” (22). The existentialists aim to understand pure existence, which is yet without essence, or form. It describes exactly the passages in the Portrait which employ the stream of consciousness method. From this point of view I found that a second reading was much easier, only because I was more aware of the motivations of the writer.

Another mode which comes to mind is modernism. T. S. Eliot is said to be the instigator of modernism with his 1922 poem “The Wasteland”. This poem presents us with fragments from the literary cultural tradition of the West, but in a haphazard way, without any seeming coherence, as proclaimed in the poem itself, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” (Eliot 69). Eliot himself admitted that he wrote the poem as a reaction to catastrophe of the Great War, and tried to convey its impact on the Western psyche in general.

He believed that conventional art forms had become meaningless in “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” (qtd. in Sigg 182). The modernist genre that sprung from this poem can be said to be characterized by futility, and the search for transcendental meaning. Despite various points of similarity is it wrong classify Joyce as a modernist. Not only does the Portrait appears well before the publication of “The Wasteland”, it is also composed well before the onset of the Great War, and therefore cannot have been motivated in exactly the same way.

Neither is it fragmentary and incoherent in the way Eliot’s poem is. It is framed by autobiography, and therefore possesses overall coherence. Eliot’s is a despairing cry of futility. The protagonist of Joyce also comes across the futility of all conventional norms, but in the end the novel is not characterized merely by despair. The protagonist discovering himself as an artist represents hope in the end. The novel describes the several stages by which it protagonist Stephen Dedalus discovers himself as an artist.

In the process he takes refuge in the conventional identities provided by society in the various stages of his growing up. But Stephen is meant for greatness, and the conventional identities are only refuges for mediocrity, and this is what he discovers time and time again. The transiton from one stage to the next is marked by epiphanies – sudden bouts of realization that transform the inner self. Apart from the many minor epiphanies that accompany the growing young man, there are two major such occasions.

The first is his discovery of conventional faith. The second occurs when he comes to realize that the Church is a restricting influence, and that he must escape if he is to express himself as an artist. It occurs when he must make a choice between training to be a Catholic priest, or to enter the secular domain of university. He opts for the second choice. It is a major decision, but does not yet entail that he is free to become an artist. University opens up to him a diverse array of ideologies.

Stephen comes to realize that none of the ideas that academia has to offer are able to address his inner longing towards creativity. His goal, as he expresses at the very end of the novel, is to “to forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race” (276). His final realization is that the conventional mode of Irish existence is lacking in conscience. And as an artist he has understood his role as to make up for this fundamental lack. It is a role of heroic proportions, and which only the artist is able to undertake.

So the creativity which Stephen intends in not mere self-expression, it is towards creating a conscience for his race. There are many occasions while he is growing up in Dublin when he comes to realize that there is something fundamentally lacking in what society has to offer him. In school it appears as if the appreciation of his peers is the highest goal, and he is in awe of the bullies of the classroom who command attention. On one occasion he is dealt with a caning from a teacher which he didn’t really deserve.

He classmates challenge him to take action, and to report the teacher to the headmaster. Up to this point he seems unable to stand up for himself, yet he takes on the challenge of his peers to go up to the headmaster’s room all alone, and puts his case forthrightly. To his peers he is instant heroes, and they hoist him up in the air together. The striking aspect of this incident is that the glory does not register with Stephen. Even while he is being hoisted, he wants to escape their grip, and when the cheers have died down he feels himself to be an outsider just as before.

On the occasion when he is first allowed to attend Christmas dinner with the adults, he observes a vicious argument taking place with politics and religion mixed in. It centers on the Catholic Church’s demonizing of Charles Stuart Parnell, who had led the movement Irish independence from the British. Parnell’s fortunes reversed when it was found out that he was involved in an affair with a married women, which was considered sacrilege in the strictly Catholic society that Ireland was. In the argument Stephen’s aunt is on the side of religious authority, while Stephens’s father and the outsider Mr.

Casey argue for politics. However little Stephen understands of this argument, if gives him a foretaste of corruption in high places. But more than this he comes to realize shallowness and brittleness of family life that can be unsettled by cheap religious and political talk. It marks the beginning of Stephen’s moving away from family and tradition. He comes to realize later on that his father is totally unconnected to modern life, and merely engages in nostalgia, drunkenness and superficiality. Stephen renouncing of his family is the first step towards the rejection of convention as a whole.

As be becomes more alienated from his family he starts to visit prostitutes, and in general gives himself up to a life of secret sin, even though he is wracked by guilt inside. Another moment of epiphany takes place when he is overcome by a sermon delivered by the college rector. In the meantime he had become strangely drawn towards the Virgin Mary, and when the rector delivers fiery and graphic accounts of hellfire and damnation, Stephen is genuinely terrified from the depth of his soul. None of the other college students are effected at all, and here his outsider status impinges on him once more.

The upshot is that he surrenders himself to the austere religious existence, so much so that when the time comes for him to leave college he is nominated for a scholarship for priesthood. By this time Stephen has come to realize that conventional religion does not answer his quest for inner harmony, and so he decides to turn down the offer, and to enter university instead. Shortly after he experiences another moment of epiphany on the beach, when he observes a young lady wading in the water, and he is overcome by a sense of natural beauty.

He realized that his true quest is for aesthetic beauty, and that he must carry it on “among the snares of the world” (Joyce 175). He has not yet realized himself as an artist, and at university he is accosted by the secular ideologies that go up to make convention. In his discussion with his friends he tries to emphasize the importance of leaving all forms of convention behind, but they are far too immersed in the established mode to take his point. He is close to Cranly, to whose sympathetic ear he divulges his artistic longings.

Cranly warns him that he is destined for loneliness, but this does not deter Stephen. In this phase he gradually becomes aware that his true identity is contained in his latter name ‘Dedalus’, and not his first ‘Stephen’ (linked to the first Christian martyr). Dedalus is the mythical ‘great artificer’ who uses his art to escape from confinement by King Minos. The myth says that he learnt to fly, and he allowed his son Icarus to fly first, who became too venturesome and flew close to the sun, which it melted his waxed wings and he fell to his death.

Joyce is comparing the previous existence of Stephen to Icarus, and his tenure with religiosity is compared to Icarus’ foolhardy ascent. The person who has survived is now compared to Dedalus. He sees in the name a “symbol of the artist forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being” (Joyce 163). There are two striking points that emerge from this novel. First there is the innovative use of language regarding the “stream of consciousness” technique.

Writers who followed in the footsteps of Joyce enthused in this new technique, which reflected so well the fragmentary character of modern existence, and its emphasis on existence above outmoded forms. Virginia Woolf says, “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness” (qtd. in Zwerdling 14). Other critics stress the symbolism, which occurs at many levels and suffused throughout the novel.

Apart from the Dedalus connection, Tindall discovers identification with Christ on the one hand, and with Lucifer on the other (Stephen is made to utter Lucifer’s words “I will not serve”) (10). But such analyses must not allow us to lose sight of the original theme, which is that of nonconformity to convention. In fact, Joyce message chimes with that of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist” (21). Emerson was voicing the ethos of the modern age, whereas Joyce is presenting it as the sublimation of artistic endeavor.

In conclusion, though difficult to read, Joyce’s Portrait is a novel worth making the effort for. Through his novel literary techniques he is trying to redefine literature so that it becomes relevant to the modern age characterized by fragmentation and alienation. Apart from the strained techniques, the novel is also worthy for its rich symbolism, which exists on many planes, and for the significant allusions to literature and culture. It is not only an autobiographical and ‘coming of age’ novel, but it also makes a noble attempt to diagnose and correct the fundamental malaise of the modern age.


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