Monday, August 27, 2007

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

Title: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Author: James Joyce

ISBN: 9780553214048

Publisher: Bantam Classics

Pages: 240

This is a semi-autobiographical coming of age story of Stephen Dedalus. The story, which is told mainly in the third person, recounts several stages of Stephen's youth.
He has become increasingly alienated from society and emotionally withdrawn. He also begins visiting prostitutes, which leaves him feeling disgusted with his sinful nature. The most amazing part of the book is in chapter three, which details Stephen's religious conversion and subsequent renunciation of his faith. While Stephen, shaken with guilt and terror after this sermon, tries to immerse himself in the rites of the church, he continues to be assailed by doubts and scepticism, which ultimately lead him to renounce his faith. Joyce vividly describes the joy and freedom that Stephen feels upon freeing himself from the reins of religious doctrine and proclaiming his independence from all such confining systems of thought.

In "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" Joyce outlines some important ideas that have since become prominent in literature, notably non-conformity, self-expression, coming of age, and the nature of religious belief. One might ask, what is so special about the 20th century artist? Why not artists from other ages, or all ages? The answer lies in the anti-religious and contra-religious themes and overtones, which have developed at an exponential rate in the literature of the past 200 years. One finds this motif in nearly all of the major writers of late, Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Camus, Hemingway and Mann, to name a few.

From this milieu emerges the artist. His task is to transform this painful revelation into something beautiful: art. We are introduced to young Stephen at that crossroads in life where he must decide whether to blindly follow the traditional beliefs of his ancestors, or to use his rational mind to cut himself loose from those bonds. Stephen's name is symbolic, for he chooses to take flight from the labyrinth of religion, as well as all of the dogmatic rites, rituals and institutions of Catholicism.

The stream-of-consciousness style pioneered by Joyce in this book is remarkable, both in its originality to the literary world, and in its ability to give us the events of the story not just through the eyes of Stephen Dedalus, but also almost through his subconscious.

The narrative of the book has a surreal flavour to it. There are many phrases in the novel that are pure poetry; Joyce's mastery of unique metaphors comes to the fore early on in the book. Joyce reminds one of Nabokov in the sense that, although he is often longwinded, one can forgive him his verbosity because it is simply a pleasure to read his beautiful prose which is rarely lacking in elegance. The language throughout is beautiful, many times a form of prose poetry.