‘The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ by James Joyce [Book Review]

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Okay, Joyce… Take a deep breath and lets see what we can do with this novel. Today, I’m looking at A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

This is actually my second time reading this novel and I’ve come to the conclusion that you have the read this novel more than once if you want to get anything out of it. That’s not what everyone wants in a novel but I’m a book nerd and a writing junkie so I get really giddy about this kind of novel.

Goodreads Summary

The portrayal of Stephen Dedalus’s Dublin childhood and youth, his quest for identity through art and his gradual emancipation from the claims of family, religion and Ireland itself, is also an oblique self-portrait of the young James Joyce and a universal testament to the artist’s ‘eternal imagination’. Both an insight into Joyce’s life and childhood, and a unique work of modernist fiction, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a novel of sexual awakening, religious rebellion and the essential search for voice and meaning that every nascent artist must face in order to blossom fully into themselves.

One of the biggest things I noticed this second time around was how the narration progresses throughout the novel. So the story follows the life of Stephen Dedalus from his life in Ireland as a child to his college days. Now, trying to keep up with how much time has pasted from one scene to the next can be a bit tricky but the narration (once you notice it has been changing the whole time) can help with that. To help show the contrast, here’s the first sentence of the novel:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicen little boy named baby tuckoo…

Now here is the first sentence of the final chapter (chapter 5):

He drained his third cup of watery tea to the drags and set to chewing the crusts of fried bread that were scattered near him, staring into the dark pool of the jar.

There’s a pretty strong contrast between the whimsical nature of the first quote (with the inclusion of everyone’s favourite fairy-tale starter) and the dark, everyday imagery of the second. This happens so gradually that I only noticed it because the beginning of the novel has moments where Stephen is confused by the politics adults are talking about around him but later there are long passages in which Stephen is having philosophical discussions with himself. In fact, his awareness of himself becomes so strong by the end that the narration switches from third-person to first-person in the form of journal entries.

These philosophical ramblings makes up a big portion of the novel’s second half and I didn’t mind them as much as I thought I would, probably because of how Joyce wrote them–one thought connecting to the next, sometimes in a logical way but not always, until Stephen gets distracted or one of his friends interrupts him. It makes Stephen seem more real because we’ve all had moments like that, right? Our thoughts start small and quickly spiral into confusing webs of connections until even we are unable to figure out how we got to that point.


Rating: 3 out of 5.

Overall, there isn’t a lot happening in terms of plot in this novel but it is a wonderful show of stream-of-consciousness and how people question their identity as they grow and experience new things. Certainly this isn’t a novel for everyone, and I don’t think I’ll pick it up of a rainy day and loose myself in it the way I do with some of my favourite novels, but it’s a short read and I believe that, if it sounds at all like something you would be interested it, read it–you will not be disappointed.

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