"The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails."
First published in serial form between 1914 and 1915, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is the novel that established Joyce as one of the most innovative literary talents of the twentieth century.
Portrait traces the development of Stephen Dedalus from childhood, through adolescence, to the first flushes of manhood. Over time, he gradually begins to rebel against his devout Catholic upbringing – questioning the values of his family, church, history, and homeland. At the same time, Stephen’s interest in art and literature intensifies as he struggles to come to terms with his adult self. This, however, is no ordinary coming-of-age story. The language used at each stage of the narrative is skillfully manipulated in order to reflect Stephen’s age and intellectual maturity. Portrait begins with “moocows” and ends with Stephen expressing his desire to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
It took James Joyce at least two attempts to get the mixture of pathos and arrogance in Stephen Dedalus just right. Perhaps this was because the life of this character was modeled upon his own. Like Joyce, Stephen is born into a privileged middle-class Dublin family, but soon experiences descent into poverty. He excels at school and considers becoming a priest, before rejecting a religious vocation for the life of an artist. Stephen is sexually precocious too and in one chapter visits a prostitute for sex while still young. Frightened by a sermon on hellfire, his feelings of guilt lead him towards intense Catholic piety. Thus, Stephen’s life is one of extremes. When he finally chooses to become an artist, there are hints he may not succeed.
Joyce began his novel as an essay on biography in 1904 and then worked on a first version called Stephen Hero until 1907, when he began drafting the novel as we know it. This second, published draft is much more experimental and innovative in form. It begins with Stephen’s baby talk as a young child and ends with scraps of his diary. Joyce also cut explicit reference to the idea of “epiphany” from this second draft. Stephen explains that art should capture “delicate and evanescent” moments which crystallize a sudden truth or flash of self-awareness. The theory is still relevant to his experience in the published novel, but its omission may contribute to uncertainty about Stephen’s chances of success.
Portrait remains a work of startling invention and imaginative richness, in which Joyce began to hone his revolutionary “stream of consciousness” technique. It is the work in which the hallmarks of Joyce’s writing are truly established: the broad sexual humor the blasphemous fantasies, the erudite word play, the simultaneous eradication and exposure of authorial personality, the infinitely complex push/pull relationship with Ireland and Irishness. In Portrait, Joyce redefines both himself and the parameters of modern writing.
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