Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
James Joyce is now known as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Even during his time, he was respected as one of the best writers of his generation. Still, his works were so experimental that he was not read by the general public and was often misunderstood even by his contemporary writers. His writing became more and more hard on readers. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man often confuses readers who are not used to experimentation in form, but Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake are rarely read in their entirely even by people trained in such experimentation.
Joyce was not alone in experimenting with form. He was part of a larger movement in the arts called Modernism. Modernism reached its height in the 1920s, but its innovations in form and subject are present in writing and art today. Modernists saw themselves as breaking from the past, especially from old methods of representing reality. Instead of the realistic depiction of life in its statistical details, they wanted to depict life as it is lived on the inside of people’s heads. Modernists like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner experimented with representing people’s consciousness and each in her or his own way created some version of what we now call stream of consciousness narration. Readers of A Portrait will recognize this style. It is a style which attempts to capture the flow of the characters’ thoughts without sequencing them in logical order.
Other experimentation was done in regard to subject matter. Aspects of life which were considered off limits for the refined readership of novels, began to enter the novel with modernism. Chaucer and Rabelais might have had characters farting, but no respectable eighteenth or nineteenth century novelist did. The modernists also brought in lowly, unheroic characters, and placed them center stage as a commentary on modern life. They saw themselves as opposed to the middle class way of thinking-- marriage, nation, and money as the ends of the good life. Therefore, they didn’t write to teach their readers some kind of status quo moral, but to disrupt their readers’ faith in the status quo.
A Portrait is frankly autobiographical. The reader will notice that the names of Joyce’s schools are used in his novel. The streets of Dublin are named as Stephen walks along them. Joyce’s family’s fortunes are represented in generally the same way that Joyce experienced them in his life. It is a novel, not an autobiography, but the line between those two genre is a thin one. It is therefore tempting to see all that Stephen thinks about art as Joyce’s own view of art. However, readers will sense Joyce, the writer’s ironic distance from Stephen, the fictional figure of the artist.
A Portrait is a bildungsroman, a story of an artist’s development from childhood through adulthood. This development of a voice and vision is present in all the sensitivity to sound, to conversation, to regional accents and sayings, to the drama of the Christmas dinner argument over Parnell, to the fantasies of the ghost of the Marshall announcing Parnell’s death, to the loner boy who questions what the crowd assumes unthinkingly, and finally to the exuberant vision of the artist "forg[ing] in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race."