Our young hero struggled to comprehend James Joyce. But our young hero, consoledreader, persevered and finished the novel against all odds, filling him with a sense of accomplishment, alongside a feeling of stupidity for almost capitulating to Joyce’s narrative and ignorance for knowing there is more to the novel that he undoubtedly missed. He is left with a grudging admiration of Joyce, even if he isn’t and probably never will be a die-hard fan.
Calling A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man a difficult book is an understatement. The opening section is a series of fragmentary stream-of-conscious impressions that makes Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-conscious style seem straightforward. Joyce ambitiously tries to capture the fragmentary memories and impressions and undeveloped language of a child growing up so that events jar in and out, with only the most traumatic and important left behind. Later in the novel as Stephen Dedalus, the novel’s protagonist, grows older and more sophisticated the language follows suit, as do the ideas. At times, Stephen ponders extremely profound and confusing ideas about art, religion, love, our relationship to other people, and the world itself.
The story takes us from Stephen’s childhood growing up in a fairly affluent family during a time in history when the yoke of English rule has brought about a budding Irish nationalism. We follow Stephen through his tormented and frightening school years to his consideration of joining the Jesuit order as a priest to finally going off to college to learn about aesthetics and art, all while his affluence of an earlier life disappears as his family sinks further and further into poverty.
Like much of the fiction of the time, the novel depicts a world where all the old values, rules, and beliefs are being challenged, leaving chaos, confusion, and fear in the vacuum. The fragmentary nature of the opening emphasizes this chaos. But Joyce suggests that art might be a way of controlling the chaotic world and making sense of it once again.
Joyce peppers his narrative with references to the Irish desire for independence from British rule. In an early scene where Stephen is a boy, he participates in a contest at school where one team wears red roses and the other team wears white roses, both of which are symbols of the Yorks and Lancasters who fought the War of the Roses. Stephen wonders if there will ever be a green rose, symbolizing Irish power and Irish history. The fact that the two teams are wearing symbols of English power and history in an Irish school show the deep power of colonial mentality and the colonial subjects tendency to exclude their own history in favor of their rulers’. Stephen’s aunt, Dante, also echoes these political sentiments by dedicating one brush to Irish politician Charles Stewart Parnell and another to Michael Davitt. When Parnell suffers a political downfall due to moral failings in the eyes of the Catholic Church (sleeping with a married woman), Dante abandons Parnell, leading to an argument during a family dinner about the conflict between religion and politics. Dante believes religion should trump politics, while Mr Daedalus and John Casey believe politics should trump religious concerns and morality. The narrative suggests through Stephen who abandons both politics and religion that art should triumph over all of them.
Much like my own early frustrations trying to make sense of Joyce’s narrative, Stephen as a young man feels oppressed by all the knowledge he doesn’t yet know. ”It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant and that he did not know where the universe ended. He felt small and weak.” He suffers both philosophical angst over his limited knowledge of the universe, God, and by extension his purpose in the world, as well as frustration over his lack of knowledge about the political situation in Ireland that preoccupies the adults in his family (also symbolizing at this point that he himself hasn’t reached maturity where politics take a more important role in one’s life). The people in poetry and rhetoric symbolize for him big voices. Through these mediums he will develop his voice to confront an often hostile and cruel world.
The young Stephen sees his world in terms of art, as does the older Stephen. In the opening his father tells him a story about a moocow meeting a little boy named Baby Tuckoo. Stephen identifies with Baby Tuckoo. After declaring he will marry a protestant girl, despite being Catholic, his aunt threatens that an eagle will pull out his eyes. To cope, he transforms the threat into a literary ditty that he sings aloud. While at school, he recalls going to a castle while daydreaming in study hall and declares it was like “something out of a book.” He even views a sentence out of his spelling book and thinks of it as a type of poetry. He transforms his fears and the unknown into art. While sleeping in the dark at his boarding school Stephen thinks, “Was it true about the black dog that walked there at night with eyes as big as carriage-lamps? They said it was the ghost of a murder.” Stephen turns to art as a coping mechanism to face a mysterious and frightening world. As his father suffers more and more economic hardship, Stephen sinks deeper into art as a coping mechanism, even forming a club to act out the scenes of The Count of Monte Cristo. Eventually Stephen develops full-fledged ideas about art when he heads off to college and decides to dedicate his life to studying and creating his own works of literature. Joyce wants not only to show how people can use art to forge an identity and make sense of a chaotic world, but also by presenting all these instances he reveals how art permeates our everyday lives, how art can become the center of our lives and often proves a superior alternative to religion or politics.
As Stephen’s early childhood obsession with the Count of Monte Cristo demonstrates, the novel is concerned with exploring different types of heroism. We have literary heroes, political heroes (such as Parnell), religious heroes (various martyrs mentioned), Marxists fighting for world peace, but ultimately Stephen rejects all these models and ideologies, and substitutes the life of the artist. He believes its the artist’s job to be transcendent and stand above petty political and spiritual concerns. This is essentially the point of the novel: art transcends politics, religion, nationalism, morality, and even our relationships with our family members.