Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce’s Rebellion Against Conventions Turns 100

James Joyce’s first novel traces the intellectual awakening of a fictional alter ego and is symptomatic of the literary transitions taking place from the Victorian to the modern era.

A hundred years ago the publication of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man caused such consternation among writers and critics that in the ensuing debates about its merits and methods, the literary world was riven across the middle.

H.G. Wells declared, “Mr. Joyce has a cloacal obsession,” while another reviewer in Freeman’s Journal lamented that “his pen, instead of pointing to the stars overhead, is degraded into a muck-rake.” J.C. Squire, a poet and an influential literary editor of the time, in a sneering review in New Statesman, judged the novel formless, concluding that “it is doubtful if he [Joyce] will make a novelist.”

Despite their unsparing criticism, the same critics admitted to the novel’s qualities. Wells called it the “most memorable novel,” Squire acknowledged that Joyce’s “prose instrument is a remarkable one. Few contemporary writers are effective in such diverse ways; his method varies with the subject matter and never fails him.”

The strongly negative response despite Joyce’s literary talents is indicative of what literature truly is. Joyce was accused of transgressing the accepted conventions and of not observing decorum about what was to be expressed and what was to be suppressed. This was true and was a part of Joyce’s effort. The Victorian sense of decency was built on the notions of conventionality that shaded into hypocrisy with ease and facility.


James Joyce. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Joyce’s purpose was to revile that attitude which eventually proved symptomatic of the transitions taking place from the Victorian to the modern era. About two decades ago and before this brouhaha, Thomas Hardy, who was condemned for writing Tess of the d’Urbervilles, eventually decided to give up writing novels after the furore over Jude the Obscure.

Despite, and even against this harsh effort of shutting down dissenting voices, it was obvious the literary field was being tilled afresh. Even though A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was written in the age-old form of a bildungsroman, its tradition extended from Wolfgang Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship to the then recently published Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh.

Part of the reason may also have been sheer racism. We forget that the Irish were also the colonised people of their day and Joyce received the condescension accorded by the colonisers to the colonised, especially those in the field of literature.

In fact, an earlier version of his novel was called Stephen Hero, the title derived from the popular Irish ballad Turpin Hero.

The protagonist is named Stephen Dedalus, the surname alluding to the Greek myth of Daedalus, thus casting the novel in a classical mould. The novel is prefaced with an epigraph from the Latin poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It translates as – So then to unimagined arts he set his mind and altered nature’s laws.

Daedalus was an Athenian inventor, craftsman and builder at the court of King Minos in Crete. He had built a labyrinth for the king to imprison Minotaur, the half man, half bull mythical monster. He lost the king’s patronage after the king discovered that Daedalus had advised Princess Ariadne to provide a ball of string to Theseus to enable him to find his way out of the labyrinth after slaying the Minotaur.

The king incarcerated Daedalus and his son Icarus in the labyrinth. Knowing that he could not escape his own architectural wonder, Daedalus built gigantic wings with osier branches glued together with wax.

Daedalus and Icarus flew out of the labyrinth, defying gravity and gaining freedom. However, Icarus, flying too close to the sun against his father’s advice, perished. The epigraph describes that creative moment when Daedalus initiates the process of putting together the branches to shape the wings.

The epigraph and the mythical name, whose literal meaning is ‘cunning artificer,’ provide the framework within which the novel and the protagonist are to be situated. Further, the motifs of cunning, inventiveness, freedom, labyrinth – deriving from the myth – penetrate and run throughout the narrative.

The novel’s storyline is simple, depicting the growth of the protagonist from infancy to youth when he discovers his artistic vocation. In the opening scene, outside reality impinges on Dedalus’s infant mind, mimicked by the language and syntactical structures. As his consciousness develops and he matures intellectually, the language and imagery become complex, showing how in the human mind ideas and reality acquire complexity.

As he reads and reflects, he becomes aware of the power of ideas and his own intellect. His efforts to come to terms with the experiences in life, particularly with his sexual awakening, all give his character a rounded complexity.

All around him he has to contend with the political, social and religious world in contemporary Ireland. Despite proliferating points of view, he finds himself dissenting from all. This is where contemplation and analysis provide him solace and lead him to tread a new path when he instinctively feels the hypocrisy and the falsity of the situation of his contemporaries.

He realises that society’s mores and norms are rooted in an outmoded world and in a false sense of morality. These weave mazes for those living within these societies, trapping those living within them and devaluing life and human imagination.

James Joyce A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man B. W. Huebsch, 1916

James Joyce
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
B. W. Huebsch, 1916

Irish history and politics form one maze, and the calcified institutions the other, and from both of these, he longs to escape. It is art that provides him the Daedalus-wings of imagination and creative freedom. This leads to his final realisation that his purpose in life is, “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!” – a humanist and an aesthetic manifesto at once.

In the novel, Joyce refined and perfected the technique of central consciousness, employing free indirect style to juxtapose Dedalus’s subjectivity with the external objective reality. It is a subtle method as it succeeds in placing the reader inside the mind of the protagonist so that the intimacy between the two grows unobtrusively. This intimacy makes us experience Dedalus’s isolation and alienation from within. We feel his acute sense of deprivation, that the central institutions – social, political, religious and cultural – are stifling his creative development and sense of morality. He comes to see that for an artist, aesthetic consciousness can hardly be separated from moral values.

Joyce borrowed from religion the concept of epiphany, which he describes as “a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.” In the novel’s climactic scene, Dedalus experiences the epiphany that convinces him of his artistic vocation.

Taking a stroll along the Dollymount Strand, he comes across a girl standing in knee-deep waters. As he observes and watches her, his imagination transforms her into a mythical bird.

A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh. Her thighs, fuller and soft-hued as ivory, were bared almost to the hips, where the white fringes of her drawers were like feathering of soft white down. Her slate-blue skirts were kilted boldly about her waist and dovetailed behind her. Her bosom was as a bird’s, soft and slight, slight and soft as the breast of some dark-plumaged dove. But her long fair hair was girlish: and girlish and touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face.

Heavenly God! cried Stephen’s soul, in an outburst of profane joy.
Her image had passed into his soul forever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy.

Dedalus discovers a strange joy never experienced by him before in this aesthetic contemplation of the scene. What could have been a sensual image becomes a sight that elevates and transports him to a higher realm of spirituality, which Joyce and fellow modernists had always accepted as the essential purpose of art. It is the discovery of this artistic purpose that allows Dedalus to escape the narrow arguments of nationalism and religion, wonderfully illustrated in a scene where Dedalus’s father and Mr. Casey defend the fallen Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell, while the priest Dante Riordan, siding with the position taken by the Catholic Church, condemns Parnell for moral misdemeanour without showing any compunction.

Institutions that work by shackling the mind, heart and soul, and use fear and intimidation as instruments to enforce compliance and conformity, are what as an artist Dedalus finds himself called upon to rebel against. The protagonist’s first name alludes to the legend of Stephen, the first Christian martyr stoned to death for his beliefs. Dedalus is willing to suffer the same fate for his artistic convictions – a stance that the modernists adopted almost as a religion.

The maxim that a genuine classic is never exhausted of ideas rings very true of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Though published in 1916, the novel, in one of its most memorable scenes, explores with felicity the language question – one of the central and vexed issues of postcolonial literature:

To return to the lamp, he said, the feeding of it is also a nice problem. You must choose the pure oil and you must be careful when you pour it in not to overflow it, not to pour in more than the funnel can hold.

What funnel? asked Stephen.

The funnel through which you pour the oil into your lamp.

That? said Stephen. Is that called a funnel? Is it not a tundish?

What is a tundish?

That. The funnel.

Is that called a tundish in Ireland? asked the dean. I never heard the word in my life.

It is called a tundish in Lower Drumcondra, said Stephen, laughing, where they speak the best English.

A tundish, said the dean reflectively. That is a most interesting word. I must look that word up. Upon my word I must.

The dean repeated the word yet again.

Tundish! Well now, that is interesting!

The question you asked me a moment ago seems to me more interesting. What is that beauty which the artist struggles to express from lumps of Earth, said Stephen coldly.

The little word seemed to have turned a rapier point of his sensitiveness against this courteous and vigilant foe. He felt with a smart of dejection that the man to whom he was speaking was a countryman of Ben Jonson. He thought:

The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.

As a colonised ‘other,’ Dedalus realises the savage truth that mastering a language is irrelevant; what is important is being born into it. The recognition that he will always be ‘in the shadow of [the Dean’s] language,’ even though his Irish compatriots have revitalised his tongue’s sap with their soul and intellect, brings its own anguish. Dedalus realises that despite his mastery of English, he would always be deemed an outsider – or, at best, an exotic, wondrous beast like Caliban whom Prospero had been gracious enough to teach his native tongue.

For Joyce, constricting social conventions and tyrannical religious institutions are constructs of bigoted minds, stratagems devised to instil self-abasement and guilt in humans. His art transmutes that streak into a new zeitgeist leading to a modern sensibility. In the Joycean vision of life, art serves a redemptive purpose, and to err and to fall become creative human acts.

As Dedalus embraces profane rebelliousness as means of self-fulfilment, a deep sense of joy and liberation spurs him on to a richer, fuller existence and an affirmation of life, “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

And it is through this impassioned articulation that Joyce, even after a century, asserts his relevance on modern culture.

Shikoh Mohsin Mirza teaches English at the University of Lucknow.