The gold Modern Library edition of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

  • Rank:  #7
  • Author:  James Joyce  (1882 – 1941)
  • Published:  1914-15 (serial), 1916 (U.S.)
  • Publisher:  The Egoist (serial), B. W. Huebsch (U.S.)
  • Pages:  247 (Signet Classic)
  • First Line:  “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 down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.”
  • Last Line:  “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.”
  • Acclaim:  Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century #3
  • ML Version:  #145  (4 dust jackets – 1928, 1931, 1941, 1954); gold hardcover (1996)
  • Film:  1977  (**.5 – dir. Joseph Strick)
  • First Read:  Fall, 1991

If you don’t get it, read the book.

The Novel:  So many people never escape the town where they are born.  James Joyce last set foot in Dublin in 1912, two years before the start of serialization of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 10 years before the publication of Ulysses and 29 years before his death.  Yet, his literary footprint never strayed beyond its limits.  And we are the better for it, for it gave us the best short story collection ever published (Dubliners), possibly the best short story ever written (“The Dead”) and two of the world’s greatest novels.

This is the Bildungsroman to end all.  This is because, unlike in Dickens or even Lawrence, instead of just the maturation process of the young man, not just seeing what it is around him that produces the man who would write this book, we watch his actual growth as an artist from the inside and outside.  We watch a young man, still scarred emotionally from the beating across the wrist he took for something which was not his fault to the teen who will make his first artistic claims (“-Tennyson a poet!  Why, he’s only a rhymester!”), to the young lust-ridden man who will produce some of the finest writing in the world, much of it dealing as much with the loins as with the soul (“He wanted to sin with another of his kind, to force another being to sin with him and to exult with her in sin.”) and then the man he will finally became, finding the artist within while still struggling to escape from the rules that have constrained him since birth (“-It is a curious thing, do you know – Cranly said dispassionately – how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.”).

There are many books in which the style and the content do not seem to match – one or the other seems forced.  But in Portrait, the stream-of-consciousness, the first steps of modernism rearing their head in fiction and would soon become the dominant force among many of the world’s greatest writers, flows beautifully from the first sentence.  Reading that for the first time, at age 16, in preparation for AP English, I hadn’t the faintest idea what was going on.  It was only slowly, as we discussed it, that I began to realize that this was the young boy, learning about the world, having his father explain it to him, but in the kind of language a very young boy could process.  This was language perfectly suited for its subject.  And as he continues to grow, throughout the book, we get a growing sense of language and ideas, as he learns about religion (“But though there were different names for God in all the different languages in the world and God understood what all the people who prayed said in their different languages still God remained always the same God and God’s real name was God.”) and about art (“He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld.”).

But the two over-arching themes that come forward through the book are the way memory works on us as we grow, how our minds grow and adapt as different things begin to matter, and of course Ireland, and its effect upon art in general and on this particular artist specifically.  Young Stephen Dedalus is growing, and as he grows, he finds himself becoming almost another person, the way so many of us do (“The memory of his childhood suddenly grew dim.  He tried to call forth some of its vivid moments but could not.  He recalled only names.”) and he begins to be ruled by things other than God (“Nothing stirred within his soul but a cold and cruel and loveless lust.  His childhood was dead or lost and with it his soul capable of simple joys and he was drifting amid life like the barren shell of the moon.”).  But Ireland itself is incapable of either of these things.  It can not escape its past and allow art to flourish (“When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight.”), and it certainly is incapable of escaping the rule of God (“We are an unfortunate priestridden race and always were and always will be till the end of the chapter.”).  But he even manages to find humor, as he tries to pull away from Ireland, but the roots hold strong (“-Then – said Cranly – you do not intend to become a protestant? –  – I said that I had lost the faith – Stephen answered – but not that I had lost selfrespect.  What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?-“).

There are times when this novel is overlooked.  It is the growing maturity, indeed the artist as a young man, that would later become the Artist who would produce Ulysses.  But you skip this at your own peril.  It is one of the great, indeed perhaps the great coming of age story and a seminal work in literary history as modernism firmly descended upon the literary landscape and became the dominant force of the first half of the century.

The poster for the 1977 film version.

The Film:  In 1967, Joseph Strick wrote and directed a film version of Joyce’s Ulysses.  Though it was a mixed bag, it was enough of a success that it earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay (partially for the fact that he was able to do it at all).  Ten years later (after also making Tropic of Cancer), Strick tried again with Joyce and didn’t fare nearly as well.  Was it that he didn’t write it as well this time?

Well, not necessarily.  There are a couple of problems that prevent A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man from being a good film, one of which hampered this particular film and one which would have gotten in the way of anyone attempting to film it.  The first problem is the casting of Bosco Hogan as Stephen Dedalus.  He is appallingly bad – completely dead in the water, without a shred of emotion to his performance at all.  And some of that may have been Hogan.  Some of that may have been Strick, because aside from the always dependable John Geilgud, he doesn’t get much from anyone in the film.  And some of that may be that Stephen isn’t written to be a particularly cinematic character and he just can’t come alive on the screen.

Which brings us to the second point.  Strick had achieved a measure of success with Ulysses because, in spite of 800 pages of modernism, in spite of literary styles that range all over the map and a final monologue that goes on for pages without punctuation, there is actually some semblance of a story in Ulysses.  Portrait doesn’t have a story.  It’s a Bildungsroman, one shaped through the literary prism of modernism.  There’s no story here – there is a literal coming of age, and it follows through in the stream-of-consciousness that the book builds around.  There are a few pivotal moments (such as when he’s punished after his glasses are broken) that can bring a little bit of drama, but in essence, there is no dramatic arc to build around in making a film.  There’s a reason why many of the best Bildungsroman novels of the 20th Century – Portrait, Look Homeward Angel, Winesburg – don’t get filmed.  It’s not that you can’t make a film out of them.  It’s that you can’t make a worthwhile film out of them, and this is the film that proves the point.