A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? More like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young BLAND, burn! Okay, really though, it’s been a long time since I really hated a novel, especially one that’s in the canon, but James Joyce is really killing me this this one. The Modern period is interesting because they were doing something different with the novel, pushing boundaries, experimenting, but this novel is utterly awful. Boring, trite, and overwrought, reading it is an exercise in tedium. If I can imagine an author – in this case Joyce – looking up from the manuscript, chuckling to himself, and whispering “James Joyce you genius,” before resuming writing, it means I hate the novel. Writing a novel, at its heart, should be an effort to reach other people. The precise emotion is less important, whether it’s didactic or the author just wants to entertain, every novel should reach out more than it reaches in. I feel that this is a universal, fundamental trait of the novel. It’s also why I feel Literature is such an important thing for people to study, especially young people, because it teaches empathy and challenges what one knows (or can know) about another. Novels are opportunities to go outside of yourself and connect with another person in the quiet, non-judgmental space that the pages create. This novel is the opposite of that in nearly every way.

Bland is a semi-autobiographical account of a young man becoming an “artist,” which I had to learn online, because you certainly cannot tell that from oh, I don’t know, reading the novel. That’s not important to Joyce though, if Joyce is happy with his novel he doesn’t give a flying fig if you’re getting anything out of it. I cannot help but wonder if this selfishness manifested in, shall we say, other aspects of Joyce’s personal life. Of course that one might be my issue, stupidly expecting to get something out of the many hours I devote to reading; regardless I am disappointed that Joyce isn’t alive to feel the sting of my personal insult. Let me put it another way: I read The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, which are her personal diaries with no notes as to who the people are or what is doing on, diaries that were never meant to be read by anyone but Plath, and that was still easier to follow than this novel. Really though, the clearest message of this novel is that Joyce was a deeply self-absorbed person. That’s not the official message of the novel (I have no idea what is), but it was quite clearly communicated to me via the novel. Transmission error … transmission error …

So Stephen Dedalus is a young man, grows up, goes to 1,000 whore houses (or one, I can’t say really), becomes scared of God, then apparently stops doing both those things, though we don’t get much of a glimpse into that growth process, and then nothing happens I suppose. I don’t know. The narrative is purposefully jarring, starting when he’s a baby in this almost goo-goo ga-ga baby style, then he goes to school which is awful for all of us, then suddenly he’s a teenager and despite no mention of a job can go to brothels all the time (paper route? lemonade stand?), then the only part of the book that was any good – a priest’s ten+ page long vivid description of Hell that can only serve to highlight how cartoonish the idea of Hell is – then he’s older and not religious anymore but has this odd set of friends who might just be acquaintances. Also there’s a girl, but between descriptions of her and Bland’s whorehouse sexual upbringing you get the impression that DedBland never formed the ability to do anything but literally objectify women. Literally. There’s no talk of their emotions, thoughts, anything at all aside from the women’s physical appearance and his sexual desire for them. Cue eye roll. Can it really be called a novel about someone growing up when they fail so utterly to become a fully realized human being?

Mythology is discussed regarding the novel, with Egg Stephen Dedalus symbolically referencing Daedalus, a Greek inventor trapped in the labyrinth with his son Icarus, the Minotaur, and his personal demons perhaps. DedBland is supposed to spiritually inherit Daedalus’ legacy when he comes a “writer,” but seeing as he is the son of Simon Dedalus who (possibly) disowns him, wouldn’t that make him Icarus?

I’m torn, honestly, because I’m in graduate school, so I feel like I should be more professional when I’m reading this novel, but I also feel like academia can be a place where people pretend to like awful things to feel important. When I went to the grocery last week the girl bagging my groceries asked if I had any “big plans” for the weekend, and I told her I was doing homework. She humble-bragged that she no longer had homework and I asked if she had graduated from High School or college (she was about 6″ taller than me and I’m terrible at guessing ages). She said High School and I told her I was getting my MA in Literature. She was impressed (one thing my degree will be good for is impressing my students, perhaps into behaving in class) and asked what I was going to do with it. I told her I was planning on teaching High School, which she couldn’t believe, “With a Master’s?” she said, “Yes,” I replied, to which she self-consciously humble-bragged (again) that she didn’t finish any of the novels she was assigned for class. Ever. If Literature is brought to students as aggressively alienating, painfully tedious, and justified only by its “importance,” like Bland is, we lose readers and end up with young people like this girl, trying to decide whether or not to go to college, at a cross roads in life, and utterly devoid of the glimpses into other lives that novels afford.

Overly dramatic? Yes. Obviously it’s not James Joyce’s fault that this girl didn’t do her homework and can’t choose between going to college or drifting aimlessly. In a way it is though, I actually do feel that it’s the novel’s job to be better, Joyce isn’t getting away that easily, but it’s also our job as academics to distinguish between works that still apply and those that are past their prime, despite the consequences to our collective egos.

5 thoughts on “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

  1. Wow that was— very passionate. I agree with you one-hundred percent. It is incredibly boring and it does reek of Joyce’s selfishness. I like that bit where you said, “If I can imagine an author – in this case Joyce – looking up from the manuscript, chuckling to himself, and whispering ‘James Joyce you genius,’ before resuming writing, it means I hate the novel. Writing a novel, at its heart, should be an effort to reach other people.”

    Well said.

    Conveniently, I’ve just written a sort-of rant myself, titled “Where James Joyce Fails, Neil Gaiman Prevails” about why I didn’t like “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Basically, Gaiman says that when it comes to fiction, it all comes down to four words: “… and then what happened?”

    Bland didn’t make me ask this at all, and unless it’s a compulsory reading assignment I don’t know why anybody would bother reading this (sorry, Joyce and Joyce fans and the literates out there who may be reading this comment) crap. Unless they’re very interested in Irish history, or want to write like Joyce, or are die-hard fans of Joyce who want to look into Joyce’s life.

    One comment on my post (Billie’s) shows the merits of the novel, Joyce’s writing, and “Ulysses”—and why some people (like you and I) may be put off. It’s very interesting to see different POVs. :)

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment! I’m very glad you liked my point, I really do feel that way! I was worried about raising ire with this review so I’m glad the first (maybe only) comment is positive.

      With books that I really dislike I give them the benefit of the doubt and wait until after the lecture to publish anything about them because I think maybe I missed something. I’m always willing to change my mind, but in this case class didn’t change my mind at all. We read “The Dead” as well, which I’ll write up separately. It also fell flat for me, though it has some poignant moments, and I remember liking it when I first read it a good 10 years ago. Still there seems to be an obsession in Joyce about women being unfaithful to men, it’s been in this book, “The Dead,” and I know it’s all over Ulysses – along with masturbation. Keep it in your pants, Joyce!

      Also, I was told Joyce said that people should quit their jobs and spend their lives trying to figure out his books, though I couldn’t find the quote online (I wanted to include it). It seems to be something he would say though!

      If someone can redeem Joyce to me I’m happy to listen though! I’ll definitely check out that article and thank you again!

      • There’s something I like about Joyce that is his use of symbolism, but he does take it too far in his novels. I never could get past one page of “Finnegans Wake”—what the heck is that all about?! I prefer T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” which is much more digestible.. That said, I did like “The Dead” because his prose was marvelous, and I learned a thing or two, which made me appreciate Joyce more, such as his use of chiasmus, for example.

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