Joyce’s semi-autobiographical story of growth and freedom chronicles the protagonist Stephen Daedalus’ life as he moves from being an infant to a university student to a seemingly independent artist. While it sheds light on the difficulties an artist has to face to be self-determining, it does so through depicting the stronghold national, religious and familial institutions have on any individual existence. A narrative rich in local detail, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man delves into the Irish society’s psyche and its struggle to win an identity separate from the colonising English culture. The novel offers numerous beautiful moments of epiphany, not just for the hero but also for the reader.
Writing at a time when the Celtic revival was at its peak, James Joyce was conscious of the Irish separatist tendencies for an exclusive culture, denouncing the English and their language. A Portrait brings out clearly the anxiety of a relatively less nationalist and more internationalist author, in that it refuses to raise any one language or culture or nation above the other. Both Ireland and England are shown to have their set of weaknesses, both languages are proved insufficient of capturing human experience and both cultures are considered binding power structures abortive of an artist’s growth. Unlike the other works of the Irish revivalist literature which sought to valorise everything Irish over anything English, Joyce follows the dictum of portraying the Irish society, flaws included. This makes him a successor of W.B. Yeats, whose play The Countess Cathleen was booed by the Irish public for a realistic portrayal of Ireland that is, shorn of nationalistic glamour.
Stephen Daedalus, named after the great artificer Daedalus and identified by many with the novelist himself, is constantly in a search of an artistic identity. In the process, we see Stephen taking on various kinds of identities- formed through religious, sensual and national discourses- and finding each to be restrictive to his true self. Thus, Joyce presents (t)his Kunstler roman (in English- “artist’s novel”) as a rejection of all excesses that enmesh the potential artist and a moderate acceptance of both the feminine and the masculine principles inherent in the status of a “creator”. Even as the hero Stephen goes abroad in the end, he is still bound by heredity, by language and by ideology to his roots. Such a reading of Stephen’s inefficacy as an artist has evoked commentary on the portrait Joyce paints as rather a caricature. There have been many interpretations of this multi-layered novel and with each re-reading the novel has something new to offer, as revealing as the Joycean epiphanies that his characters experience in almost all of his works.
Although obtuse at times, A Portrait nevertheless is an opulent study of individual psychology (through the Modernist “stream-of- consciousness” technique which takes us into Stephen’s mind), linguistic premeditation, national politics, religious hypocrisy and of course that which makes its presence felt throughout the novel- sexual impulsiveness. If not for the contextual understanding of the Irish society that Joyce lived in, the novel must be read for its innovative use of language, for the sardonic humour, and for the exquisite lyrical passages that belie a linearity of meaning. Whether Joyce himself has been able to become that portrayed independent artist is a question to be studied, meanwhile a reading of his wonderful novel is surely recommended for any person appreciative of beauty.