Lit Review: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Ryan Tiedemann, Staff Writer

“I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can” – James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

How does one’s life shape them? A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the first and most approachable novel of acclaimed Irish author James Joyce, aims to answer this question, or at the very least ask it. Portrait is a bildungsroman (coming of age story), with the main character’s life mimicking Joyce’s own. The novel follows Irishman Stephen Dedalus, from birth to early adulthood, as he experiences a traditional late nineteenth century Irish Catholic upbringing. Although not a required text for school, Portrait is an excellent read, especially when considering the importance of Joyce in the greater pantheon of English literature.

Portrait employs a third-person point of view, but rather than being omniscient the narrator is limited to Dedalus. The reader sees the world through Dedalus’s eyes, language, and thoughts, and as a result the diction matures with Dedalus. As Dedalus grows up, Joyce increases the complexity of his language, from meaningless babble in the first line to complex, introspective prose. While this may be complicated (I certainly had to reread passages), it adds an additional layer of depth to the bildungsroman, and has inspired many other works, including the likes of Harry Potter.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Portrait is Joyce’s manipulation of mood and setting. His writing and prose truly manage to transport you into Dedalus’s life. You feel the gothic atmosphere of his Irish Catholic boarding school, meet new people with him, travel and learn with him. Furthermore, the amount of detail Joyce provides to the setting makes various locations in the text feel alive. I can still vividly picture the famous Christmas dinner scene, and can practically hear the argument occurring, the divisive Parnell being simultaneously attacked and exalted. 

I would fervently recommend Portrait to anyone up for the challenge. It is admittedly long and difficult, especially considering that I had to constantly check the footnotes simply to understand the 19th-century Irish politics being discussed. However, it was unquestionably worth it. The novel is vivid, imaginative, and influential, while also providing a springboard from which to tackle Joyce’s other works, including Ulysses and The Dubliners. After some deliberation, I would give Portrait an 8.5/10, on a scale where 0/10 is a brick and 10/10 is a book I have yet to read.