I just completed a reread of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This book is the epitome of a Bildungsroman. It is the story of the young Stephen Dedalus. This novel seems me to be a modernist archetype and, in my opinion, a great work.
We get a glimpse into Stephen’s mind from his earliest childhood. The novel follows him through his adolescence and on through his early adulthood. Stephen is a sensitive person, a thinker and something of a misfit. We see the protagonist’s mind develop from a very early age. As he moves through his teenage years, though surrounded by pious religious influences, Stephen begins to frequent prostitutes and is wracked with guilt and a fear of divine punishment. Though he eventually rediscovers his moral bearings, he later turns down an opportunity to join the priesthood and begins an intellectual estrangement from both religion and nationalism. We also see Stephan’s reaction to his early love as well as his contradictory and complex feelings for her.
Stephen is a budding intellectual and poet. Included in the narrative are pages and pages of philosophical ruminations on aesthetics that include numerous references to various artists, writers, and philosophers. I found these ponderings to be interesting and worthwhile; however, such eccentricities will likely bore some readers.
In my opinion, Joyce has successfully captured the inner and outer workings of a male adolescent’s mind here. I judge this success based partially upon experience and partially upon observation. The accolades that this work has earned are well deserved. There really is something special about Joyce’s portrayal of Stephen’s inner being. From the language used to portray the workings of his mind to the various stages of his youth to the way our protagonist reacts to the outside world, there is something very realistic as well as aesthetically pleasing here.
There are actually many writing styles contained in this work, but much of the novel is told in a stream of consciousness style. Other parts, perhaps reflecting the way in which Stephen thinks at various times, are presented in more or less straight prose but with no apostrophes to indicate dialogue. The text ranges from the simple to the difficult and dense. This novel, from the writing to the plot structure, is very unconventional, and folks looking for a story told in the traditional style might find this disappointing.
Dream of the Goat - Fiends
One can write volumes about this book. Instead of looking at general themes, I want to mention one of several extraordinary passages. At one point in the narrative, Steven is wracked with guilt and fear. He has been visiting prostitutes, yet he is terrified of the description of hell and the punishment that he believes awaits him as a result of his transgressions. This leads him to have a strange, phantasmagoric dream described below.
A field of stiff weeds and thistles and tufted nettle-bunches. Thick among the tufts of rank stiff growth lay battered canisters and clots and coils of solid excrement. A faint marshlight struggling upwards from all the ordure through the bristling grey-green weeds. An evil smell, faint and foul as the light, curled upwards sluggishly out of the canisters and from the stale crusted dung. Creatures were in the field: one, three, six: creatures were moving in the field, hither and thither. Goatish creatures with human faces, hornybrowed, lightly bearded and grey as India-rubber. The malice of evil glittered in their hard eyes, as they moved hither and thither, trailing their long tails behind them. A rictus of cruel malignity lit up greyly their old bony faces. One was clasping about his ribs a torn flannel waistcoat, another complained monotonously as his beard stuck in the tufted weeds. Soft language issued from their spittleless lips as they swished in slow circles round and round the field, winding hither and thither through the weeds, dragging their long tails amid the rattling canisters. They moved in slow circles, circling closer and closer to enclose, to enclose, soft language issuing from their lips, their long swishing tails besmeared with stale shite, thrusting upwards their terrific faces... Help! He flung the blankets from him madly to free his face and neck. That was his hell. God had allowed him to see the hell reserved for his sins: stinking, bestial, malignant, a hell of lecherous goatish fiends. For him! For him! "
I love the imagery contained in this passage. The goat-fiends seem to represent satanic forces circling Stephen’s soul. Unsurprising, there are six of them, as six is a number often associated with Satan and evil. The other obvious symbolic aspect to the goat image is that of sexuality and lust, which is the deadly sin that is plaguing Stephen. The weeds and sharp plants as well as the horrible odor all add to the menacing and pernicious atmosphere. I think that the reference to “soft language” might be important. Perhaps this is an allusion to the tempting, pleasant and alluring nature of sin.
I must admit to a strange attraction to such horror filled passages. I tend to like the description of grotesque scenes and creatures, especially when portrayed so artistically, meaningfully and symbolically. The mood created by the words here seems perfect. I also find the writing in this passage to be very imaginative. Joyce has painted a brilliant picture of Stephen’s view on sin that is drawing him into “stinking, bestial, malignant” hell.
Finally, I also find this passage particularly unusual in its unique depiction of hell. It actually contrasts with the more conventional fire and suffering version presented by a priest earlier in the narrative.
This work is an all-time classic. I have not even scratched the surface above. The portrayal of Stephen’s mind and his young years is magnificent in so many ways. The dream described above is only a small sampling of that. By completing this book, I have finished all of the preparation that I had planned for my next project and I am now reading Ulysses.
Excellent commentary, Brian Joseph! This is a classic work. I plan to read it in the future, but for now, I will read your posts about it.
Hi Suko- Thanks for the good word. If you read this book I would love to know what you think.
Great review and commentary, Brian. I'm not overly fond of the stream-of-consciousness style, but I can see how it would work within the context of this novel. That quote is so visceral, isn't it? You can almost smell the scene Stephen is describing...
Did you respond differently to this book on your second reading? I was wondering if you got more from it or noticed different aspects this time. It strikes me as being one of those novels where a reader's age and life experience might have a significant bearing on their response.
Hi Jacqui - Thanks for the good word.
Great point about an order coming out of that quote. Very true.
This reading of the book was indeed different. I was disappointed the first time around. I was looking for something more strait forward. I was expecting a literary tale of a young man ruminating upon art and life and full of angst. To some degree that is what this book is, but it is dense, goes in unexpected directions, and takes work to pull out the ideas and concepts. I was somewhat confused and did not get much out of this on my first read.
I think that I know a little more about the complexities and nuances of life now. I can appreciate different literary styles now, and I am a better reader, this experience was much better.
Great commentary on this wonderful book. It took me a couple of readings to appreciate the Catholicism of the novel, but I have always loved the famous sentence in the penultimate diary entry at the end of the novel:
"Welcome, 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."
Great post, Brina. I love that you picked one passage and read it in-depth. It shows how comeplx the book is. It's a greaty quote. It must be really hell if your guilt conjres up such images. I need to read it. I've loved both Dubliners and Ulysses.
As you know I always enjoy your posts and am interested to know your thoughts on what you have been reading but as I'm sure you'll agree we have very different tastes. One of the few books that you have shared your thoughts on that I'm tempted by I'm hoping our library will have a copy.
That is indeed a great quote.
The impact of the Catholic belief system is all over the book. I think that it definitely impacts the passage that I quoted.
Hi Tracy - If you read one I would love to know what you think.
I do think that many of the books that you comment on sound very good. I just seem to haver so little time to read everything that sounds good!
Hi Caroline - I loved Dubliners and I am in the middle of Ulysses right now.
Though I grew up in a Catholic household I luckily escaped most of the guilt thing. I do know people that it has impacted however. This dream really is a great example of it being manifested.
What a great review! I've only read The Dubliners and had to rely heavily on study guides to understand and appreciate the literary undertones of the stories. This book sounds very deep and intriguing, and like you got so much out of it.
Thanks so much for the kind words.
I will admit that I often rely on commentary to get a better appreciation and understanding of books. I try not to use ideas I come across in my posts however.
When I read Dubliners I found that online help and opinions were very valuable.
Hi Brian, have you read "Giacomo Joyce" It was written in Trieste, possibly around July/August 1914 and was left there by Joyce, later being rescued by his brother Stanislaus, after which it was acquired by an anonymous collector.it is considered to be the link between A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses.
Hi Gary - I have not read that but I have heard of it.
Maybe I will give it a try after I have finished Ulysses.
I read this in college and now don't remember it. I must say I would have gotten more from it reading it now than then, I'm sure. Great commentary.
Hi Harvee - Thanks.
When I read this when I was younger I did not get much out of it either. It is interesting how we appreciate things as we get older.
Brian, let me congratulate you on a BRILLIANT analysis of this book, and especially of this strange passage, which, as you have observed, repels and draws in the reader at the same time!
Of course, Joyce was a genius, and this is very evident in the poetic language and very vivid imagery he uses in this dream passage. I think, in agreement with you, that the reason it is so appealing to read, in spite of its grotesque, utterly repugnant imagery, is the author's use of language and imagery. If read aloud, this passage also has a very musical quality to it.
Now, I'd like to point something out in regards to novels in the bildungsroman category. I'm not sure about this, but I would venture to say that most such novels are written by male authors. (I know of at least one exception -- "Jane Eyre".) Why,I wonder, do these novels usually include the act of frequenting prostitutes as part of a young man's coming of age? I don't think that novels of this type written by female authors necessarily include the heroine having many lovers as part of a young woman's coming of age. Perhaps I'm wrong, though, as I must confess I haven't read that many novels in this category.
At least, Stephen does feel some guilt and self-disgust over such activities, as well he should! He realizes that they're totally wrong. Still, however, I find this disturbing. More of "the old double standard", I guess.....
To interject something here: I once overheard a very crude remark made by the male owner of a company I used to work for, at an office Christmas party. He told one of the workers -- another man -- that the best prostitutes in the world are to be found in Paris. He said this in a very conspiratorial tone, laughing as he said it, and the other guy laughed, too. Well, this is one of the reasons I'm a feminist!!!
I do think that Joyce might have included this in his coming-of-age novel in order to criticize and condemn this type of behavior. So, to be fair, I shouldn't say that he approves of it. Still, it does bother me that he has included this in the novel.
In spite of what I've just stated, I would still like to read this novel, as I definitely want to savor and think about the intellectual and aesthetic passages.
BTW, I LOVE that cover!! I think it's actually a painting by the Cubist Georges Braque, who is a favorite of mine. It's very fitting for this novel, too, as it perfectly expresses all of Stephen's inner turmoil.
Thanks so much for the AWESOME analysis!! (I haven't used the word "review", because I know you probably have more to say about this novel.) : )
I was pretty confused by Portrait when I first read it, but I've come to appreciate it. :) I like that it's largely autobiographical and gives me a peek into Joyce's mind through his wonderful use of free indirect speech. Those satyrs are cleverly rendered. There's more than a whiff of brimstone in that dream sequence. :)
Hi Maria - Thank you for the superb comments.
I do not remember other bildungsroman style books that I have read involving young men visiting prostitutes but I may have forgotten. I think that we have previously discussed this, but you and I may differ a little in that I do believe that some of the time at should reflect the dark and ugly sides of life.
The experiences of women are very under represented in the bildungsroman category. Charles Dickens’s Bleak House is also a very notable and worthy exception. Its protagonist also was not sexually promiscuous in any way.
The double standard for men and women, still very much apparent today was so much more prevalent in the literature of the nineteenth century.
Joyce was a complex writer. He certainly was not promoting the visiting of prostitutes. At the same time I think that he was also being highly critical of the guilt that the Catholic Religion seems to instill in some people.
I did not realize that the painting was one of Georges Braque’s works. It does indeed fit this novel so very well.
Hi Violet - I too was confused by this book the first time around. As I mentioned to Jacqui I was really expecting something different.
Hi, again! I agree thatt he double standard is still very much alive and well, even in this country! Of course, certain countries in the Middle East are extreme examples of this -- women are blamed for being raped.
I need to read more coming-of-age novels, but I'm not surprised that there are few dealing with the experiences of women.
Having been raised Catholic myself, I'm all too familiar with the guilt-tripping. I never did see the point of going to confession, especially if one has to tell one's sins to a priest, who is just another human being!
By the way, I'm not really sure about the cover art. I thought at first it was by Georges Braque, but there were, of course, other Cubist painters. I was thinking that it might be by Juan Gris, or maybe Robert Delaunay. I've been doing some research, but have yet to find this image. I'd love to own this particular copy of the novel!
Hi Maria - Without a doubt authors have been much more interested in highlighting the experiences of men & boys then worn & girls. I think that this is changing, but it is happening slowly.
I too was raised on a Catholic family. Some of my relatives really did emphasize guilt also.
That is an interesting dream. Great description in this passage. I'm beginning to think hell is different for everybody, depending on what we fear the most. I wonder how people would live if they were free of the idea of heaven & hell. Do you think it would be better or worse?
Hi Delia - Indeed folks have many versions of hell.
You raise a very interesting question regarding heaven and hell. It really relates to the issue of religion.
I often argue that human ethics, morality and philosophy would do just fine without religion.
But I cannot say I am one hundred percent certain of that. The concepts of heaven and hell have been intertwined with humans developing and philosophizing about morality. Human belief and culture is so complex that it is difficult to say for certain. I am confident however that in modern, free societies we can do without these beliefs.
This is the only Joyce work I have managed to read, and that was in college >30 years ago. However, I remember really liking it and finding it powerful and interesting. Definitely time for a reread.
I liked your comments on Daedalus's dream.
This is good but a bit challenging. I also recommend Dubliners. In particular it is very accessible.
Excellent post, Brian. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I find Joyce daunting but I'll try this one before Ulysses.
It must be a book to read several times and I'm pretty sure you discover something new each time.
Thanks for the quote, it showed me I'd better find a French translation for this one, I don't think I can read it in English, it's far too complicated.
PS: Have you seen Max's post about this one?
https://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/a-portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-man-by-james-joyce/ It's excellent too.
Thanks for the good word Emma I am in the middle of Ulysses now and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is definitely easier and more accessible. I found Dubliners more accessible then either. That collection of short stories was generally easy reading.
Indeed rereading of books like this reveal lots of new things.
PS - I am off to read Max'a post now.
Wonderful commentary as usual. What a creepy passage..."The malice of evil glittered in their hard eyes"...there is definitely something very unnerving about it.
Hi Naida - Thanks!
Creepy is a good word for that passage. I think that Such creepiness can be fascinating however.
Thank you for giving us a taste of this book. I read it as a teen and remember little of it. It's something that will benefit a revisit as an adult who can better appreciate such books :)
As for the Dream of Goats passage… it was stunning. And it's amazing how good we are at making our own hell. Filling our mind and our lives with things that torment us.
Hi Hila- This book is definatly one more appreciated as I got older.
I do also think that one of the reasons why that passage is so effective is it does show how various versions of hell can be so personal.
I read this book years ago on cold winter nights drinking hot tea. I liked the way he painted with words more than what he actually said. Let me see if I remember this correctly: A day of dappled sea bourne clouds.
I love that phrase.
Hi Sharon - That is really a great line! The language used in this work is so interesting and at times unusual.
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