A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is viewed traditionally more or less, if not entirely, as James Joyce’s autobiographical novel. The novel is woven around Stephen Dedalus whose life we follow from childhood and adolescence up to the realization of his artistic calling, and a little beyond. While researching on the book itself, I deemed the fact that there are mainly two types of readers of the novel; some who see the novel as a typical Joyce’s criticism of the religious influence on Stephen’s life, and the others who would slam the book once they read the word “moo-cow” and refuse to analyze Joyce’s power in language articulation. Yet in this story where the autobiographical and fiction elements are blended, one of the crucial aspects that I perceived to be intriguing was the narrative style.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man draws the most convincing picture of an Irish Catholic upbringing. The narrator and the narrative style possess an enormous influence over how the events and the characters are presented and thereupon designate the propaganda of the story as a whole. Joyce breaks away from one scene to another without a hint of the change in time or place. The narrative voice in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is omniscient but we are exposed to Stephen’s thoughts and not of any other character and the narrator aims to render realistically the struggle and development of the protagonist. The spectacular feature in the narration is the shift in the fifth chapter where we are exposed to Stephen, by Stephen.
“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow… (Chapter 1,pg 3) From the beginning of chapter one, James Joyce opens a window to reach the interior of Stephen’s thoughts and follow his intellectual development. In the early years of Stephen’s life, he is silent or would not speak even when he wants to disagree. Stephen is presented as an easy target of the bullies due to his appearance, mild and sensitive nature and small size. Joyce occupies stream of consciousness to map the formidable character traits of Stephen. One fascinating element to his narrative style is his use of language. The reader sees the world through the eyes of Stephen and the language itself calibrates parallel to the protagonist. For instance, when his classmate Wells probes whether he kisses his mother before he goes to sleep, Stephen is confused since the boys do not reveal the answer they expect. Stephen tries to laugh along as a gesture of pretending to belong to the rest. These simple details are ample to explain the narrative style and how prevalently it has been occupied by Joyce.
When Stephen reaches the adolescent stage, his childhood becomes a faint memory. Thus, the narration takes up from the child-like innocence to a teenager who is in need of adventures. When he goes to Cork with his father, he learns the stories of his father’s time at Queen’s college. When he sees the word “Fetus” carved in a desk, he travels back to the past of the college. It also implies his sexual preoccupation as we are then revealed of the sexual encounters of Stephen and how he gradually enters a stage of spiritual paralysis.
“He drew forth a phrase from his treasure and spoke it softly to him:
-A day of dappled seaborne clouds.
The phrase and the day and the scene harmonized in a chord. Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the greyfringed fleece of clouds. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour?” (Chapter 4, pg 180)
When Steven arrives at the realization of the immorality of his actions, he seeks the salvation of religion. The novel goes on for pages with vivid yet gruesome descriptions of the sins and the consequences that follow. However, Stephen meets a girl whom he describes vivaciously with bird-like metaphors and marked as the turning point where Stephen discovers a newer outlook on his own life. This incident takes place after the above passage, where we encounter Stephen’s awakening and self-realization. The reader can observe the narrator describing the incident with much insight. For instance, the word “treasure” signifies a personal thought of Stephen and therefore the reader can observe how attached the narrator is , to the protagonist. The quotation itself “A day of dappled seaborne clouds” is actually a misquotation of a line from a Hugh Miller poem, and should read: “A day of dappled, breeze-borne clouds” (Gifford 219).The narrator does not fret to correct Stephen’s misquotation implying how objective he is even when describing a subjective situation.
“Et ignotas animum dimittit in artes – Ovid , Metemophose”
The epigraph of the novel can be translated as, “And he applies his mind to obscure arts”. The “he” is Daedalus, a craftsman from the Greek mythology. He is the father of Icarus who is known for the tragedy of flying too close to the sun with his wax wings. It is not by coincidence that Joyce names his protagonist “Dedalus”. The name Daedalus in Greek means “The cunning artificer”. Daedalus, the ideal artist is referred by Stephen at the end of the book as “Old father old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead”. The final first person narration coincides with Stephen pursuing his dream, like Icarus, with the wings of art.
The narrative style along with the stream of consciousness, Joyce’s absence of inverted commas, deliberate time-lapses that lead to the revelation of the Stephen’s journey as an artist.
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ed. Seamus Deane. London: Penguin Classics, 2000. Print.
Gifford, Don. Joyce Annotated. Berkely: U of California P, 1982. Print.