OK, so it didn’t really take me this long to finish the book. I actually read it months ago, and then read it again, and then again. Not because I liked it! I had to read it so many times that I began to hate it. Of course I can see why it’s such a masterpiece. It developed the stream of consciousness technique and who knows what else? According to critics, Joyce has influenced the whole literary structure as we know it today! Which is why, when I read it, I didn’t read it with an eye to enjoy it. It was all critical and I think that destroys most of the pleasure in reading a book.
A Portrait didn’t really have a story that can be enjoyed (at least by me!). It is about Stephen Dedalus, a young boy (who somewhat represents the author himself) striving to recognize self, through a series of experiences. First he rejects one belief, then another until he believes solely in art and beauty. It was to some extent a technical book about Stephen’s ‘aesthetic theory’ and how he achieves it. What many overlook is that it is the portrait of a ‘young man’ which means that the novel doesn’t end with everything all figured out. For that, it is necessary to read Joyce’s most famous book Ulysses.
For my previous review, go here: A Portrait
The novel pivots on three important beliefs: patriotism, religion and art. As the story progresses, we see how Stephen deals with the world around him, a world from which he realizes he is different. Most important through the novel is his conflict with religion. At first turning his back on it, then becoming a strong believer, he ends up rejecting it completely and with his eyes open. What the journey really represents is his self-knowledge. When he learns to see with his own eyes, and fly on his own wings he is able to break free from all ties and become an artist.
The novel starts off with Stephen in infancy. It shows the development of the thought processes of a very young child. We see how he reacts to his surrounding through his senses. The water, the cold, smells: they all affect him and connect all his memories together. The narration is haphazard, aptly representing a child’s disjointed thoughts. Water takes him from the bathroom at his school Clongowes to memories of his father. These impressions play an important part throughout the story. This is because Stephen makes most of his decisions based on them. It is what he feels and where it leads him that causes him to grope for meaning. He is seeking for meaning in life and his true vocation. At the end of each chapter, he believes he has found meaning only to be disillusioned in the beginning of the next.
His first important ‘epiphany’, as Joyce calls them in Stephen Hero, is his meeting with the prostitute. He has now taken a step away from the church and committed mortal sin. Stephen believes his eyes are now open. But his path is much longer then he realizes. He will come back to the folds of the church and repent; become a fanatic in his punishment to himself.
This fanaticism lasts him some years, at the end of which he is again disillusioned. He can can’t avoid seeing the hypocrisy of the church. It is his curse that he sees what others don’t, and when he does, he is a step closer to realizing his real self. He refuses to join the church opting for University instead. It is his first significant step towards becoming the man he really is.
By this time, you must have an idea of how the story progresses. It is his whole life experience; everything that leads him a step closer to becoming an artist. You will gradually see how Joyce painstakingly shows each and every event in the young protagonist’s life and how it affects and molds him.