Dear A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN by James Joyce: Not what I expected

Dear A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce:

I’ve always known that I have a bit of a strange reading taste. By strange, I mean that I generally enjoy a lot of books that most people don’t. William Faulkner’s novels are a good example of this–they are wordy and sprawling and confusing and mostly don’t have much by way of plot, but they fascinate me all the same. Sticking with this theme, I figured I’d feel a similar way about James Joyce’s novels. When I was at Oxford I randomly attended a few lectures on James Joyce–specifically about you and your infamous companion, Ulysses–and the lecturer made you sound so interesting and brimming with food for thought. You sounded like a book that many students dreaded being assigned–and one that I would love.

Unfortunately…I think I’m going to have to hop on the bandwagon for this one.

After seeing you collect dust on my shelves for years, I finally got around to reading you. My plan was to read you, Ulysses, and Dubliners all in a row. It’s been over a month since I finished you, and I still haven’t picked up Ulysses.

Let me preface my criticism by saying that I completely understand where that Oxford lecturer was coming from when she sang your praises to a hall of students. When taught alongside a bit of historical and literary context, I can see how you could be a really thought-provoking read. In fact, I really enjoyed reading the little scholarly introduction about you that’s at the beginning of the Penguin Classics editions. For these reasons, I wanted to like you so, so much.

But you just weren’t enjoyable to read.

I think the main reason is that you’re not really a novel you can pick up cold without doing some background research first–at least, not unless you’ve been taught Irish history. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about this subject, as we aren’t really taught anything about Irish history in American schools. You are steeped in the religious, political, and cultural conflicts of Ireland during your time, and it felt like so much of you went right over my head because I wasn’t familiar with your historical context.

Likewise, you’re also a deeply philosophical book, one that relies largely on allusions to other texts and particular on references to religion. As someone who isn’t a religious person, I found myself constantly flipping to the notes in the back of this edition, trying to make sense of your intertextuality. In a class, this would have been fascinating; however, in my bed at night after listening to online law school lectures all day in the middle of a pandemic, not so much.

And then there’s the fact that you’re quite a sad, dark novel overall. What made you even more sad was your ending–you just sort of unraveled at a point when there was one beacon of light amidst your dense writing. You left me feeling sad, confused, and a bit disappointed, to be honest.

I think I may have genuinely enjoyed reading you had it been in a classroom setting where a professor could guide us along and provide some much-needed context. Do I think that Joyce is a good writer, all in all? Yes. Will I eventually read Ulysses? Also yes. I think I just need some time–and maybe a little history lesson while I’m at it.

Thanks anyways, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Yours,

HOLLY

18 Replies to “Dear A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN by James Joyce: Not what I expected”

  1. Such good points about the allusions and context needed. Some books require a guide with the knowledge, or a group of people all reading together and ready to figure it out to really show it in its best light. I definitely wouldn’t be such a fan of The Country Wife if my professor hadn’t been able to teach me so many of the references and euphemisms that make it so funny! Are you ultimately glad you’ve read it, or do you wish you could get that time back?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely! And I’m definitely glad I read it–I’ve been wanting to read something by James Joyce for a while, and I do think he’s a really great writer in terms of his actual writing style. Just wasn’t the book for me overall, I guess!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Have you read Dubliners Holly? I haven’t read every story in it yet but I think it sounds far more accessible than this. Although I obvs have the advantage of being Irish and therefore I know all the historical and cultural references etc. But I have to say I don’t get the Joyce hype at all. How such a fuss is made about Bloomsday etc. Every year here there’s always celebration of it and I’m like whyyyyyy 😅😅😅 I know… should hand in my Irish citizenship really shouldn’t I 😂😂😂

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  3. I actually took an entire course in college that was 50% James Joyce and 50% Roddy Doyle. Believe me when I say the classroom setting had little effect on my understanding of this windbag novel. He couldn’t even find a UK publisher to take it on, so Ezra Pound had an American press take a chance on it. Ulysses is even more fraught with publication drama. Basically, only a select few people were really interested in his work for a long time.

    Roddy Doyle? His work totally helped me understand Irish culture and people, and he’s still publishing amazing works.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That makes me feel a lot better about not understanding this novel then! I’ll definitely have to check out Roddy Doyle’s works, thanks so much for the recommendation.

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  4. I liked this one well enough when I read it in high school English class, but you definitely make a good point about context – had my teacher not been such an enthusiastic fan of it, I easily could have had the opposite experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Holly, I feel sad that Portrait didn’t ring for you. Joyce’s intent is to disparage his protagonist. He’s egotistical, dissolute, without an ethos, disillusioned. Joyce said to his friend Frank Budgen: “I haven’t been easy on that young man.” Stephen is not a sympathetic character, He deserves that treatment. But there is hope for him. In Ulysses he is still confused but now he has a Virgil to guide him. If you ever do decide to look at Ulysses, I wrote a website for first time readers that you might find helpful. It’s not a plot summary or footnotes but an attempt to connect the commentary by various great Joyceans–themes, symbols and a little commentary. It’s at jamesjoycereading circle.com . The earlier comment here saying that Dubliners is more accessible is on the mark. Even there to get all the marrow from the bones an understanding of Catholicism is more than helpful. There is an annotated edition,eds. Jackson and McGinley, that is terrific. Yes, I know I am excessively enthusiattic about Portrait, at al. but my devotion stems from my love of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake which truly have no equals in western lit in my opinion. Best to you. ~Don

    Liked by 1 person

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