James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

When you read a book like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, your conscience’s worst nightmare is your waking reality. The words wound you. Your skin crawls, your heart jumps, but your mind survives. It survives because that is where literature possesses its own soul, heaven, and hell. And when you, by the light of your consciousness, confess in silence and alienation all your fears – you can finally feel the words you read as being both beautiful and sad like a memory you were never a part of.

If anyone can make eternal damnation and mortal sin provocatively lyrical, it is James Joyce. And A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which is his semi-autobiographical novel, is about a young boy’s “holy” exile and penance. The story is a force to be reckoned with – striking, tragic, and haunting. Joyce’s writing plunges into the vortex of Catholicism and the sensations it breeds.

When you crack upon a man’s skull, what scatters are all the memories and experiences of his childhood. To “grow up” is merely a moronic extension of existence; a reflex of time encroaching upon our pleasures and miseries.

The novel is made up of many elements. It’s intellectual, moral, spiritual, psychological, and sexual. There’s enough in here to make you dizzy. The first half embraces a more chaotic and lopsided narrative which redeems itself in the second half. For a coming-of-age story steeped in modern spiritual awakening, catharsis and consciousness are the central themes.

Imagine yourself in a mirror maze. Each mirror you stand in front of, at the side of, or away from, is contorted and proportioned in a such way that it deceives the image of yourself. No matter how many times you turn around, wipe the surface, smoothen its creases, you can never truly identify yourself – as you really are. Imagine this, and then imagine a soul in the place of your body. And history, politics, religion, culture, language, family, and nationality in the place of mirrors. Think of the chaos, dread, nausea, and asphyxiation it breeds.