“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nice little boy named baby tuckoo…” Those opening lines from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man have to be among the most original first sentences of any novel – and they show us that here we have a writer determined to use language in a new and different way.
Words and language are an integral part of book, offering a child’s eye view of the world at the start, and evolving with the protagonist Stephen Dedalus (you really can’t call him a hero) as he grows, physically, intellectually and emotionally. By the end of the book the simple language of the early section changes, becoming as complex as the philosophical ideas expressed.
A handful of experimental writers had influenced Joyce (just as he himself influenced those who came after him), but even now, nearly a century after it was first published, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man still shocks with its ground-breaking techniques. The ‘stream of consciousness’ and internal monologue that he developed to such a high degree in Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake are evident, but to a lesser degree, and he does away with quote marks, using a dash to indicate the start of speech. It is semi-autobiographical account of Joyce’s own Catholic upbringing, but lacks a conventional hero and has no real plot or storyline, being more concerned with Stephen’s thoughts and feelings than with actions or events.
The text is peppered with fragments of rhyme and cultural references, and is suffused with the history, religion and politics of Ireland in the years leading up to the Easter uprising. Ireland has always been a divided nation, and the divisions are apparent here – not as part of the action, but simply because they exist. There’s the secular world of Parnell, the flawed leader who wanted some form of autonomy for the Irish people, and whose fall from grace split his supporters and opponents alike. Set against that is the rigid, restrictive world of the Christian Brothers, who refuse to countenance change and new ideas.
Stephen’s battle for personal freedom could be seen as an echo of his country’s fight for independence. Always something of an outsider, he’s a poet, seeking truth and beauty in his art and his life. He explores the nature of belief in God, and the form that belief takes through rituals in the Catholic Church, as well as the nature of heresy. At times it is hard to tell is Stephen is struggling to acquire faith – or struggling to escape its shackles. In the end, unable to live a lie, he rejects the conventions of the church and his upbringing and decides to leave Ireland and pursue his career pursue his career elsewhere, however uncertain and lonely the future may be.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is not as lyrical and poetic as Ulysses, but I admire the way Joyce bends language to his own ends. However, I admit I found it difficult to grasp some of the ideas discussed – partly due, perhaps, to the fact I didn’t have a religious upbringing myself, so fail to appreciate the church’s hold over people, or to fully understand the philosophies involved. I feel as if I haven’t really done it justice with this review, and need more time to reflect on the book, then read it again and re-evaluate my opinion.