A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
Bedford/St. Martins (1916). 384 pp.
I was told that by the end of this novel I would hate the main character. I wasn’t told why, just that I would. I finished the book last night, and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the main character. I don’t know if I hate him, I just know that I don’t like him very much. He didn’t do anything wrong, he just didn’t do anything at all.
In my own undergraduate opinion, a great book is one which will transform you to alternate times and places and completely transform you until you shut the book and are forced to breathe again. You snap back into reality and cannot help but utter “holy crap” or some similar phrase.
I’m not entirely sure I would consider this a great book. I would, however, say that this is a book of great moments. Two, to be specific, that swept me off of my feet and caused my heart to beat just a little faster. One was the sermon in Part 3. I would pay good money to see Father Arnell and Jonathan Edwards go head-to-head in a hell-fire and damnation preach-off. I can say that i don’t agree with everything in this sermon, but I was so excited to finally see something other than purely stream-of-consciousness writing. Don’t get me wrong, I like me a good stream-of-consciousness, but it’s generally a lot better in a character that has some thoughts worth following. This sermon–which takes up most of Part 3–had me circling here and commenting in the margins there. It was wonderful. I felt like I was being challenged, and I loved that feeling.
The second great moment in this novel was the conversation Stephen had with Lynch in Part 5. I am a little confused with Stephen in Parts 3-5. Part 3 he seems to be very into this whole retreat thing, part 4 he goes from being extremely pious to extremely opposite, and Part 5 he seems to be very philosophical without being theological. Then again, that is the natural progression of things I guess. There is this fantastic series of pages where he defines first pity and terror, and then beauty. It is incredibly noticeable in particularly this section of the novel that Joyce is a very educated man. He quotes Aristotle this and Aquinas that, and what Stephen says makes sense. Once again, blue pen to printed paper. I underlined the entire section.
That all being said, aside from those two great moments I don’t really know if I got anything out of the book. I didn’t feel that familiar sense of satisfaction I usually feel when the main character realizes the complete idiot he’s been for the majority of the book until that point and vows to change his ways and make himself a better man. There is none of that. Well, there is, but he tends to focus on the extremes. First he’s extreme secularism, where he is sleeping with prostitutes at the age of 16 and shocking the priest at confession with his sins. From there he goes to the other side of the spectrum, where he completely eliminates any trace of a temptation that goes his way and lives as monk-ish as humanly possible without actually being a monk. Once that doesn’t work either, he settles for being a philosophically astute agnostic. Granted, this is not a story with a moral–it’s as close to Joyce’s autobiography as he can get while still remaining a work of fiction, but I didn’t feel rejuvenated once reading this book. However, I did find the last section of the book very interesting and easy to read. For some odd reason, a diary-formatted text will do that. I feel that had more of the book been formatted to a diary, I would have found more satisfaction in it. I have no idea why.