At the start of the present millennium, the editorial board at Random House published a list of the hundred most important novels written in the twentieth century. The board included such distinguished writers and critics as Gore Vidal, Arthur Schlesinger Jr, William Styron and John Richardson. There was little surprise at their number one choice: James Joyce’s Ulysses. What may have been more unexpected was that another book by Joyce occupied the number three position. It was his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Perhaps, there was no need for surprise: the Portrait has also received worldwide critical acclaim. It is the most widely read of Joyce’s works, and there are currently more than a hundred editions of the book in English alone. It has, of course, also been translated into scores of other languages, and has proved highly influential in the development of modern fiction. Even its title has had an impact on other work – apart from Dylan Thomas’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, there have been Portraits of a Young Ape, a Young Woman, a Young Gamer, and even a Young Entrepreneur.
By the time he wrote the Portrait, Joyce had already published Dubliners, his collection of short stories. His work had first been drawn to the attention of the American poet Ezra Pound by WB Yeats. Pound was greatly impressed and offered to help ensure that successive chapters of Joyce’s novel would be published in the avant-garde literary journal The Egotist. The complete novel was finally published in New York one hundred years ago ‑ on December 29th, 1916.
The Portrait had previously been turned down by both English and Irish publishers. Edward Garnet, a highly regarded editor and reader at Duckworth and Company – who was a friend of Yeats and well disposed to Irish themes ‑ thought the work was too “unconventional” and felt that “ugly things, [and] ugly words, [were] too prominent”. Garnett predicted that, unless Joyce learned to exercise more “restraint and proportion”, he would not gain many future readers. Despite such reservations, some of the early reviews of the novel that were published in the English press found merit in Joyce’s work. HG Wells was generous in his praise of its “quintessential and unfailing reality”, and compared Joyce favourably with Swift and Sterne. However, he also advised readers of a squeamish disposition to “shun this book”.
Other English reviews were more disparaging. The Manchester Guardian accused Joyce of “astounding bad manners” and dismissed his book as a “nasty variety of pseudo-realism”. Another reviewer, in a piece entitled “A Study in Garbage”, described the novel as an “extraordinarily dirty study of the upbringing of a young man by the Jesuits”, and thought this sort of education explained why its central character had become “insane” by the end of the book.
Irish reviewers tended to take an even more negative view. The Freeman’s Journal claimed that Joyce “drags his readers after him into the slime of foul sewers”. The Journal was also concerned that Stephen Dedalus, the central character in Joyce’s novel, had been treated by English critics as if he were “a typical Irishman” ‑ an assumption which made that reviewer “despair of their intelligence”.
Since then, the novel has been somewhat overshadowed by the monumental presence of Ulysses. Indeed, it has sometimes seemed to be regarded merely as a sort of staging post used by Joyce to reach the heights of his later novel rather than an important work of art in its own right. However, the book continues to attract readers, and to connect with a particular Irish sensibility. It does, after all, express Joyce’s famous ambition “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”.
Joyce wrote the first version of the Portrait as a short essay for Dana, a literary journal that had just been launched in Dublin. The title had been suggested by his brother, Stanislaus, and was intended to be ironic. However, the essay was rejected by Dana’s editors. This was ostensibly because of its explicit sexual content, but, according to Stanislaus, the real reason was that William Kirkpatrick Magee, one of the editors, was jealous of Joyce’s genius. (Joyce would have his revenge some years later, when he satirised Magee in the Scylla and Charybdis episode of Ulysses.)
Whatever the reason, the rejection by Dana only spurred Joyce to embark on a more ambitious project. He decided to develop the original short essay into a full novel, which he called Stephen Hero. (Once again, the title had been suggested by Stanislaus, and was meant to be ironic.) Stephen Hero was conceived on a much larger scale than the original essay ‑ with sixty-three chapters ‑ and was originally planned to cover the life of Stephen as a university student. Joyce abandoned this work in 1906 – soon after he left Ireland. He had already finished twenty-four chapters, and some substantial sections of this draft survive. They reveal that Stephen Hero was written in a fairly conventional realist style, which involved an objective and omniscient narrator. Joyce later dismissed this work as “rubbish”, but the surviving draft includes a number of passages that were to feature ‑ albeit in a modified form ‑ in the completed version.
Joyce’s next and final attempt at writing the Portrait was, in some respects, both more modest and more ambitious. He began the novel in September 1907, immediately after finishing “The Dead” ‑ the most accomplished short story in Dubliners. By April of the following year he had written the first three chapters but found it impossible to continue any further. He did not resume work on the book for the next six years. It was only the enthusiasm of Pound that convinced him to return to his novel.
Unlike Stephen Hero, the final version of the book consists of just five chapters, which can be further divided into nineteen episodes, or vignettes. They chart the development of Stephen Dedalus from a child who is packed off to boarding school at Clongowes Wood College, into a gifted but self-absorbed student who is about to leave Ireland for good, and who may possibly develop into a significant artist.
In the course of the novel, we witness the social decline of Stephen’s family from relative affluence in a genteel neighbourhood of Bray to drab and squalid poverty in one of Dublin’s less fashionable districts. We also observe the loss of Stephen’s religious faith, and his disillusion with Irish society in the decades that followed the fall of Parnell. Stephen’s progress towards adulthood is mirrored in Joyce’s changing use of language: in the early chapters, the vocabulary and syntax are childlike – in later ones, the writing technique has become highly sophisticated. The narrative is internalised, and Joyce makes extensive and imaginative use of indirect free speech.
In broad terms, the Portrait belongs to the European tradition of “coming-of-age” novels ‑ or Bildungsromane. At the time Joyce wrote his book, there were few examples of this genre in previous Irish literature. Indeed I can recall my tutor at Cambridge raising an eyebrow when I described the Portrait as an Irish novel. “Set in Ireland,” he conceded, “But Irish …?” It is true that Irish fiction throughout the nineteenth century was often focused on the relationship between landlords and their tenants. That relationship tended to be viewed either from the perspective of the landlord class ‑ which was predominantly Protestant ‑ or from that of the tenants, who were largely Catholic. The underlying objectives of the two sets of writers may have been opposed, but, in some respects, they were also complementary. Given the scale of the various social, economic and political crises which traumatised Ireland in that century, the preoccupation with land ownership is entirely understandable.
Joyce was, of course, more at home in an urban setting. It could also be argued that he helped to establish the coming-of-age novel in Ireland, and even to popularise it ‑ since it has become one of the most constant features of contemporary Irish writing. However, there were some Irish precedents which seem to have influenced him. One was George Moore’s Confessions of a Young Man. Moore’s novel was published in 1888, and, like Stephen Dedalus, its central character ‑ an aspiring painter called Dayne ‑ leaves Ireland to seek his future as an artist abroad. Like Dedalus, Dayne likes to discuss aesthetic theories at length, and, like Dedalus, he proves all-too susceptible to the “enticements of the flesh”.
In his comprehensive biography, Richard Ellmann acknowledges that Joyce knew and admired Moore’s earlier work. However, by the time he achieved literary celebrity with Ulysses, Moore’s reputation was in decline and his book almost forgotten. That might help to explain his antipathy to Joyce’s work in general ‑ and to the Portrait in particular. Towards the end of his life, Moore dismissed that novel as “entirely without style or distinction” ‑ adding that he had done “the same thing, but much better” in his own Confessions. According to Ellmann, Joyce found Moore “a good man to improve upon”.
The Portrait is built around a number of set pieces. The first of these ‑ and perhaps the most dramatic ‑ occurs in the third section of the opening chapter. Stephen and his family have gathered on Christmas Day around the dinner table. This is a momentous occasion for six-year-old Stephen because, for the first time, he has been allowed to sit with the adults at dinner ‑ and to say grace. His joy is soon dispelled when a rancorous argument breaks out over the role of the Catholic Church and its part in the fall and death of Parnell. On one side is Dante Riordan, Stephen’s old nurse and a “spoiled nun”, who vehemently defends the Church’s censure of Parnell’s adulterous relationship with Katherine O’Shea. Stephen’s father, Simon Dedalus, and John Casey, his father’s friend, are on the other side of this dispute.
The row rapidly escalates, and becomes venomous in its intensity. Casey describes with relish how he spat tobacco juice into the eye of an elderly anti-Parnellite woman ‑ and his coarse and provocative anecdote amuses Simon Dedalus while enraging Dante. As the two men exchange insults with her, Dante loses control of her emotions. She exults in the fall of Parnell ‑ “Devil out of hell! We won! We crushed him to death!” ‑ before storming out of the room. She leaves Casey weeping at the loss of his “dead King”, and Simon Dedalus with eyes that are “full of tears”. A bewildered Stephen remains silent and “terrorstricken” by this brutal confrontation. His fear is accentuated by Joyce’s shift in his narrative strategy: unlike previous chapters, most of the action around the dinner table is not viewed from a child’s perspective, but is presented to the reader in clear and literal terms ‑ without any mediating filter.
Although the Christmas row is triggered by political conflicts, it has a wider and a more profound significance. In the novel, it marks a turning point for the young Stephen. For the first time, the child has witnessed at close quarters the weaknesses in character of some of the adults whom he loves. The row has also planted the first seeds of doubt in his mind about the authority of the Catholic Church ‑ since he understands it may hold some responsibility for the death of his father’s hero.
All of this reflects the deep level of psychic disturbance experienced in Ireland following the demise of Parnell. The goal of Irish independence ‑ which had appeared tantalisingly close ‑ had suffered a catastrophic defeat, and the lacerating passion that is expended by Simon Dedalus, Casey and Dante around the dinner table seems in direct, but inverse proportion to an underlying sense of their political impotence.
“He’ll remember all this when he grows up”, Dante had predicted, and that certainly proved to be the case. He came to share his own father’s sympathy with “poor Parnell”, and was inclined to interpret his fall as the result of cowardice on the part of the Irish people ‑ who had betrayed their leader and sanctioned his destruction at the behest of the Church. In some respects, Joyce remained an unreconstructed Parnellite for the rest of his life. Indeed, he contributed funds as late as 1930 to help raise a memorial to Parnell in Dublin. Beyond that, the idea of betrayal was to take root in his imagination, and to become a recurrent theme in both his personal and creative life.
When I first read the Portrait, I could not help but wonder how readers who were not familiar with Irish history could appreciate the significance of this section of the novel. Clearly it is written with great verve and narrative energy, but there may be other factors that make it accessible to readers who lack knowledge of the Irish background. The story of the fall of a great leader – betrayed by those he trusted, and by his own human frailty – has an epic and archetypal resonance that extends far beyond Ireland. The moment when a child begins to recognise that the adult world is deeply flawed may also be a fundamental insight that is common to all societies.
Stephen encounters a different kind of fear in another of the book’s great vignettes, in the second section of the third chapter, when he takes part in a religious retreat. This episode is placed by Joyce ‑ both literally and figuratively ‑ at the centre of his novel. The retreat is designed to address what Catholic doctrine identifies as the “four last things” ‑ death, judgment, heaven and hell. On the third day of the retreat, the priest’s sermon focuses on the horrors of hell. Stephen’s teacher, Fr Arnall, describes its torments in relentless and terrifying detail. He begins by relating the hideous assaults that are made on the physical senses of the damned: reducing the accumulation of humanity to one vast and rotting fungus.
The language used by Fr Arnall may appear crude and horrific. His sermon may also seem rather naive ‑ with the priest treating the visions of hell experienced by various mystics and saints as if they were factual testimonies. Nonetheless, its impact on Stephen is direct and immediate, his imagination making him acutely susceptible to Arnall’s lurid and visceral descriptions. He is affected much more deeply than his classmates, and leaves the college chapel with “his legs shaking, and the scalp of his head trembling as though it had been touched by ghostly fingers … at every step, he feared that he had already died.”
The intense remorse that Stephen feels for his previous sins ‑ particularly those of an “impure” or sexual nature ‑ seems resolved at the end of the chapter when he makes a full confession and is granted absolution. It appears, briefly, that he has been reconciled with Mother Church and can receive its sacraments in good faith. But Fr Arnall’s sermon has carried a secondary narrative ‑ and it is one that will soon lead Stephen out of his religious faith. The priest has described Lucifer as the “son of the morning”, and a “radiant and mighty angel”. But he has also claimed that Lucifer’s fall from Heaven represents a “rebellion of the intellect” against God. In subsequent chapters, Joyce will draw out the parallels between Lucifer and Stephen by making the fallen angel’s call of defiance the same as the young man’s statement of commitment to his own artistic vocation: “non serviam” ‑ I will not serve.
“Six years ago, I left the Catholic Church,” Joyce wrote to Nora Barnacle in 1904, “By doing this, I made myself a beggar, but I retained my pride. Now, I make open war upon (the Church) by what I write and say and do.” Despite that declaration, Catholicism seems to seep into every aspect of Stephen’s life. It is a constant presence in his home. It is a crucial feature of his education. It helps to define his understanding of Irish politics. It articulates his sense of Irish identity. It informs his tastes in literature. Perhaps above all, religion shapes Stephen’s perception of himself as an artist, “a priest of the eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life”.
Clearly, religion does not dominate Irish life nowadays in the same way that it did a hundred years ago, and the Catholic Church in Ireland is a very different institution at the start of this century than it was at the beginning of the last. In the Portrait, Simon Dedalus describes the Irish as a “priestridden Godforsaken race”. That claim may once have had validity, but it does not any longer ‑ at least as far as the “priestridden” part is concerned. This is not simply a question of numbers, but they are still significant: in 1900, there were more than 14,000 priests in Ireland; in 2014, there were fewer than 4,500 ministering to a larger population.
By the end of the novel, Stephen is about to leave Ireland, equipped with “the only arms” he allows himself: “silence, exile and cunning”. Whether or not he will succeed in his ambition to forge the “conscience of his race”, and become a significant writer is left open-ended by Joyce. Stephen might fail, and be overwhelmed once again by the type of existential fear he has already experienced. Or he might spread his creative wings, and fly past the “nets” of family, church and nationality that can still “hold back [his] soul from flight”. The author allows his readers the freedom to imagine which is the more likely outcome.
Joyce’s portrayal of Stephen may be sympathetic, but it is far from uncritical. He assured his friend the painter Frank Budgen that he hadn’t “let this young man off lightly” in this novel. Here, the emphasis should fall on “young”. Stephen is not presented as a mature artist in the closing chapters of the Portrait but as an insecure and ambitious intellectual who is still at an early and painful stage of his development. Stephen may be very intelligent, but he is also preoccupied with himself, and dismissive of the feelings of others. “Many writers have written about themselves,” Joyce told Budgen. “I wonder if any have been as candid as I have.”
By leaving Ireland, Stephen – and, by extension, Joyce ‑ seems to have turned his back on the country which he had characterised as “the old sow that eats her own farrow”. And it is true that Joyce chose to spend the rest of his adult life living and working outside Ireland. But, of course, Ireland continued to worry and obsess him through all the years that followed.
He had a musician’s ear ‑ and one that was also finely tuned to the various accords and discords in Irish history. He was well aware of the significance of certain dates in Ireland’s calendar. In that context, it seems more than a coincidence that Ulysses was published in the first year of Ireland’s political independence ‑ or that the Portrait appeared in the same year as the Easter Rising, a century ago.
David Blake Knox is a former director of production with RTÉ and executive editor with BBC Television. His independent production company, Blueprint Pictures, was founded in 2002, and has produced a range of TV programmes and films – including Imagining Ulysses, a feature documentary about James Joyce’s novel. His book Suddenly, While Abroad: Hitler’s Irish Slaves was published in 2012 by New Island Books.