Alone at Last: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

We are pretty familiar with the genre of books called bildungsroman, a German word for a novel of education or coming-of-age. Think Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, The Catcher in the Rye, Harry Potter. We are less familiar with the subgenre of bildungsroman called künstlerroman, a narrative about an artist’s growth to maturity.

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man makes it clear from the title that this book by 20th century Irish writer James Joyce is a künstlerroman. Loosely based on Joyce’s own experiences, this experimental novel written in stream-of-consciousness style chronicles Stephen Dedalus’s journey. It is a journey from boyhood to adulthood; from innocence to experience; from society to individualism; and more precisely, from religiosity to artistry.

This development towards an artistic life is hinted at early with Stephen Dedalus’s name. In Greek mythology, Daedalus is a skilled craftsman or artist who built the labyrinth for Minos, King of Crete. Minos imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus, but they escaped on wings of wax that Daedalus made. Icarus however, flew too close to the sun and died.

Portrait is divided into five sections and it is in the fourth where Stephen embraces his mythic father Daedalus (and by extension, renounces his earthly father) and his identity as an artist: “To discover the mode of life or of art whereby [my] spirit could express itself in unfettered freedom.”

Stephen’s journey towards this revelation is what comprises the plot. We meet him when he is a young boy attending the Jesuit-run Clongowes Wood College in a pleasant suburban neighbourhood of Dublin. He is a smart student, eager to please his teachers. His father soon runs into debt and the family moves to Dublin, where, through the help of a priest from his old school, Stephen enrolls in Belvedere College. Although “his soul was still disquieted and cast down by the dull phenomenon of Dublin,” Stephen excels in school and receives a cash prize, which he squanders on gifts for his family and prostitutes for himself. Joyce uses animal-like language to describe Stephen’s passage from innocence to experience in Dublin’s red light district:

He wandered up and down the dark slimy streets peering into the gloom of lanes and doorways, listening eagerly for any sound. He moaned to himself like some baffled prowling beast. He wanted to sin with another of his kind, to force another being to sin with him and to exult with her in sin.

Stephen’s sexual forays continue for some time. When the boys at his College are taken on a spiritual retreat and are forced to listen to sermon upon sermon about the spiritual and physical sufferings in hell, then Stephen is frightened into repentance. He confesses his sins to a priest and does a complete turnaround. Uncoincidentally, Joyce uses sexual language to describe Stephen’s spiritual awakening, complicating easy categories of the sacred and the profane:

Meek and abased by this consciousness of the one eternal omnipresent perfect reality his soul took up again the burden of pieties, masses and prayers and sacraments and mortifications, and only then for the first time since he had brooded on the great mystery of love did he feel within him a warm movement like that of some newly born life or virtue of the soul itself. The attitude of rapture in sacred art, the raised and parted hands, the parted lips and eyes as of one about to swoon, became for him an image of the soul in prayer, humiliated and faint before her Creator.

Stephen’s transformation is so extreme that you wonder if it’s going to last, and if it’s even healthy. His heart isn’t in it. He acts out of fear, not love, and while he keeps up the form of the rituals, the content soon loses its meaning. The priest at the school don’t know that though, and one of them takes Stephen aside to ask him to consider the priestly calling. While Stephen’s pride is stroked, he knows better.

It was a grave and ordered and passionless life that awaited him, a life without material cares. . . His destiny was to be elusive of social or religious orders. The wisdom of the priest’s appeal did not touch him to the quick. He was destined to learn his own wisdom apart from others or to learn the wisdom of others himself wandering among the snares of the world. The snares of the world were its ways of sin. He would fall.

I was relieved to read this. Every part of me cried out, “No Stephen, don’t do it!” when he got the offer because there’s nothing worse than somebody who doesn’t believe in the office they are called to. Stephen takes time to make his decision. While he is out for a walk, he hears his name and sees a beautiful woman wading in the water that affirms his aesthetic calling—”to recreate life out of life.”

His soul had arisen from the grave of boyhood, spurning her graveclothes. Yes! Yes! Yes! He would create proudly out of the freedom and power of his soul, as the great artificer whose name he bore, a living thing, new and soaring and beautiful, impalpable, imperishable . . .

Her eyes had called him and his soul had leaped at the call.

Instead of pursuing a profession with the church, Stephen enters the university where he develops his aesthetic theories, while increasingly disillusioned with that institution as well. There are long sections where Stephen discusses what beauty, art, and pity mean with his peers—almost like a Platonic dialogue where the fictional world is made subordinate to get the author’s philosophical views across. (Joyce is at his best when he’s telling a story and not teaching us philosophy).

Stephen grows more insular as the novel progresses. He disengages with his classmates, and because the story is told through his perspective in 3rd person narrative, the reader feels more distant from him as well. One character says to him, “Dedalus, you’re an anti-social being, wrapped up in yourself.” We hear Stephen’s thoughts through interior monologue, but it is through relationships with others that a character is most nuanced and human, so my sympathy for Stephen waned as the novel developed.

The completion of Stephen’s artistic journey is self-imposed exile from Ireland, an ending not very surprising given the misunderstood artist trope. He gives his manifesto about his decision to his friend Cranly in the novel’s final section:

I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use, silence, exile and cunning.

It is a bittersweet ending. Stephen comes into his vocation as an artist, but is there a way to do so without rejecting society, family, and friends? He says he is not afraid of being alone, but does being an artist necessitate aloneness?

Romer’s, River, and a Ride

I’ve discovered my new favourite cycling route and it’s close to my home—even better! It borders the Fraser River which isn’t quite as glorious as the ocean, but hey, it’s still water.

The Artist and I had discovered the River District earlier this summer after a friend’s recommendation to eat at Romer’s Burger Bar.      

I forget what burger this was but it was delicious.

I forget the name of the burger but it was delicious.

Then we decided to bike there one Sunday morning. We took Kent Avenue east, a semi-busy industrial street that eventually leads to a dedicated bike path along the water.

The light gravel path is flat, making it a nice ride.


Looking west towards Oak St bridge


Looking east to what lies ahead


Elegant townhouses along the way. Love those oval windows and steep angular roofs!

River District feels like this mysterious up-and-coming neighbourhood at Southeast Marine Drive and Kerr St that no one really knows about. And yet obviously people do because there’s quite the vibrant community there—condos, townhouses, a park, a Farmer’s Market every Saturday in the summer, and a bustling Romer’s Burger Bar (maybe because it’s the only restaurant there at this point).


The website markets the River District as a “master-planned” neighbourhood similar to Yaletown, yet without the steep prices.

Here’s a blurb about it:

River District is Southeast Vancouver’s newest and largest waterfront community. River District, an award-winning project being developed by Wesgroup Properties, will be a complete community with unique sustainability features.  Covering 130 acres and including 7,000 homes, River District will include shops, restaurants, schools, daycares, parks and a community centre. Designed by a world-class team of planners, architects and engineers, River District will offer a new way to live, work and play in Vancouver.

Yeah, I’d live, work, and play here.


The pier near Romer’s


the main intersection




If you keep following the bike path, it won’t be long before you reach this park in Burnaby, making you feel pretty hardcore that you just biked to a different city.


A Half-Hearted Pilgrim


“When Cheryl Strayed reaches Ashland, Oregon, she meets a woman who admires her for traveling ‘the pilgrim way.’ That’s when it dawned on me that Wild is a modern-day pilgrim story, but with a twist.”

To know more about this crazy twist (I exaggerate slightly), I’m going to send you to The Curator to read my full response to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild.

Still Alice: Seeing with Alzheimer’s

Still Alice tells the story of Alice Howland, a 50 year-old linguistics professor at Harvard who first forgets a word in the middle of a speech, gets lost in Harvard Square on her regular running route, and re-introduces herself to people she just met at a party before she sees a doctor and discovers she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.


From there, we see how Alice’s family—husband John and children Anna, Tom, and Lydia—deal with the disease’s gradual and tragic effects on their mother. She forgets how to make her classic bread pudding at Christmastime; she gets disoriented in her own home and can’t make it to the washroom in time; she believes her mother and sister just died recently rather than decades ago; she goes to the lecture hall where she is supposed to teach and sits down like a student; she can’t remember how to dress herself; she doesn’t recognize her own daughter.

Author and Harvard neuroscientist Lisa Genova does an excellent job at making this Alzheimer’s story come to life. Her scientific background certainly helps in chronicling the progression of the disease on her main character, but she can certainly write well too in a way that is concise and yet evocative. She doesn’t heap on pathos nor romanticize the disease. If the Alzheimer’s Association even endorsed it, I’d say she hit the nail on the head.

Genova chose to tell her story through Alice’s point-of-view, a decision that is much discussed for its limitations and its strengths. While it skews the accuracy of the bigger picture for the reader, it also more tightly links the reader to what Alice is feeling and thinking. Perhaps the most poignant example of this is when Alice asks a question to a conference presenter at Harvard in front of all her colleagues, bringing up a great point that no one had thought of before. As the reader, I was so proud of her for showing her colleagues and herself that she is still smart and has something to offer. And then Alice sticks up her hand a few minutes later and asks the exact same question to the presenter, this time getting embarrassed and pitying looks. I felt embarrassed for her too, even cringing a little. That is powerful writing.

The relationships between Alice and John and Alice and her youngest daughter Lydia are the most fascinating. Lydia and her mother don’t get along that well. Lydia loves theatre and wants to make it as an actress and her mom thinks it’s foolhardy not to go to college. John, like his wife, is a Harvard professor who increasingly can’t cope with how the disease is changing Alice’s life. He works more and more so he doesn’t have to be at home with her. “It’s killing me” he tells her, to watch her suffer like this. So when he gets a once-in-a-lifetime job offer in New York, he wants to move there with Alice since he says she won’t know the difference anyway. His daughters strongly resist the idea.

In the (rather surprising) ending, he does move, but on his own. He visits her on the weekends. This seems like such a selfish decision, but in conversations I’ve had with people since reading it, I’ve maybe grown a little more sympathetic to his decision and how something of this magnitude affects the caretaker. And yet I find myself asking what do marriage vows mean about “in sickness and in health” if not for times like this?

In contrast to her dad’s decision, Lydia sacrifices a lot for her mom. She enrolls in college in Boston (for theatre) so she can move in with her mom to look after her. It’s interesting how Lydia was the one who got along the least with her mom and yet understood her the best. The last scene in the book is absolutely beautiful between the two of them—a poetic exchange where the reader powerfully sees that the disease hasn’t taken Alice’s emotion away, her ability to feel and understand love. It doesn’t reside in the brain, as Alice worried about in the beginning stages of her diagnosis. It resides in her heart.

Alice is still Alice.

Jude the Obscure: Lost in Contrast

I don’t know what to make of Jude the Obscure. The last of Thomas Hardy’s novels, it was published in 1895 and received such rancorous attacks that the author renounced fiction and switched to poetry.


What is in this book that so scandalized its Victorian audience? There are a lot of things going on—too many, in my opinion, which deprive it of any sense of unity and cohesiveness. What is clear, however, is that the book lays a heavy critique on marriage, Christianity, and England’s class system.

The plot centres on Jude, an eleven-year old orphaned boy living with his aunt in the town of Marygreen, situated in Hardy’s fictional region of Wessex. After he finishes school, Jude gains employment as a stone mason though he dreams of life as a university scholar or, as a back-up plan, a minister. He teaches himself Latin and Greek to be able to read the classics, all the time setting his sights on the radiant city of Christminster, the epicentre of higher learning or the “heavenly Jerusalem”.

Jude is a man with a single-minded purpose, working towards a better life but being thwarted at every attempt. The first obstacle is a woman, Arabella Donn, an equally obscure daughter of a pig farmer who woos the naïve and easily love-struck Jude. She traps him into marriage by pretending she is pregnant. Here is a small example of Hardy’s critique against marriage:

There seemed to [Jude], vaguely and dimly, something wrong in a social ritual which made necessary a cancelling of well-formed schemes involving years of thought and labour. . .

It doesn’t take long for Jude and Arabella to both be unhappy in the marriage, so Arabella leaves Jude and marries another man. Jude moves to Christminster, getting work as a stone mason while writing letters to the universities to see if one will let him in based on the merits of his self-erudition. But he can’t compete with the likes of boys who spent their lives under trained teachers, and the only other option is to buy himself in. That really isn’t an option though since he’d have to save 15 years’ worth of his salary to do so. The second obstacle to his dream is his class position. Lonely and despairing, he heads to a tavern and there discovers his weakness for alcohol that will get him in trouble later.

The “bright light” in the midst of Jude’s early sufferings is his cousin Sue Bridehead who lives in Christminster and who Jude gets to know and, against his own better judgment, falls in love with. A free-spirited thinker very much a forerunner of feminism, Sue defies all norms of Victorian society with her inclination for pagan philosophy and her fierce critiques of the Church and marriage. And yet she marries Jude’s former schoolteacher, Richard Phillotson, out of social convention and pressure. Not surprisingly, she’s extremely unhappy and with the eventual permission of her husband, leaves him for Jude. However, she and Jude don’t get married because neither of them want to repeat their mistakes with their first spouses. They look at marriage as nothing more than a contract that robs a relationship of true feeling. So Jude and Sue live together happily, have two kids of their own, as well as look after Jude and Arabella’s young boy nicknamed “Father Time” for his older-than-his-years cynicism towards life.

Once Sue’s and Jude’s divorces go through and their scandal is known throughout the region, it’s hard for Jude to get or keep a job anywhere. They become nomads, thwarting Jude’s dreams even more, although he has largely given up on them anyway. Instead of  studying at Christminster, he and Sue start their own pastry business selling “Christminster cakes”, a poor imitation or mockery of Jude’s life-long aspirations. Sue’s independence also ruins Phillotson, who cannot get a job anywhere because no one has any respect for him.

You can probably see why this is called Hardy’s bleakest novel. But this isn’t even the worst of it. Aware that they are poor and cannot find lodgings anywhere with such a big family and another one on the way, Father Time hangs his two younger siblings and then himself, leaving Jude and Sue childless. Sue loses her third baby in childbirth.

It is after this horrifying tragedy that Jude and Sue switch places. Overcome by grief and convinced the murders are punishment for her illegitimate relationship with Jude, Sue becomes a self-sacrificing, dogma-quoting Christian convinced she needs to return to her first husband. Phillotson takes her back, not because he loves her still, but because it is the “social good” and would somewhat redeem their earlier disaster. On the flip side, Jude loses any last vestiges of his Christian faith and denounces it because of the submissive weakling it has made of Sue. He broadens his views, but the miry ground that leads him to is arguably just as alarming as Sue’s newfound rigidity. He explains his precarious inner compass to the townspeople in Christminster:

I am in a chaos of principles—groping in the dark—acting by instinct and not after example. Eight or nine years ago when I came here first, I had a neat stock of fixed opinions, but they dropped away one by one; and the further I get the less sure I am. I doubt if I have anything more for my present rule of life than following inclinations which do me and nobody else any harm, and actually give pleasure to those I love best.

In the meantime, Arabella has come back into the picture. Her second husband dies, leaving her free to pursue/trap Jude again. And she does by getting him drunk and making him promise to marry her. Shortly after marrying Arabella, Jude contracts a bad illness and dies alone and unmourned. Arabella is already in pursuit of her next husband.

The book has come full circle and as the reader, I felt a little sick, as if I’ve just come off a roller coaster where I’ve been spinning around and upside down for the past 300 pages. I was baffled by this ending. At one point, I thought that maybe Arabella and Phillotson would pair up, but never did I imagine for the first matches to repeat themselves.

It’s hard to know what to make of Jude the Obscure because Hardy presents two extremes through Jude and Sue, neither of which are attractive. It’s common to root for a character or the philosophy they represent in a novel, but Hardy only gives the reader two options, as per his intentions:

Of course the book is all contrasts—or was meant to be in its original conception. Alas, what a miserable accomplishment it is!—e.g., Sue and her heathen gods set against Jude’s reading the Greek testament; Christminster academical, Christminster in the slums; Jude the saint, Jude the sinner; Sue the Pagan, Sue the saint; marriage, no marriage; etc. etc.

The character foil is intentional in terms of highlighting Jude’s and Sue’s differences, but it leaves little room for exploring the nuances of being human in our world, even a world that is admittedly unfair. With refreshing honesty, we read above how Jude replaces his black and white opinions for grey ones, but we don’t see that same nuance in Hardy’s novel regarding marriage, Christianity, or society. To attack all three without showing anything redeeming in their portrayals shows an author disillusioned, contemptuous, or depressed.

There is very little hope in this story. Critic Barry Swartz calls it a lament instead of a tragedy because Jude doesn’t create his own defeat, only the mode of his defeat. Fate is against him from the start, the conclusion of which is captured in Father Time’s reflective question, “It would be better to be out o’ the world than in it, wouldn’t it?”

Jude the Obscure explores the existential questions coming into the philosophy of Hardy’s day, making it a bridge between Victorian and Modernist literature. It addresses the loneliness and futility of man, and perhaps the loneliness of Hardy, who, like his two principal characters, experiences a similar backlash from society for the views he presents. Near the end of his life, Jude laments:

As for Sue and me when we were at our own best, long ago—when our minds were clear, and our love of truth fearless—the time was not ripe for us! Our ideas were fifty years too soon to be any good to us. And so the resistance they met with brought reaction in her, and recklessnes and ruin on me!

Two weeks later, I am still processing the obscurities in Jude the Obscure would like some company. How do you read this book? Is it a lament or an avoidable tragedy? Are his contrasts helpful? What makes the book obscure or illuminating for you?

The Mountain and the Valley: Pemberton Weekend

No, this isn’t a post about the Canadian novel of the same name by Ernest Buckler, one of my all-time favourites.


I borrowed the title to show pics of a weekend spent in Pemberton this month, hiking the rainy heights of Joffre Lakes and biking the flat streets of Pemberton Valley for their annual Slow Food Cycle.

Joffre Lakes

This hike rewards you with 3 beautiful lakes along the way—Lower, Middle, and Upper lakes, fed by glacier runoff. You see the Lower one right away, which is always nice to have a view for motivation early in the hike.

Lower Joffre Lake.

Lower Joffre Lake

Walking into the mystic vale

Walking into the mystic vale

As you can tell from these pictures, we chose one of the rainiest days this summer to do the hike. But the mist added its own beauty to it. I was thankful the fog started clearing by the time we arrived at the Middle Lake so we could get this mysterious view.

The Middle Joffre Lake ghosting into view

The Middle Joffre Lake ghosting into view


The longest stretch of the hike is from the Middle Lake to the Upper one, but even then, I was surprised at how quick it was. The hike took us about 3.5 hours in total. Much easier of a climb than Garibaldi. We didn’t stay too long at the top because we were cold and wet, but we could see the outline of the glacier behind, and it made me eager to return here on a brighter day to see it in all its alpine glory.


Upper Joffre Lake with glacier

Slow Food Cycle

I was thankful the hike wasn’t more strenuous because the next day, we did a 20K bike ride along Pemberton Meadows Road, stopping at various farms to enjoy local food as part of Pemberton’s 11th annual Slow Food Cycle.


One of the stops

Stopping for lunch at one of the farms


Here’s a video that explains more about it:

What a fun way to spend a Sunday, biking in the lap of majestic mountains and enjoying produce fresh off a farm. Such a different experience than I’ve ever had biking in the city! I think I’ll be back to do this again one summer.