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 he 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?

1 thought on “Alone at Last: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

  1. Picasso needed muses, in fact many, and he is ranked as having lots of creativity.

    Maybe it’s like the same as how some monks live in isolation to pursue their studies and devotion, whereas other people prosper with people and community.

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