I’m not proud of what I did to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
I was seventeen at the time I was made to read it for honours English in high school. Grade 11, I think. Maybe I was sixteen. I loathed that book. Reading it felt like a misery, like penance, and I wasn’t even Catholic.
When I was done with it, slim volume that it was, I flung the paperback across the room. At that age I hadn’t yet heard the Dorothy Parker quote, “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force,” but I would have imagined she’d had James Joyce in mind when she said that.
I don’t know what possessed me to pick it up again years later. I was either in my late twenties of early thirties when I came across it again on the bookshelf. I hadn’t thought about that book in years, but in the meantime I’d read an article about how books offer us different versions of themselves when we encounter them at different points in our lives. So I gave it another shot, and it was such a better experience.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man represents the transitional stage between the realism of Joyce’s Dubliners and the symbolism of Ulysses, and is essential to the understanding of the later work.
The novel is a highly autobiographical account of the adolescence and youth of Stephen Dedalus, who reappears in Ulysses, and who comes to realize that before he can become a true artist, he must rid himself of the stultifying effects of the religion, politics and essential bigotry of his background in late 19th century Ireland.
Written with a light touch, this is perhaps the most accessible of Joyce’s works.