Going One’s Own Way

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce

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It sometimes takes a while to warm up to writing such as this first major work by James Joyce. His title tells the story cleanly enough, but there’s more to this bildungsroman than simply a young man coming of age in 1900s Ireland. 

The story is of a young man, Stephen Daedalus who, as we all have probably been in our youth, was subjugated to family, school, and religion. And in this era of Ireland’s history, these constitute a formidable albatross. I’m synopsizing to a great degree, but Daedalus’ first onus is a rather formal Catholic education, in which discipline is paramount. The school’s rules are an end unto themselves. 

Of course, this is a Catholic school, so the sensibilities of education and religious training are intermixed. Daedalus and his mates are cowed by this one-two societal punch, much time being spent listening to a priest telling the boys of the horrors of Hell. Daedalus’ reaction? “It put me in quite a blue funk.”

Young Stephen quickly comes to experience the carnal, courtesy of a girl he pursues, Eileen, and later, a fantasy girl. But these are just set-ups for the priests in his life to bestow guilt on him. Stephen hurries to confess his earlier life a way and considers a commitment to the priesthood. 

At this point the book – and Stephen – experience a sea change of sorts. He has two choices here: he can knuckle under to the approved Irish/Catholic lifestyle, or he can go his own way. And of course he chooses the latter.

Some of Joyce’s writerly techniques wouldn’t pass muster today, but that’s hardly a knock, since he did more than anyone of that generation (other than Hemingway) to change novel writing technique. Joyce plays the philosopher, the roue, and the iconoclast, perhaps in ways never played out on the page before. It must have been hard to accomplish what Daedalus managed toward self-determination, but then that’s what Joyce is giving his readers – the opportunity to throw off the burdens of an overly strict society and to go their own way.

 

My rating: 17 of 20 stars

 

 

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