A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
James Joyce certainly wrote some Very Important Books. Ulysses (1922), and Finnegan’s Wake (1939) are two of the most significant novels of the twentieth century, and if you talk to some grad students, they might argue quite convincingly that Ulysses is more important to our modern world than the Bible. Joyce is lauded for his total re-envisioning of the novel – and of the world in general. But before these two massively important and, let’s face it, incredibly difficult texts came into being, Joyce published his first major work, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in 1916. This novel, the first in Joyce’s whopping hat-trick of great novels, is both shorter and more approachable than either of Joyce’s later masterpieces (for which we humbly thank him).
Portrait of the Artist really unleashed the massive power of Joyce’s innovation and unconventionality upon the literary world. Notably, the novel starts to make use of techniques that would make Joyce famous – and infamous – with Ulysses, such as stream of consciousness narration, interiority (a revealing view of the character’s inner workings), and a frank realism that shocked some readers of the time. The novel also introduces us to Stephen Dedalus, who would later be featured prominently in Ulysses. This book is definitely much loved and studied in its own right, however.
Portrait of the Artist is Joyce’s reworking of the classic coming of age story (the fancy German term is bildungsroman), and it mirrors the author’s life up to age 20, when he left Dublin for Paris. Its challenging attitude to family, homeland, and the Catholic Church all gave the novel (and Joyce himself) quite the reputation when it was published. Joyce treats youth with a directness and honesty that’s pretty remarkable. In short – great book then, great book now.
Why Should I Care?
Brothers and sisters in Shmoop, let us take a moment to bow our heads in appreciation of some of the fine things that draw upon the glorious wellspring of innovation that is A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. We’re talking about Ulysses. And also blogging. And a seemingly endless pantheon of mega-classic 80s teen movies. Oh, and anything to do with Harry Potter. (Yes, we did just play the Harry Potter card, and no, we’re not going to take it back.)
But let’s start at the beginning: Ulysses, quite possibly the most talked-about novel of the 20th century. That one’s pretty obvious (see "In a Nutshell" for some more info on its relationship to Portrait). Portrait was the precursor to Ulysses, in terms of both style and character, and thus gave birth to a massive, unspeakably important novel that’s probably influenced every major writer to come after it. We’re not exaggerating.
OK, next… why yes, it does feel slightly sacrilegious to type the word "blogging" next to "Ulysses," but we did it and nobody got struck by lightning, so let’s push onward. We’re pretty sure that James Joyce didn’t ever imagine anything even closely resembling our current blog-scape, not even in his wildest dreams or nightmares (and we are willing to bet that Joyce had some pretty wild dreams). However, we can see some shreds of his influence. Today’s belief in everyone’s right to express their personal experiences, down to what they ate for breakfast or who they saw at so-and-so’s totally super awesome house party last night, seems like it could very well be a distant, probably disowned cousin thrice removed of Joyce’s belief that everyday existence could be the inspiration for great art. The sense of immediacy and real-time action that Joyce worked hard to create may be something we take for granted in this age of digital over-gratification (one word: iPhone), but that doesn’t take away from his super-modern, forward-looking accomplishment.
Speaking of great artistic accomplishments, let’s talk about the 1980s coming-of-age movie. Yes, Hollywood sure learned a lot from James Joyce (and other writers like him), whether it knew it or not. For whatever reason, the oppressed young artist was so hot during the Reagan presidency. Everyone’s familiar with the trope of the Brilliant Young Person who has to do battle with Society (and some combination of Religion, Family, or whatever) in order to follow a great and wonderful Dream/Artistic Destiny. Get a little creative and you’ll find parallels everywhere, from Footloose to Dead Poets Society.
Last but not least, the comparison you’ve all been waiting for – the Ultimate One-Time-Only James Joyce/Harry Potter Mash-Up. One of the things Potterheads love to rave about is just how very clever J.K. Rowling was for developing her famous plan for the books to increase in reading level as the characters get older. Sound familiar? Perhaps it’s because that’s exactly what Joyce does chapter-to-chapter in Portrait of the Artist.
Anyway, now that Joyce is probably spinning wildly and furiously in his grave, we rest our case. The point is, from the highest to the lowest of brows, just look closely and you’ll find a little James Joyce everywhere. Hallelujah! Re-Joyce and be glad.