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

Being neither a young male Irish Catholic nor an English major and at least one even slightly acclaimed novel short of an artist, I felt lost slogging through this “more approachable” work of Joyce’s.

In praise of what I find to be an impenetrable text, Shmoop says:

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.

Why I found A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man hard to read

Fiction has character, setting, plot, and style. When any one of these four elements is developed at the expense of the other three, you get strange fiction. Sometimes it’s good strange and sometime it’s bad strange. Joyce’s fiction is primarily characterized by style—innovative and unconventional style. The literary world considers Joyce’s fiction good strange. For me, A Portrait of the Artist was bad strange.

I’m more of a nineteenth-century Realist than a twentieth-century Modernist or Post-modernist. I don’t like unreliable narrators, stream-of-consciousness narration, or magical realism. Joyce is known for free indirect speech, which is a kind of stream-of-consciousness narration.

The edition I read in high school had an introduction and notes built in, but many free and “thrift” editions, like the one I just finished reading, do not. It would have been better (though slower) to read the novel alongside some kind of notes (e.g., CliffsNotes or SparkNotes).

See below for what stuck out as well as when and why I read it.

What stuck out

This interesting question, which troubled me when reading Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth:

If a man had stolen a pound in his youth and had used that pound to amass a huge fortune how much was he obliged to give back, the pound he had stolen only or the pound together with the compound interest accruing upon it or all his huge fortune?

This definition of art, of which literature is, obviously, the “highest and most spiritual” kind:

—Art, said Stephen, is the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an esthetic end.

Stephen’s thoughts on beauty (wholeness, harmony, radiance):

—In order to see that basket, said Stephen, your mind first of all separates the basket from the rest of the visible universe which is not the basket…. [Then you] apprehend it as complex, multiple, divisible, separable, made up of its parts, the result of its parts and their sum, harmonious…. [Then you] see that it is that thing which it is and no other thing.

This familiar irony:

—It is a curious thing, do you know, Cranly said dispassionately, how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.

This use of the verb “bestow” to mean “stow”:

He bestowed them in his pockets.

Stephen’s feelings about the dean’s lack of familiarity with the word ‘tundish’:

—What is a tundish?
—That. The… the funnel.
—Is that called a tundish in Ireland? asked the dean. I never heard the word in my life.


The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words ‘home’, ‘Christ’, ‘ale’, ‘master’, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.


April 13. That tundish has been on my mind for a long time. I looked it up and find it English and good old blunt English too. Damn the dean of studies and his funnel! What did he come here for to teach us his own language or to learn it from us. Damn him one way or the other!

What I remembered

When I started reading the novel, all I remembered about it from 11th grade English class (apart from not liking it) was that the protagonist had three epiphanies and that the edition we read had a lime green cover.

When I came to the part of the novel that mentions Stephen’s heretical essay, I vaguely remembered my teacher explaining why it was heretical: Stephen perhaps said humans were fated never to succeed in improving themselves, whereas the approved doctrine was that humans were fated to fall short of perfection but could and should try to be good.

When and Why I Read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

This book was chosen by Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club for July 2018. I read it in English class in 11th grade.

Genre: fiction (literary)
Date started / date finished:  28-Jun-18 to 03-Jul-18
Length: 188 pages
ISBN: Project Gutenberg 4217
Originally published in: 1916
Gutenberg link: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man