So I reread A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man a couple of months ago and was struck by several things – mainly that having read it a couple of times over the last thirty years, I’d never read it very carefully.  The other is that Portrait is easily as brilliant as any of Joyce’s other work – I have tended to rate it rather lower than Ulysses (which I reread last year and also found to be far deeper and wider and taller than I had in the past).

A look at Stephen’s alienation in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Through the course of A Portrait, James Joyce builds a compelling argument for Stephen’s flight from Dublin. At every turn of his upbringing, city, family, or the church conspire against Stephen’s artistic freedom. One might argue that these elements conspire against his soul.

Prefects, professors, and deans all exercise the will of the church over Stephen in such away that he desires to pull out from under its authority. At one end, we have the church, in the form of Father Dolan and his swishing soutane and pandybat (chapter I), physically punishing Stephen for no other reason than sadism. This unreasoned sadism reflects that of the other boys at Clongowes Wood College, the Jesuit boarding school he is sent to at the age of about six. At the other end, we have an English dean of studies, a convert to Catholicism, who argues the words funnel and tundish with Stephen. The first is an offense against Stephen’s person, and perhaps against his self-mastery. The latter is an offense against his linguistic mastery, which is already a point of pride, ‘The little word seemed to have turned a rapier point of his sensitiveness against this courteous and vigilant foe’. (Chapter V)

jj-psSomewhere in between these two events, Father Tate, leading an English class, calls Stephen out for blasphemy in a sequence that evokes in the reader a sense of the secret mysteries of the church (chapter II). The teacher cites merely a fragment of a sentence, ‘”Without a possibility of ever approaching nearer.” That’s heresy.’ Stephen backs down, saying, ‘I meant ‘Without a possibility of ever reaching.’ The teacher accepts this, ‘O. That’s another story.’

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