This was a reread because it’s going to be discussed in one of my book groups. I encountered it my in the first class after I decided to be an English major. Eventually I wrote a senior thesis on time in this novel and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury—and got myself all tied up in Henri Bergson, particularly his idea of time as duration, or subjective time which seemed to me critical to the stream of consciousness in fiction.
Of course, Portrait isn’t really “stream of consciousness”, though Joyce was straining after that mode. It’s a third person narrative where the author limits himself to the thoughts and perceptions of a single character, in that respect similar to what Henry James called “centre of consciousness” or writing like you were looking through the back of the character’s head and experiencing what he experienced and reporting it as he experienced it. Clearly, Joyce is much more interested in what went on in Stephen’s head than the people and events in his life.
In Portrait, there is basically no exposition—where the novelist (or whoever is telling the story) sets the scene and “interprets” for the reader, and that’s what must have seemed so radical at the time Portrait was published. The only “label” we get in the entire novel is the word artist in the title. Joyce’s purpose in the novel, generally understood to be very autobiographical, is to document the growth of the aesthetic, moral and to some extent political aspects of his character. The other characters exist only in Stephen’s reaction to them. And in the end the people, the ideas, the politics and the religion Stephen grows up among stifle him and he decides he must flee Ireland to become the ultimate Irish writer. The ultimate romantic hero—Joyce signals that clearly in his name for the character, Dedalus, the classical hero could fly on wings of wax, but who flew too close to the sun so that his wings began to melt and he fell back to earth.
I found many passages rereading this novel which have been reverberating in my head for 40 years, (though I doubt they would have meant nearly as much to me had I read them for the first time now instead of at 18 or 19). Here are two of them:
- Stephen discussing ideas with his friends: “The artist like the God of the creation remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”
- The end of the novel: “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
Interestingly, though, just having read Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, I'd have to say that this novel makes a perfect case study for the danger of indoctrinating children with religion. The priests and the sermons are downright terrifying. Stephen's is initially fearful of etermal damnation, but as he matures the fear is replaced by anger and rebellion and the realization that he has to leave all that behind.
Clearly too, Joyce has influenced aesthetics enormously, certainly, I realized, at this rereading that he's influenced my aesthetic far more than I had realized. God "paring his fingernails" as he watched the antics of his creation is not far off the absconded God, the one who set the clockworks in motion, that motivated Thomas Jefferson and the other founders of the US—a tad more ironic I suppose. The equation of the artist with God was sort of scandalous at the time, certainly in Ireland, and maybe it would be now too.