Notes on "Portrait of the Artist"

This book might just take the cake for Fastest I've Ever Read a Book Without Liking It. I approached it with patience and expectation but ultimately was not won over. Was it the pacing, the hellfire-and-damnation sections, the flimsy character development at the expense of interior monologue? Not sure why this book was a bit of a disappointment, given my raging love (and fear) of Ulysses since the old Brown days, but there it is. 

That being said, parts of it I loved. The language, for one. The skillful handling of stream-of-consciousness as emerging technique as well. So here is a shamelessly unedited copy-and-paste of notes on my first reaction.


  • The development of our protagonist, young Stephen Daedalus, into adulthood is mimicked expertly by his linguistic progression. And I'm a sucker for playful and experimental language, especially in the service of apt psychological mimicry. The first chapter especially evokes an uncanny semblance of a child’s psyche with its simplicity, naked observation, purity of emotional response to external learnings & stimuli. The fear, the questions, the wonderment. Amazing to be transported back to a young age through a book.
  • The tedium of hellfire and damnation chapters is a tough slog but reaps its rewards in the end when we realize the full gravity of the young “hero’s” refusal of his inherited religion. Self-determination comes only with sacrifice, amidst doubt, against all cultural conditioning. The artist must be forged in a “smithy” of mighty struggle. Requisite inner struggle of a classic bildungsroman: check.
  • But is religion so different from art after all? Both concern creation at its root, and both are attempts at truth. We see this impulse in Daedalus since the beginning: grappling with the essential questions with an existential fervor uncommon to his age. His friends mock him. He is alienated, finds himself in this world of Dublin and priests and family and drink—but not totally of it. More than once, twice, a dozen times he mentions “pride” and his cold “anger” at this or that other character, a sort of fermentation of an insistent self-differentiation. Religion embodies the thing from which he must unshackle his Self, as it is forced upon him, scary, forever haunting him with its possibly stifling, damning truth. And ever in tension with artistry.
  • Ah, the core of the hero's progression from childhood to adulthood hingers on the threshold into the kingdom of art. What is art? We see him grapple with language, with beauty. We behold his earnest, spontaneous impulse towards poetry, his grand capacity to see where it lays hidden in the world around us. The very descriptions of inner/outer surroundings (his psychological turmoil as well as the dew-laden grass on Dublin’s fields etc.) are positively vibrant with rhythm and music. We hear music & lyrics; we see evocative scenes of Dublin; we read the looping and swerving thought-threads of Stephen’s conscious, so intellectual and sharply observant. We are generously given abundant aesthetic treats at every turn. So—is this art? The question reaches some climax in a discussion with his peers as he monologues on the nature of aesthetics/beauty/art per Aquinas, so clearly this stuff weighs on him. But IMO this passage feels heavy-handed, disjointed. It evokes treatise over fiction, interrupting the seamless flow of his daily perception of life in which we swim. Also, whence this abrupt verbosity? Inconsistent with the reliance on development through interior thought that is the main (and seductive) thrust of the work. In short, the polemics are not entirely convincing but a galvanizing set of ideas nevertheless.
  • The universal as contained in the particular. The notion was held dear by Joyce, informed much of his writings that take place in the particulars of Dublin, and one can see these particulars being displayed in all their glory in the politics, religious schisms of ideology and familial dynamics in Stephen’s urban Irish upbringing. Is this effective? Could it have been fleshed out more? Do we deeply get a sense of Dublin as microcosm? Perhaps not—but maybe this isn't the book for that. Better give Dubliners a chance before hasty analysis on this point.
  • Ideas of father/mother/patria/God-as-father. Renounced. Autonomy above all sought out, with courage and idealism. Questions of our origins. Who/what created us? And what do we get to create in turn? Man as product of divinity, as divine creator in his own right. Giving up the former to step fully into the latter. 

...overall: liked the exercise of reading it but would not place it among my favorites of this year. But anytime I confer harsh judgment on a so-called classic I do so with a resting willingness to revisit it at a later point when my reading abilities have developed in hopes that the book will unveil its further secrets to me, that it contains gems yet whose value I couldn't at the time fully appreciate. Every "great book" in this way feels like a recurring gift, an awaiting friend. Further rendezvous TBD, but certainly welcome.