Stephen Dedalus is the biggest drama queen I’ve ever read.
Okay, that’s sort of a joke.
But first let’s talk about what this book is about because there’s no real way to talk about the book without first understanding that it isn’t a typical story.
The novel follows Stephen Dedalus, an alter ego for Joyce himself (and a character out of Greek mythology), from childhood to adulthood. Joyce traces the intellectual and religious awakening of Stephen, and by the time he’s grown he begins to question the Catholic and Irish conventions he was born into. Eventually, he finds himself distancing himself from his faith, his friends, and his country.
In the introduction we learn that Portrait, “is the first to examine the distorted relationship between the Irish community and oppression and to focus upon oppression’s ultimate resource – the cooperation of the oppressed.”
On Stephen’s journey we see that the reason he turns from his country and faith is because he believes this system they’re born into is what keeps them in bondage.
I’ve enjoyed Joyce for years, but Portrait had pages upon pages that were like sludge to read through.
But let’s start with childhood, which was so endearing that I could have believed a child was telling the story. We see how Stephen isn’t sure how to interact with the other boys, resulting him living a more solitary life at school.
When he was a little older, “The noise of children at play annoyed him and their silly voices made him feel, even more keenly than he had felt at Clongowes, that he was different from the others. He did not want to play. He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his should so constantly beheld.”
Poetry became his outlet.
As he grew he found himself empty. He felt he had no connection to anyone around him, least of all his family.
The older he gets the more dramatic he becomes. It reminds me of an artist who reflect on their upbringing and project so much of how they feel in the present into the past.
I thought it was intriguing to watch this young boy with an artist heart reflect, but it felt so melodramatic that I had a harder time taking it serious.
In one part Stephen commits a sin and then he becomes surrounded with messages of repentance. There are pages and pages of just straight Catholic doctrine and I almost went crazy from reading it. However, the conviction that overwhelmed Stephen made it to where the doctrine was necessary. I think this because I’m familiar with the doctrine, so without it I would have understood, but someone who isn’t wouldn’t understand why Stephen felt it so throughly.
Stephen throws himself into what I’ll call religious distraction, but after denying the offer to continue to become a priest we find him turning and going the other way – distancing himself completely from the church.
This is a reaction to continual emptiness. Nothing fulfills him. He believes ideas, philosophy, and art are the answers and so by the end he forsakes all for a half thought out idea on aesthetic theory.
While enjoyed most of the novel (I just didn’t always have patience for Stephen’s woe-is-me attitude), this isn’t a novel you just pick up and read. It requires more knowledge on Ireland’s history and Joyce himself.
So, I’m a few days late with this. Whoops….