I began this book with a sense of relief. Not only was the style nothing like D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, which I had just had so much trouble with, but, as I had read Ulysses (and Don Gifford’s annotations to the same) over the summer, I felt that I had the necessary background to understand what could have been a very confusing narrative. For instance, when Parnell’s name turned up, I instantly knew that this was the Irish politician who had nearly gotten a bill through the English parliament on Home Rule, only to then be disrailed by a scandal involving his long-time affair with a married woman. I also knew that the clergy had been somewhat hypocritical on the Parnell issue, waiting until he was declared guilty in court of adultery before coming out with their own condemnation, a fact that did not sit well with many Irish nationalists. Facts such as these, gleaned from my six weeks with Joyce’s masterpiece, gave me a key to the background of the text.

But even more, what I liked about Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was the, for Joyce, fairly clean style with which the story was told. I feared that it might reflect any one of the experimental styles in Ulysses, so I was pleasantly surprised by the fairly linear (if occasionally vague with respect to time scale or particular period) storyline.

Things didn’t stay simple for long, though. Chapter three and the extended sermon was tough to wade through, even if I did feel a personal connection to the crisis of faith experienced by Stephen. In the next three chapters, I was much more unsure of what exactly was taking place-the sentence structure was more complex and the descriptions less concrete.

I am somewhat confused by what actually happens at the end. I think I understand that Stephen refuses the priesthood because his brief experience as a religious acolyte (debasing himself by refusing the pleasures of the world) and his soul is still uneasy. He also, I feel, begins to have a doubt of the power of faith, a rationalist’s questioning of the sacraments of faith. And he rejects the way of Irish nationalism for its own sake. But what does he assume as his path? The title gives some indication that it is art, but I hesitate to point at anything in the last chapter that shows this.


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First Impressions Copyright © 2016 by Glen Engel-Cox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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