Modern Portraits: James Joyce's Artistic Rebellion

100 Years of
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

by Marty Gilroy

2016 marks the centenary of a seminal Irish text that asserts, in the face of powerful repressive forces, the right to self-determination. It is a work that has inspired people worldwide for generations and continues to do so to this day. The 'proclamation of independence' in question here is not the one delivered by Pearse in front of the GPO during Easter Week. Rather, it is the one published by another Irish rebel in the last days of that tumultuous year: Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Serialised in The Egoist from 1914-1915, Joyce's semi-autobiographical novel was published in full for the first time by American publishing house B.W. Huebsch on December 29th, 1916 – though only technically; in fact, the book wasn't available until the January of 1917, but Joyce insisted that it be back-dated for personal reasons. It is fitting that the author's whim meant that his book appeared at the tail end of this year of Irish rebellion. A Portrait is a document of youth, an exploration of perception, a philosophical rumination on the constitutive power of language and an experimental riff on novelistic form, but it is first and foremost a tale of rebellion. While the leaders of the 1916 Rising demanded the right to national self-determination and freedom from the tyranny of British rule, Joyce's Stephen Dedalus seeks the right to individual self-determination in the face of both colonial imposition and a nationalistic and religious Irish culture that is itself tyrannical, thrusting upon the fledgling artist an orthodoxy that he is at pains to defy. Thus, Stephen's own 'proclamation of independence':

‘This race and this country and this life produced me… I shall express myself as I am.’

Stephen's evasion of the dogma imposed upon the contested Irish subject at the turn of the century is at once particular and universal, autobiographical and allegorical, a refraction of Joyce's own experiences and an instructive parable for people everywhere. This year, as we commemorate the year of Irish rebellion, it is worth remembering this struggle for a very different form of independence.

James Joyce in 1902

James Joyce in 1902

Joyce has been assimilated into the very fabric of Irish culture to such an extent that it is easy to forget just how radical a figure he was. A quintessential outsider who defined himself in opposition to the literary fashion of his day and abandoned his native country in pursuit of artistic and social freedom, Joyce’s formative years in Ireland coincided with one of the most politically significant eras of the country’s history. It was a time when nationalist discourse was becoming increasingly prominent and when calls to violent uprising that would eventually culminate in the 1916 Rising were becoming more and more audible.

Along with the question of independence, people of the time were concerned with the idea of Irish identity itself; what does it mean to be Irish? What was it that made Ireland distinct from the other nations of the world, particularly its colonial oppressor? What were the attributes of an authentic Irish culture? In artistic terms, this cultural nationalist movement led to a flowering of literary works that expressed a sense of national identity, consciousness and experience that became known as the Irish Literary Revival, at the centre of which were figures such as W.B. Yeats, J.M. Synge and Lady Augusta Gregory. Joyce was at once product and enemy of this movement. On the one hand, Joyce is clearly and indisputably a 'Revivalist'; despite the fact that he was often critical of his native country, he was distinctly preoccupied with the same desire to express a sense of Irish identity, experience and consciousness.

In A Portrait, Stephen Dedalus rejects many of the religious, social and political mores of Irish culture, but he nonetheless sets out at the end to ''forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race. Joyce rejected the trends and fashions of the Revival, however, resenting the archaic and insular tendencies of a movement that idealised the peasant West, the primitive and the mythological at the expense of engagement with the artistic developments of modern Europe. Joyce's inspiration as an adolescent came not from island lore or tales of Cuchulainn, but from Continental Naturalism, the works of Henrik Ibsen in particular. He turned his eye to metropolitan Ireland, to the bourgeois Dublin that he grew up in and knew intimately and, crucially, did so with a tendency towards criticism rather than romanticisation.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man may share little in common with the bucolic visions of Ireland common to so many of Joyce's contemporaries, but it is no less a landmark expression of colonial subjectivity and subversion. Nationalist politics lurks beneath the surface of the text from the very first page, where Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt form part of Stephen's earliest memories. Though politics surround the protagonist, it is rarely his chief concern. Stephen's primary obsession is with language; it stands to reason, therefore, that when he does voice his colonial disaffection, it hinges upon the language question. In an exchange with the English Dean of Studies in the Physics Theatre of University College Dublin, Stephen's thoughts turn to this contentious issue in one of the novel's most arresting scenes:

‘The language we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words Home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.’

Stephen so often evades or deflects any discussion of political concerns, but they finally take centre stage when the emotive issue of language enters his mind. There are meta-textual overtones here as well. Joyce's experimentation with the English language is itself a method of subversion; rather than merely accepting the language that has been imposed upon him, he manipulates and distorts it to his own end. There is little experimentation in the stark, naturalistic stories of Dubliners, but in Portrait Joyce begins to follow the path of linguistic play that would later culminate in the outright avant-gardism of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. The language of the novel develops with the character himself, beginning in the style of a child-like fairy tale and eventually reaching the opaque complexity of Stephen's aesthetic theories in later passages. Joyce's own linguistic subversion is mirrored formally in the last pages of the book, where Stephen takes control of the narrative as the third-person narration cedes to first-person diary entries. Just like his author, the English language has been imposed upon him, but in the end he commandeers it with the intention of turning this instrument of repression into one of subversion – by using it to forge the uncreated conscience of his race.

Subversion against the authority of Empire is clearly a core theme of A Portrait, but the book is also at least as preoccupied with Stephen's rebellion against Irish nationalism itself, a repressive force in its own way – especially for a budding artist. This might seem paradoxical, but it is a testament to the idea of individual sovereignty that lies at the core of A Portrait. Orthodoxy is to Stephen as great an adversary as Empire. Even though he appears to harbour nationalist sympathies, he refuses to allow himself to be recruited to any cause, choosing instead to doggedly follow his own path while those around him vie for his allegiance; like Lucifer, he will not serve. Compounded with Stephen's distaste for following orders is the fact that Irish nationalism serves a greater power, one that he spends a great part of the novel wrestling with and eventually overcoming: the Catholic Church.

The influence of religion over the political realm is attested to in the infamous Christmas dinner scene early in the novel, which allegorises the Church's betrayal of Charles Stewart Parnell in the divorce scandal of the 1890s that saw this great leader toppled for the sin of adultery. Dante Riordan, the nanny of the Dedalus household, represents Catholic Ireland in general as she bays for the blood of Parnell, declaring that God and religion ought to precede all else. It is precisely this betrayal that leads Stephen to later respond to a nationalistic university classmate by declaring Ireland 'the old sow that eats her farrow', going on to proclaim his refusal to succumb to the restrictive culture into which he was born:

‘When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.'

Stephen's rebellion does not merely see him reject the colonial imposition of the British Empire, but also that placed upon him by the very forces attempting to overthrow this oppressor. Stephen's is the ultimate quest for independence: freedom from all who would restrict or limit his individual and artistic mission.

As the centenary of the 1916 Rising draws nearer, the words of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic will be recited ad infinitum, and rightly so. It is worth returning too, however, to this alternative 'proclamation of independence' and considering the influence that it has had on generations of Irish and international writers, thinkers, artists, and citizens. The character of Stephen Dedalus is precocious, pretentious and at times downright reprehensible, but his quest for sovereignty is nonetheless a valuable parable and, for many, a source of inspiration. This year, a hundred years after its first publication in full, it is time to wrest A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man from under the shadow of Joyce's other great works and consider its contribution to the culture of Ireland and the world.


Marty Gilroy is a graduate of University College Dublin, where he earned a Masters in Modern Literature. He is an editor at New Dublin Press and also works in the James Joyce Cultural Centre, 35 North Great Georges Street, Dublin 1.