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Before Ulysses, there was a portrait – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

There was an occasion when one of my commenters pointed out that I haven’t finished Ulysses yet when I claimed to have finished all the books that I list on my monthly reading plans. A keen observer, I should say, for yes, the book completely slipped off my mind when I made that claim.

I went ahead to explain that I still do read Ulysses, but only during the weekends. But when these weekends come, I find myself procrastinating, especially if I am in the midst of a book that I am enjoying so much. Why stop reading and replace the entertainment with tedious labor?

Before I read Ulysses, I already have my prejudices dead set against it although there’s still a flicker of hope that I could somehow appreciate it. These prejudices have been formed when I read his other slimmer work, A Portrait. It is somehow a prequel to Ulysses for one of its main characters is the former’s hero, Stephen Dedalus.

–You made me confess the fears that I have. But I will tell you also what I do not fear. I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake and perhaps as long as eternity too.–

This is Stephen Dedalus. He is someone that has the qualities of the character that I would like: an outsider, introspective, strong liking for literature, a nonconformist, and has a passionate longing to pursue his interests regardless if he is alone or not. I actually like the first third of the novel, but somewhere, I got lost. Or more likely, I got very impatient and annoyed.

It has to do with the narrative. I used to say to my friends, particularly to one friend whom, I think, is spiting me by giving this book a completely opposite rating, that this has one of the clumsiest narratives that I’ve ever read. Is it even about the stream of consciousness technique? It could be, but why was I able to follow the more incoherent and inattentive thoughts of the child Stephen than the maturing one?

Although I still managed to at least get through the last few pages mentally unscathed, I decided that I don’t like this novel at all. Finishing it felt like watching the opening of a film, falling asleep, and then waking up to catch the ending. I could never like a movie that makes me fall asleep, unless I lacked sleep prior to watching it, because I would only fall asleep if the movie failed to engage in me in some sort of mental conversation, or provide me some vicarious thrill and suspense, or at least make me hum okaaay.

I hold the same principle for books. It is quite pretentious to like something that I fear I did not really understand. So let’s get to it: what is this novel about? To answer that, I will just say the themes that I got from it, for I think that is the most effective way to answer such a question. First, there’s religion. We see Stephen grow in a Catholic family, and then he starts going out to brothels, and then he reforms, and then he stops believing and caring for the teachings of the Catholic Church. Stephen’s religion is a cycle, a metamorphosis of four stages.

Second, alienation. Of sorts. We see Stephen’s internal struggle caused by his way of thinking. He thinks differently from everyone else. He doesn’t like most of his nationalist classmates and feels that their sentiments are not as deep as his. He also feels some resentment for his family; the squalor that ate through them makes him helpless, which only strengthens his desire to leave them. It does not necessarily follow, but what can we do? Stephen is different like that.

And third, the artist thing. Well, kind of. After all, I was expecting more of this because of the novel’s title. So yes, he is willing to pay the price to pursue his dreams. He will forsake his family and friends, he will leave his country, he will sacrifice his religion just so he could become a writer, an artist. Which brings us to a debatable point: is it necessary for an artist to commit self-exile? Is this a means to escape the contrariness of the things surrounding him, or is it a struggle for artistic independence?

1 star - didn't like itSo there. I think I got enough out of the novel. It’s just that I value style, and I don’t like the Joycean School of Narrative. I experienced the Faulknerian and Woolfian Schools, so I was surprised myself when I realized that with every page, I was getting exasperated with the narration.

Joyce is not my kind of writer, which is somehow sad because he is a literary giant. One bookish friend even pointed out who am I to diss Joyce. I did not respond to that because I got a little sore, because this friend ultimately pointed out that I had no right to air an opinion. It will ultimately go to that point, even if takes a lot of meanderings to drive to it.

On the other hand, I think I am taking a bold move here by saying that Joyce is not The Writer. The Modern Library panelists may have hailed one of his novels as the greatest novel of this century. I do not agree. I am also a reader and I have as much right as anyone to diss a work or an author that made my reading an irritable occasion.



  1. Have you read The Dubliners? I started on Ulysses some time ago and I never got past page 10. But his Dubliners is far more accessible and subtle that it is almost eerie. Maybe you will find it to your liking.


    • Nope, and I think that’s a collection of short stories? I am not sure if I want to read another Joyce after Ulysses. It’s been two months already and I’m stuck on Episode 10.


  2. Jillian ♣ says

    I’ve read a couple stories from Dubliners. It’s NOTHING like Ulysses. I recommend “The Dead” when you have an urge. It’s very approachable. :)


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