James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is considered to be one of the finest works of literature of all time. Herbert Gorman, an author from the early twentieth century, stated that “so profound and beautiful and convincing a book is part of the lasting literature of our age,” and with good reason. The main character of the novel, Stephen Dedalus, is a complex and dynamic youth, and one who undergoes vast changes during the course of his life. The main influences on him are family and religion. As his life passes, Stephens’ feelings towards these influences change drastically. Stephen’s family is very important to him. His father, Simon, plays a major role in his early life, and Stephen has great respect for him. However, there are instances when Stephen is angered by his fathers’ actions, and resents his statements. The growing debts incurred by Simon lead to his son’s transferring to a day school. Stephens’ difficulties at his former educational institution are relayed by his father, much to the chagrin of the younger Dedalus. Later in the novel, Stephen loses even more respect for his father as the family’s debts continue to grow and they are forced to move. Once, when the two males travel to sell of the family estate, Simon returns to his former school and converses with his former classmates. Stephen is upset to hear of his father’s wild behavior as a youth, and of his flirtatious nature. He begins to rebel against his strict upbringing, striking back at his familys’ traditional values and way of life. Religion is an ever present force in Stephen’s life. He attends a religious school from an early age, and is a devout Roman Catholic. He has great reference for the priests at his school, and even fears the rector. As his life progresses, Stephen experiences great feelings for women, and finally gives into his desire when he encounters a prostitute in Dublin. From this point forward, he views his life as an immoral one and makes many attempts to correct it. He goes so far as to deprive all of his senses from any form of pleasure. While attending a religious retreat, Stephen takes all that he hears to heart. He believes that if he does not correct his ways, he will be banished to an eternity in Hell. Deciding that he must confess his immoral act, Stephen goes to a small parish where he is not known. He begins to overcompensate for his sins, but to no avail. His sinful ways overcome his spiritual values, and Stephen decides to abandon his religion. He vows to change his life for the better, and begins studying at a university. Here, his artistic nature surfaces, and Stephen embraces it. He explains his new theories to all who will listen, and decides to move away from Ireland and his repressed beliefs, and to a new life of freedom. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a literary work that has many distinct aspects involved in it. The stylistic method of writing that Joyce uses is perhaps the most notable of them. Not once in the novel are quotation marks used, making it difficult to judge where dialogue begins and ends. This very fact, however, lends itself towards the reader’s determination of what the author had in mind by using this style. In addition to this, the plot seems to have large gaps in it at points. The time frame of the story, as well as the simple determination of Stephen’s age, is difficult to grasp during certain instances. Joyce may have utilized this to allow the reader to bring a more personal approach to the reading and understanding of the work. This, too, is a fascinating aspect of the novel.Many critics believe that Portrait is an autobiographical piece of fiction. Many similarities exist between the lives of Stephen and Joyce. The strong religious upbringing of these Irishmen, their financial hardships, and the family life of each male is strikingly similar. Each attended the same schools, underwent the same mental development, and grew strongly attached to their artistic interests. However many differences between their lives, it is obvious that Joyce drew upon his own life when he created this work. Although Joyce was more of an athlete, more extroverted, and regarded his peers as equals or superiors, Stephen’s life parallels his with a vast deal of similitude. The personalities of Joyces’ friends were changed, as were the academic honors he was given, yet the fact still remains that the life of Stephen Dedalus and James Joyce are intertwined to a great extent.
On the whole, this novel was an obvious work of great literary skill. The mastery with which it was written, and the questions it turns up in the reader’s own mind, affirm the classic nature of Joyce’s writing. The times at which the story line is difficult to follow are more than compensated for by the deep meaning of this portrayal. The life of Stephen represents the life of Joyce, and all his struggles to become whom he felt that he was meant to. It symbolizes an endeavor that everyone should take to heart; when onebelieves in something for themselves, one should attempt to achieve their goals no matter the difficulties that they must overcome. The literary value of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is quite great. The genius with which it was written is expressed in that it demands that the reader think. If the reader does not ponder the work, its immeasurable importance is lost. James Joyce’s purpose in writing this piece of literature, seems to be in telling the story of his own struggles and all of the hardships he was forced to live through. The great poverty that his family had to endure, in addition to the academic and philosophical demands that he put himself through, all contributed to his life and to this novel. The book is described by many as both a novel about an artist and a novel about development and education. It portrays the life of an artist, yet is only one interpretation of the artist’s life. The very title of the work, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, brings this point across. The book is just that, a portrait, and something whose interpretation is left up to the artist and the viewer. The novel relates the physical and emotional growth that its protagonist Stephen Dedalus undergoes. Again, the title expresses this fact when it refers to Stephen as a young man. Although he is physically a young adult (he is sixteen years old when he commits the sin of having relations with a prostitute), he is still a mental child. Much growth is still necessary for Stephen to truly become an adult. Even in the concluding pages of the work, Stephen still regards himself as superior to others, and as being more important in his theories on life. James Joyce utilizes these aspects to allow the reader to believe what they may after reading his work. The theme of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is one that is close to both the novel’s main character and to its author. As a work of autobiographical fiction, this novel was written with the feelings and values of the author at its center. The belief that one must strive for anything and everything that they believe in, no matter the opposition, is the central idea that this work is based upon. Both Stephen and Joyce rebelled against the traditional religious values that each was brought up with, as well as the importance of a strong family. As young men who had completed their schooling, Stephen and Joyce moved away to pursue their artistic and creative talents, despite the fact that it meant departing from much of what they had always believed in. This idea is one that can be heeded by all who share unorthodox views. Despite the conflicts on may encounter, the distress one might feel during difficult times, individuals should put their feelings ahead of those who may strive to quash their unpopular convictions. No individual or group should be allowed to change someone else’s values because they are unpopular.