Is selfishness an obligation of genius? If so then Stephen Dedalus, the focus of James Joyce’s brilliant semi-autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man meets his responsibilities in full.
The book follows Stephen as he grows from a young child to a sin-and-salvation obsessed teenager to an ambitious university student preparing to leave his home, country, and religion, and forge his own soul as a free artist.
Portrait deserves its acclaim as one of the founding works of modernism. Joyce uses his famous stream of consciousness technique to convincingly render Stephen’s inner voice, which he interweaves with dialogue, descriptions, sermons, and diary entries. The story is built on thematically linked episodes, rather than conventional plot and conflict, and rewards the attention required from readers to follow it.
Joyce regards Stephen Dedalus as the model of what a writer should be (an early draft of the novel was called “Stephen Hero”) but it is his character’s spectacular self-concern that stands out as much as the spectacular potential of his talent.
Stephen Dedalus thinks about no one but himself. He is indifferent to the poverty of his parents and younger siblings, while carelessly neglecting the university classes they struggle to afford. He values his friends largely as sounding boards for his ideas. And he refuses his pious mother the comfort of attending a service for a religion in which he no longer believes, holding his fine scruples higher than her single request.
Perhaps great artists need to ruthlessly commit themselves solely to the creation of their art. Perhaps this is an obligation of genius. But it is not a pretty one.
Related Content on James Joyce
You’ll find my review of Finnegan’s Wake (actually totaling 100 words) as part of this post.
Here is an interesting article on Finnegan’s Wake by Michael Chabon. Aside from trying a little too hard to out-Joyce Joyce, I like Michael’s thoughts quite a bit.