Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 746

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man attracted much attention when it was published, and also caused controversy. The book was widely reviewed in Europe and the United States. The most enthusiastic reactions came from other leading novelists and intellectuals of the period, who acclaimed it as a work of genius. However, not all early critics agreed on the book’s merits. Rather than praising its originality, some critics denounced the work as formless or as blasphemous and obscene.

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The English novelist H. G. Wells reviewed the book in 1917, the year after its publication. Writing in the New Republic, Wells called it “by far the most living and convincing picture that exists of an Irish Catholic upbringing. It is a mosaic of jagged fragments that … [renders] with extreme completeness the growth of a rather secretive, imaginative boy in Dublin.” Wells went on to remark that “one believes in Stephen Dedalus as one believes in few characters in literature.” However, Wells was also disturbed by Joyce’s references to sex and bodily functions. Like many critics of the time, Wells felt that these subjects were best left out of a serious work of literature. Joyce, he said, “would bring back into the general picture of life aspects which modern drainage and modern decorum have taken out of ordinary intercourse and conversation.”

Other critics were more blunt and more scathing in their attacks on the novel. An anonymous reviewer in Everyman called the book “garbage” and said that “we feel that Mr. Joyce would be at his best in a treatise on drains.” Some of the reviews in Ireland were particularly harsh. A reviewer for the Irish Book Lover warned that “no clean-minded person could possibly allow it to remain within reach of his wife, his sons or daughters.” The reviewer for the British newspaper the Manchester Guardian was more receptive, saying that “When one recognizes genius in a book one had perhaps best leave criticism alone.”

The distinguished British novelist Ford Madox Ford admired the book for its stylistic excellence. In a 1922 review of Joyce’s next novel, Ulysses, he paid tribute to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He called it “a book of such beauty of writing, such clarity of perception, such a serene love of and interest in life, and such charity….”

The book’s impact continued to be felt in Ireland long after Joyce’s death. Although the Catholic Church disapproved, important Irish writers saw it as the first great Irish novel of the twentieth century. In 1955, the short-story writer Sean O’Faolain remarked that “this autobiographicalimaginative record [is] so mesmeric, so hypnotic a book that I can never speak of it to young readers without murmuring, Enter these enchanted woods ye who dare….”

In the decades since its publication, A Portrait of a Artist as a Young Man has continued to receive the attention of many scholars and critics. It has perhaps suffered in comparison with Ulysses, which critics generally regard as a much richer, more ambitious, and more complex novel. For example, Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellmann devoted an entire book (Ulysses on the Liffey) to Ulysses but had noticeably less to say about A Portrait.

The Oxford don J. I. M. Stewart (better known as the author of detective novels under the pseudonym Michael Innes) appreciated Joyce’s command of language and imaginative brilliance in A Portrait, but felt that the result was uneven. According to Stewart, “Stephen Dedalus is presented to us with a hitherto unexampled intimacy and immediacy.” However, Stewart found that this was “achieved at some cost to the vitality of the book as a whole.” Because the narrative focuses exclusively on Stephen’s thoughts, the reader is “locked up firmly inside Stephen’s head.” As a result, Stewart says, “There are times when when we feel like shouting to be let out.” Also, because the central character “is aware of other people only as they affect his own interior chemistry, there is often something rather shadowy about the remaining personages in the book.”

Hugh Kenner has pointed out that the opening pages of the novel attempt to do something that has never been done before. The author does not guide the reader in understanding the narrative, but leaves the reader to work things out for himself or herself. Kenner sums up the book’s impact on literary history, saying that after this novel, “Fiction in English would never be the same.”

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