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

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Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 746 words.)