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

First read: Before the list came out (about 1982)
Reviewed on: 8/14/98
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I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

I read this book during my senior year in high school, in Ken Mularski's class. There were about 8 of us in that class: Me, my step-brother Gordon, my former best-friend from elementary school Tom, my former best-friend from junior high school Steve, Laurel the intellectual, Molly with the smile, and then two other women, one of whose name I can't remember, and one of whom I can't remember at all. Mr. Mularski made a rule that there was no such thing as "symbolism" in his class, and he would leave the room if we started talking about it. His philosophy was that there was enough in books to talk about without having to go off on symbolism.

After we'd turn in papers, he would return them and then we'd have to have a conference with him to discuss them. At first, he would write comments on the whole paper like a normal teacher would. Then he began underlining sentences and paragraphs, but instead of writing comments, he would put a blank line with a "+" for a positive comment, and a "-" for a negative one, and you would have to write in what you thought he was going to say, and then discuss it at the conference. Then he stopped writing the plusses and minuses, instead merely putting little red blanks where a comment should go. Finally, he stopped writing anything on our papers at all, leaving it to us to comment the papers ourselves before the conferences. Ken taught us how to proofread our own work. I wish I remembered what I wrote in my essay on A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but I don't.

The book bored me when I read it the first time. I liked the earlier part, the part where he wrote from the perspective of Stephen as a child. But I couldn't relate to the rest of it. When we discussed the book in class, I shared my opinion, and was told that at some point everyone has to grow up and stop "thinking about moocows." I was embarrassed and felt immature.

I read it again later in life, and was impressed with it. The story of Stephen's confession, how he heard the fire and brimstone sermon and was walking to the confessional terrified that he would die and go to hell before he had a chance to confess, was enthralling. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man rings True, even when talking about things that I've never experienced. I loved the merciful nature of the priest. For some reason I never forgot the snippet when he told the priest he'd sinned sexually:

"With yourself?"
"Yes… and with a woman."

Well, that's how I remember it anyway.

The part that really resonated with me was when Stephen was walking with his friends, and they were mock-torturing him for not admitting something. There was a flashback and we saw Stephen being held and punched by his friends because he wouldn't admit that a heathen poet wasn't a good poet. The idea that you can be bullied in childhood, and then laugh with the same or similar people as an adult, intrigued me. I had not yet come to terms with the people who had been mean to me a scant few years ago.

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