the wild heart of life

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

ONCE upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo….

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.


Generally I avoid reading forewords before reading the book itself. All too often they contain massive plot spoilers, and even where spoilers aren’t an issue they can give so much direction on a book’s themes and ideas that you’re not left with the freedom to meet it on its own terms, without the weight of someone else’s scholarship. I always read them after the book, but almost never before.

The Oxford World’s Classics edition of Portrait has a great foreword, by Jeri Johnson. She’s a lecturer in English literature at Oxford University, a specialist on British and American Modernist literature. Her expertise shows. If you read Portrait, and it’s worth reading, read the foreword first. Yes, it tells you the ending, but frankly that doesn’t matter and you’ll avoid some of the utterly avoidable frustration I had with the book.

As I write this I’m going to share first my thoughts from my initial cold reading of the book, then I’ll talk a little about what the foreword showed me that I’d missed. Only a little, because I missed so much that the book demands a second reading. Besides, I don’t think it does books like this any favours if we all pretend we understood everything on a first read, it makes them too daunting, too much a challenge rather than a pleasure. As I sometimes say, literature isn’t like Pokemon, you don’t have to catch it all.

The quote above is the opening lines of the book, and they have probably on their own done more to put people off this than any reputation for difficulty. Portrait is divided into five chapters, each a snapshot of a period in the life of Stephen Daedalus, the artist as a young man. The first is him as a small child being sent off to school for the first time, tiny and uncertain. Of course, that’s a story you could tell in a very traditional way with a nice clear omniscient narrator telling us about Stephen’s thoughts and experiences, but Joyce opens with something much more interesting. It’s third person narration, but written with the vocabulary and understanding of Stephen Daedalus as a baby, as a small child.

This is the stream of consciousness often alluded to when people discuss Joyce, but it’s not quite that simple. This isn’t an internal narrative stream, as for example in Arthur Schnitzler’s marvellous Fraülein Else. That book is stream of consciousness, the entire text is the interior monologue of its central character. Here though it’s “His father told him that story” – his and him, but in his own language. It’s as if the tools Joyce has to tell his tale are those Stephen has to voice his own thoughts, and following that the language gets more sophisticated in each chapter so reflecting Stephen’s own development.

If you can get past that first paragraph, the shock of it, what follows is brilliantly written. Stephen’s mind jumps about from topic to topic, questioning a world he barely understands and making connections an adult might well struggle to follow. The language is playful, fun even, and once I’d got a sense for the style it was a pleasure to read (the rhythm of the text works better by the way if you read it with an assumed Irish accent).

The bell rang and then the classes began to file out of the rooms and along the corridors towards the refectory. He sat looking at the two prints of butter on his plate but could not eat the damp bread. The tablecloth was damp and limp. But he drank off the hot weak tea which the clumsy scullion, girt with a white apron, poured into his cup. He wondered whether the scullion’s apron was damp too or whether all white things were cold and damp. Nasty Roche and Saurin drank cocoa that their people sent them in tins. They said they could not drink the tea; that it was hogwash. Their fathers were magistrates, the fellows said.

I was particularly impressed by a bravura scene of a Christmas dinner where the adults fall to arguing about politics, a discussion Stephen doesn’t understand at all but which imprints itself on him in all its fury and increasing bitterness. It’s one of the best depictions of an argument I’ve read in fiction. It ebbs and flows. People try to make peace, then one makes one final remark and sets it off again. It grows out of all proportion and relates to matters that nobody at the table has any influence over at all. Here it’s an argument about Parnell and Kitty O’ Shea, but it could just as well be an argument about the merits of the Iraq war or government austerity measures. The details differ, the emotions don’t.

It was there though that I started to run into problems, in particular the fact that Joyce clearly expects the reader to follow the argument even if Stephen can’t. My knowledge however of early 20th Century Irish history is scant, I’d vaguely heard of Parnell though without context and never of Kitty O’ Shea, and I had to put the book down and check wikipedia to work out what the hell they were all talking about. Naturally, Jeri Johnson explains that context neatly in her foreword, which I hadn’t read.

That summarises what for me was a key difficulty with this book, one that led to me taking to twitter half-way through asking who else had read it and if they’d actually enjoyed it. There’s a lot of assumed contemporary knowledge here. Joyce assumes a broad familiarity with what would have been the Irish current affairs of the day, as well as with the broad principles of the Catholic faith.

Since half my family are Catholic and I have links to Ireland I’m probably a bit more aware of some of those currents than the average contemporary non-Irish reader, but not by much. The simple fact is that without notes there’s an awful lot in this book that’s obscure now not by virtue of the language, which is actually much easier than you’d imagine, or because of the structure or anything else a reader would normally associate with a supposedly difficult book, but simply because the world it’s set in is so very specific and so very long ago. It’s a key reason I think why this is a book more studied than read.

Once I accepted that there was simply going to be a fair bit going on that I wouldn’t understand the significance of my enjoyment of the book picked up again. Are there frequent allusions to Dante’s Inferno? There are? A shame I haven’t read it then. Are there subtleties in terms of the competing philosophies and demands of the Church and Irish nationalism? Well, even I can see that there are, even if the particulars are now as obscure to me as the debate between the big-endians and little-endians of Lilliput and Blefuscu.

The chapters that follow seem almost random in their choice of subjects, but that’s because life isn’t merely a series of this happened then that happened then something else happened. The chapters focus on key moments of Stephen’s youth, eliding over the links and gaps between one episode and the other. Generally you can fill in what’s left out, because generally it’s clear that what’s been left out is fairly ordinary. We don’t see Stephen progressing through his schools – he’s a junior at one school and next chapter a senior at another, his family having moved as their fortunes have declined, but we hardly need Joyce to tell us what it’s like to go through a few years of education particularly since the first chapter established the nature of the priest-run schools Stephen attends; the manner of tuition, the meals, routines, crimes and punishments.

Always though Joyce’s observations are acute. I’ve not felt myself inside the head of a small boy so persuasively since I was one, when of course I gave it no thought at all.

Chapter 3 contains perhaps the most obviously impressive example of Joyce’s writing. By this point in the narrative Stephen is a teenager who has taken to sleeping with prostitutes and to focusing more on his appetites than his mind. He is sent with the rest of his class to a Catholic retreat, where he is treated to an extended sermon on the properties of Hell. The speech is intended to terrify the boys, to drive them back into the protective embrace of orthodoxy and the Church. It works, Stephen is terrified, and I wasn’t surprised because it’s so well written I felt chilled myself. Here’s two long, but in the context of the whole sequence very short, excerpts:

Every sense of the flesh is tortured and every faculty of the soul therewith: the eyes with impenetrable utter darkness, the nose with noisome odours, the ears with yells and howls and execrations, the taste with foul matter, leprous corruption, nameless suffocating filth, the touch with redhot goads and spikes, with cruel tongues of flame. And through the several torments of the senses the immortal soul is tortured eternally in its very essence amid the leagues upon leagues of glowing fires kindled in the abyss by the offended majesty of the Omnipotent God and fanned into everlasting and ever increasing fury by the breath of the anger of the Godhead.


—A holy saint (one of our own fathers I believe it was) was once vouchsafed a vision of hell. It seemed to him that he stood in the midst of a great hall, dark and silent save for the ticking of a great clock. The ticking went on unceasingly; and it seemed to this saint that the sound of the ticking was the ceaseless repetition of the words: ever, never; ever, never. Ever to be in hell, never to be in heaven; ever to be shut off from the presence of God, never to enjoy the beatific vision; ever to be eaten with flames, gnawed by vermin, goaded with burning spikes, never to be free from those pains; ever to have the conscience upbraid one, the memory enrage, the mind filled with darkness and despair, never to escape; ever to curse and revile the foul demons who gloat fiendishly over the misery of their dupes, never to behold the shining raiment of the blessed spirits; ever to cry out of the abyss of fire to God for an instant, a single instant, of respite from such awful agony, never to receive, even for an instant, God’s pardon; ever to suffer, never to enjoy; ever to be damned, never to be saved; ever, never; ever, never. O what a dreadful punishment!

It’s impossible though with a couple of quotes to capture the power of this section. Paragraph after paragraph, page after page, detailed near-forensic description of the sufferings of Hell. It’s claustrophic to read, a mid-book harrowing of Stephen. For a while he even considers entering the Church himself, becoming a priest, but of course as the title of the book itself tells us that isn’t where his true vocation lies.

Language is a recurring theme in the book, even from the first chapter when Stephen is too young to be aware of how he uses it. As the book advances though he becomes more conscious of it, of words themselves and the meanings and associations they carry and of how they may be used.

Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the greyfringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of language many coloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?

He falls into debates, with friends, with his dean of studies, as to the nature of art and the role of the artist. They’re often rather pretentious and adolescent conversations (Stephen at one point inwardly considers himself as “a priest of the eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life”, a wonderful but rather portentous phrase), but then when he was a baby the text reflected that so is it so strange it should reflect also the grand sweeping certainties of adolescence? Whatever its level though the language remains beautiful. Here are some more scattered quotes, lines I thought worth sharing lest anyone reading this thinks the book just a clever puzzle requiring intellectual but not emotional response:

From under the wide falling leaf of a soft hat Cranly’s dark eyes were watching him.


Cranly pushed solemnly through the throng of students, linking Stephen and Temple like a celebrant attended by his ministers on his way to the altar.

Or indeed:

The park trees were heavy with rain and rain fell still and ever in the lake, lying grey like a shield.

You can see the religious imagery that runs through the book very clearly in that second quote there (and the Eucharist metaphor in the quote above about the priest of the eternal imagination). The first and third quote though, those are simply lovely, words made supple and evocative.

Portrait is a novel of an artist emerging. Stephen faces claims of nationalism, religion, bonds of family and friendship and the body’s own insistent demands and through it all devotes himself to his ideal of art. That makes it sound worthy, but it’s not because the physical is always present, because those other claims and demands are so real and vital.  I’ll include one final quote:

It was not thought nor vision though he knew vaguely that her figure was passing homeward through the city. Vaguely first and then more sharply he smelt her body. A conscious unrest seethed in his blood. Yes, it was her body he smelt: a wild and languid smell: the tepid limbs over which his music had flowed desirously and the secret soft linen upon which her flesh distilled odour and a dew. A louse crawled over the nape of his neck and, putting his thumb and forefinger deftly beneath his loose collar, he caught it.

There’s a tremendous sensuality there in those first few lines, as Stephen contemplates the girl’s smell, her “tepid limbs” and “secret soft linen” (and no prizes for guessing where his thoughts are trending when he imagines her distilling “odour and a dew” onto that linen). Suddenly though there’s that louse, a quotidian irritant intruding on his flight of desire. For me that passage contained a heart of the book (not its only heart, but certainly a heart). It’s that clash between the mind and the body, between fantasy and reality, theory and practicality. These are the issues Stephen is grappling with here, and which Joyce is addressing of course through him.

Right, I said I’d say a bit at the end about the foreword. Well, firstly I entirely failed to notice when reading the book that, as Johnson says, “Within each chapter a similar pattern of rising action can be seen: each opens with Stephen in humility and ends with him triumphant.” I’m sure it can be seen, but I didn’t see it. This is an immensely carefully structured book, and I largely didn’t pick up on that structure as I got too bogged down in unfamiliar details of faith or politics.

The foreword brings out too quite how shocking much of the book’s content would have been when first published. Joyce touches at various points on bedwetting, masturbation, family squabbles, sex, the louse of course in that final quote above, an exuberant and vulgar physicality and normality. Of course life is physical, but when this came out none of that was seen as suitable subject matter for fiction. You don’t need to know that to appreciate the book, but it’s interesting and shows one of the ways in which Joyce pushed boundaries.

More than those specific details though, Johnson gives enough background that the context makes sense to the modern reader. As I said above I’d never have run into problems with that family argument if I’d read the foreword first, Johnson gives you what you need to know to make sense of it. She analyses how the chapters fit together, how the themes emerge and develop, but not in a way that suffocates the text but rather to illuminate it. She shows how the chapters relate to phases of Stephen’s life, why those chapters are here and not other chapters that could have been included (were included it seems in an earlier unpublished version of the book). She’s like a guide pointing out the landmarks to you before you set off on a hike, telling you to look out for this river, that unusual rock.

This is a book now somewhat obscured by its own weight and history. Partly that’s because of its reputation as being difficult, as being Joyce, is now a barrier to simply reading it. Partly too though it’s because the world Joyce sets his novel in is so very particular in time and space that it can be hard sometimes simply to understand the significance to the characters within the fiction of what’s being said. The foreword helps you past that, and when I reread this (which I hope to do) it’ll be bearing those insights in mind so that next time I’m not wandering through the territory squinting at a map trying to work out which way up to hold it and wondering if I’m still on the right trail.


Filed under Irish fiction, Joyce, James, Modernist fiction

25 responses to “the wild heart of life

  1. I’ve been trying to muster up the courage to tackle Joyce for a long time, and Portrait, obviously, before I try Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake. Those quotes – especially the ones about words and the rain – are simply lovely, and suddenly make the book a more appealing prospect (notwithstanding the warnings about heavy historical context that you’ve girded them with!).

  2. That was much of the reason for including them, so I’m glad they struck you that way.

    I wanted to make the difficulties I’d had clear so that others could take a sensible view on how to approach it, were they minded to. Reading the foreword would be more than ample, but if you would prefer to approach the text “cold” then five minutes on the wikiepedia page about Parnell would help a great deal I’d say.

    If you do try it, and it’s not a long book so it’s not that daunting, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  3. Should have said in the main review, I do love that cover.

  4. I read Portrait in the same college senior seminar where we read Ulysses. That was over 50 ago and I don’t remember a thing about it! I really ought to re-read both Portrait and Ulysses, but at this point I think maybe life is too short. Thanks for such an illuminating review!

  5. It would be impressive if you did after 50 years. I struggle to remember books I read five years ago, sometimes five weeks ago.

    Glad you liked the review.

  6. What a coincidence. I held this in my hands recently. I’ve heard people say it was difficult but maybe being a Catholic does help ( I grew Catholic as well) to understand some allusions.
    I’m still very interested to get to it and will get back to your review once I do – becuase I don’t have that edition.

  7. Btw – I’ve read Ulysses as a teenager, some twenty years ago and a lot of it is still very present. I think I was so impressed by it that I soaked it up.

  8. Max, I enjoyed reading your thoughts on Portrait, and it’s a very enlightening and balanced post for anyone contemplating the prospect of this book. Despite this book’s merits and the beauty of some of Joyce’s prose, I fear certain sections of this book (Chapter 3 for example) might wear me down. I think I’ll pass on this one, but your review has helped me realise that this isn’t for me. Thanks for such a helpful review and commentary.

    On a more positive note, I bought Saki’s Improper Stories earlier this week. It really is a thing of beauty, and I’m looking forward to reading the collection.

  9. Caroline, it definitely helps I think, there’s a huge amount of Catholic imagery in here as the quotes I selected partly show. I’ll look forward to your thoughts once you read it.

    Ulysses I expect to be a better book, but that’s hardly a radical expectation given it’s status.

    Jacqui, I’m glad you liked the piece and that it worked to give you a sense of whether you want to read it or not. Enjoy the Saki!

  10. Very clever and fair review. The character’s name is Daedalus, it fits the book, apparently. (In French, a dédale is a maze.) Or it fits the complexity of the human brain. I don’t know why but your review conjured up the image of a Lilliputian Stephen Daedalus walking on a brain and wandering in the crevices of it, collecting thoughts and impressions.

    I like the thought of it, the fragmented portrait of a man through several photos at different stages of his life. (The cover is perfect, isn’t it?)

    I see that this one also includes political references that were pretty clear for the Irish reader of the time (like in Dubliners) but it’s lost on us. I’d rather have footnotes than have the explanation in the foreword that, like you, I usually read AFTER reading the book, for the same reasons: spoilers and the need to see what I understood by myself, without the crutches of someone else’s mind.

    After reading your review and battling with Flann O’Brien, I’m pretty sure I can’t read this. I’d miss too much. What’s the point of reading a book if you know in advance you won’t get, let’s say, 75% of its content because it’s too obscure or too sophisticated? (or in my case and for Flann O’Brien in such a complicated English that it’s all blurred)

  11. Excellent discussions, in the post and comments, of the very real difficulties of this novel. Some books are harder than others. You use different strategies. Such is life.

    With an artwork of any real complexity, getting 25% is a big success.

  12. Emma, it’s also a classical reference. Daedalus is the artificer who built wings that he and his son, Icarus, might escape. Icarus however flew too close to the sun, the wax holding his wings together melted and he fell to his death. So it goes.

    The image you cite there though of him in the maze collecting his own thoughts and impressions, that’s actually pretty good. It feels true.

    The foreword here is pretty good but like you I tend to prefer to let my own interpretations flow naturally from my reading, rather than go in knowing what I’m “supposed” to find. The context issue here is very real though, and the footnotes in this case don’t help so much with that.

    Tom, I agree with you that 25% is a big success. It’s why some books we can return to over and over, reread them and perhaps get different things at different times. A book we understand 100% is a book we’ll probably never bother rereading.

  13. Daedalus also built the Labyrinth! He was very talented.

  14. Ah, so Emma’s comment was much more on point than I realised. Ironically perhaps I only got 25% of her comment.

  15. So 25% was optimistic? Phew! (Not that I’m fond of assessing books with KPIs, I leave them to my other life)

    About Daedalus. I meant the reference to the labyrinth, not the one to his escape with Icarus. I don’t think it’s a coincidence the character is named like this. (Same character name in Ulysses, right?)

  16. Same character. You’re correct it’s not a coincidence, I missed some of the significance of the point you were making.

  17. I read this a long time ago and confess that I’m not a huge fan. I’m not fond of S of C which annoys me more than anything else. OW Classics seems to be doing a terrific job with forewords, don’t they?

  18. If you don’t like stream of consciousness, I’m not surprised this didn’t fly for you.

    OW are, definitely.

  19. Matthew (

    This is the only Joyce I’ve read (and finished) to date – I really loved it, but read it as a prelude to Ulysses, which thus far has proved an intractable problem for me. Sadly, I think my reading brain isn’t quite developed for Joyce yet (or Ulysses is a right bloody mess, but I suspect it’s more likely to be the former 😉 ).

  20. Alastair Savage

    Like Matthew above, I’ve also never been able to finish Ulysses but I did enjoy Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I read it over twenty years ago and there are still scenes that stick with me. As you say, there’s the tremendous political argument that young Stephen cannot possibly understand (“Poor Parnell .. My dead king!”) and that odd sequence in the park, where Stephen is urged to run with his arms straight by his sides!

  21. Matthew, I plan to read Ulysses but actually hope it will be more fun than Portrait. It sounds more fun. Anyway, I’m going to try not to be too respectful else I fear it would kill me.

    Alastair, worrying to have you make the same comment. There’s definitely passages here will stick with me, and hopefully when I get to it that’ll be true for Ulysses too. Oddly, there doesn’t appear to be a decent kindle version of Ulysses which is strange.

  22. Matthew (

    Yeah, definitely don’t treat it with too much reverence. I was trying to read it with a friend and we had great fun bemoaning our own ignorance as well as the book’s incomprehensibility (we weren’t using notes at the time). Best of luck with it!

  23. leroyhunter

    Portrait and Ulysses really reflect, as books, the nature of their protagonists: the former is awkward, angular, a little cold, obsessive, elevated (like Stephen); whereas the latter is humane, funny, all-embracing, wandering, earthy (like Bloom).

  24. Thanks Matthew, I don’t plan to use notes by and large either. Contemporary readers didn’t have them after all.

    Leroy, lovely point, and it makes Ulysses sound a lot more fun.

  25. Pingback: Looking back on #readwomen2014 and my favourite reads of the year | Pechorin's Journal

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