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James Joyce On Welcoming Life

| Updated: January 7, 2022 15:12

Two weeks ago, I had spoken about novels where characters grow through the different experiences that they accumulate in their lives. As ‘novels of growth’ or a bildungsroman, I had specifically spoken about two novels, which I have loved in my life, George Eliot’s Middlemarch and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Last week, as my students wrote their examinations and Joyce formed part of their curriculum, I wrote about Agha Shahid Ali to avoid any possible conflict of interest. So, now, to Joyce.

The title of this column comes from a diary entry that the protagonist of James Joyce’s novel, Stephen Dedalus writes. The novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ends with diary entries and, as such, marks a development in the genre of the English novel. There’s a lot that Joyce has contributed both to the English language and to the novel as a genre. In the second last diary entry, dated April 26th, Stephen writes thus:


April 26. Mother is putting my new secondhand clothes in order. She prays now, she says, that I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels. Amen. So be it. Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

–The Project Gutenberg Edition of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4217/4217-h/4217-h.htm

So, it is with this statement, one of the boldest in the history of literature, that Stephen departs from Dublin, his city, and Ireland, his country. His confidence, at that point, is immense. Also note that there is no shame in the ‘new secondhand clothes’ in him. If there is poverty, or squalor, there is. Thus, there is no shame in accepting one’s conditions as they are. 

Though he doesn’t have much to show by way of artistic output but he’s at a stage, where he’s appreciated by everyone, his knowledge is matchless. Also, he had checked the dictionary and found that the Dean of Studies at his Jesuit College was wrong about language. And he has also developed his Theory of Art as well as written a villanelle, which is reproduced in the novel. Stephen had been offered the path of becoming a priest, but he knows that his calling in life is different, that of an artist. In that sense, Joyce interprets the Jesuit motto of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, ad majorem dei gloriam, ‘to serve in the greater glory of God’ in the widest, secular sense possible.

The novel charts Stephen’s growth from his birth as a bed-wetting infant. Joyce uses several literary techniques, including foreshortening of time, montage, and a growth of the character through the various epiphanic moments in his life. It is a unique way of writing fiction, where epiphany is used to chart developments in a person’s life. However, that is exactly how human life works: we learn from different intense moments in our lives that we experience. It is the intensity of life that teaches us, not the mere preponderance of it. Sergei Eisenstein, who pioneered the concept of montage in cinema in the twentieth century, does accept his debt to Joyce. In the beginning and through much of his younger days, Stephen is ‘weak’ in many ways. He’s not physically strong, he wears glasses, his father is not ‘somebody’ as fathers of some bullies at school are magistrates, there are financial troubles at home, he’s attracted to a girl, who is a Protestant, while his family is Catholic. However, slowly, as the novel progresses, Stephen starts gaining strength in different spheres of his life. 

At a later stage in the novel, Stephen says “By thinking of things, you could understand them”. However, since the beginning of the novel, since he came into the world, Stephen constantly thinks about different things around him and is very sensitive to language, the sounds that different words make as well as the different connotations that words carry along with them. For instance, as a young child in a boarding school, Stephen says “Cancer is a disease of animals, Canker is a disease of plants”. There is also a celebration of ‘pun’ as a literary device in James Joyce’s oeuvre, notably so, in  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce’s contributions ensured that the ‘pun’ earned its respect back as a figure of speech after centuries of disuse. 

To many readers, the novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, looks ‘difficult’ to read. But this is partly since they have not been exposed to the Modern Novel as such. Joyce’s novel broke new ground in many ways and the sheer joie de vivre, the enjoyment of life, that permeates his novels is unique. It has also been contagious, influencing authors across the world for over half a century. For instance, Salman Rushdie’s playfulness with language in his novel, Midnight’s Children, clearly has a Joyce debt. In fact, Lucy Ellmann, the American-born, British novelist, also owes her debt to James Joyce. Her father was the renowned Joyce scholar, Richard Ellmann. Also, her Booker-shortlisted novel, Ducks, Newburyport, clearly has a Joycean imprint on it.

Stephen also says, much later in the novel, “Zeal without prudence is like a ship adrift”. This defines his personality. He learns prudence and wisdom and tempers his zeal, his boundless enthusiasm, with it. It is a steady kind of growth, and he learns from every adverse as well as joyous experience of his life.

Joyce also made deft use of the leitmotif as a literary device in his work. In his novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, different motifs appear at different intervals to lead to newer meanings. For instance, Eileen’s hands were cool or cold and white since the beginning of the novel but in the quote that I share below, her hands were also ‘soft’ though they were not so since the beginning of the novel. But then, this is obvious, she has put her hand in his pocket.

Every time, I teach James Joyce to my students, I learn a lot from him about my use of language, about how to write poetry, how to play with words and how to be very sensitive to language. I even learn my written English from Joyce. His writing is extraordinarily suggestive and there are many things that James Joyce says, without creating any controversy as such. I’ll take your leave with these thoughts. As the first week of the New Year ends, in the middle of a raging pandemic, let us think about ‘welcoming life’ in its myriad hues.


Eileen had long thin cool white hands too because she was a girl. They were like ivory; only soft. That was the meaning of Tower of Ivory but protestants could not understand it and made fun of it. One day he had stood beside her looking into the hotel grounds. A waiter was running up a trail of bunting on the flagstaff and a fox terrier was scampering to and fro on the sunny lawn. She had put her hand into his pocket where his hand was and he had felt how cool and thin and soft her hand was. She had said that pockets were funny things to have: and then all of a sudden she had broken away and had run laughing down the sloping curve of the path. Her fair hair had streamed out behind her like gold in the sun. Tower of Ivory. House of Gold. By thinking of things you could understand them.

The Project Gutenberg Edition of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4217/4217-h/4217-h.htm

Post a Comments



    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!!?
    Stephens Growth seems to fold a lot of mysteries through Joyce’s use of language.

  2. Iqbal AZIM

    #Character does grow, but build with experiences and influences in life.

    Life is definitely a journey full of adventures and challenges- whereby we make mistakes, follies, overlooks; take takeaways, learnings; get developed and build characters.

    Happy to read yet another maestro of literature.

  3. K P Madhu

    I was doing my degree in physics when I came across this book and really loved it. So I sought out his Ulysses. And got stuck in about 30 pages or so. I attacked it again after a few months. And got stuck again. I just could not understand his sudden use of capital letters in between the flow of things. I still remember KISS MY ROYAL IRISH ARSE.
    I quit reading literature, promising myself that I will return only when I am able to figure out Ulysses. Of course, I had to break my promise: I met Gita. 🙂
    But I still don’t understand it. I could enjoy the woman’s mind, which comes later in the novel – the part without full stops, without paragraphs. But why the capital letters which suddenly pop out somewhere between pages 30 and 50?
    You will save me a lot of pangs of guilt when I consume the delicious morsels of literature that Gita provides me. I will be eternally grateful, sir.

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