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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man | Study Guide

James Joyce

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James Joyce | Biography


James Joyce is widely recognized as one of the 20th century's most influential authors, based on the reputation of four major works: the short story collection Dubliners (1914) and the novels A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914–1915), Ulysses (1922), and Finnegans Wake (1939). Born on February 2, 1882, into a large Catholic family in a suburb of Dublin, Joyce was sent at age six to Clongowes Wood College, a Jesuit boarding school. However, Joyce's father had money and drinking troubles, and the family fell into poverty; as a result, Joyce had to withdraw from school, and for two years, he tried to teach himself.

Always precocious, Joyce managed to learn a great deal: he taught himself Norwegian so he could read Henrik Ibsen's works in the playwright's original language, and in his lifetime, he would know or speak 17 languages. Joyce and his brother Stanislaus eventually received free admission to another school, and afterward, Joyce received a bachelor's degree from University College, Dublin. Joyce then left Ireland for Paris, with the vague idea of becoming a medical doctor, only to return in 1903 because his mother was ill; she died later that year. The following year he met Nora Barnacle, the great love of his life, and they married and moved to Italy. The Joyces would continue to live away from Ireland for most of the author's life. Although Joyce was obsessed with Ireland and celebrated it through his writing, he was also repulsed by it on a political level, objecting strongly to the Catholic Church's dominance there.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was Joyce's first novel. He began an autobiographical novel titled Stephen Hero in 1903 but scrapped the material and used its main character in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The text first appeared in installments in a literary journal. After poet Ezra Pound read and praised the text for its virtuosity, it was published as a book in 1916.

Reviews were mixed. Writer H.G. Wells lauded the novel, comparing Joyce's writing to that of Jonathan Swift and Joseph Conrad, among other critically praised novelists. Others found the book perplexing; the Guardian sniffed at its "passion for foul-smelling things," and the journal Everyman called it an "extraordinarily dirty story of the upbringing of a young man by Jesuits." Joyce's association with fellow modernists such as Pound and T.S. Eliot—writers who consciously chose to eschew traditional writing styles—did much to catapult A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to its current lofty stature despite the mixed nature of its early reception. The novel has proven to be one of the author's best-loved books.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is widely considered to be partially autobiographical, as it reflects Joyce's own upbringing in Ireland. Like Stephen Dedalus, Joyce grew up in a large family with a financially irresponsible and alcoholic father, and he attended a prep school, Jesuit school, and college basically identical to those described in the novel. Even Stephen's close friends through school and university have parallels in Joyce's life. No one can know how closely Joyce's private thoughts match those of his protagonist, but the correspondence between biographical detail and novelistic detail make it seem likely the two have internal as well as external similarities.

The tale of a writer's youthful development would later be a basis for what many people consider Joyce's greatest work, Ulysses, which also features the brilliant but decadent student and writer Stephen Dedalus. Stephen's encounters and developments as a vulnerable, complex, and observant individual and budding artist in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man form a kind of rough sketch for Ulysses, which uses Stephen as a lens for viewing the city of Dublin as a whole, and the world at large.

Joyce lived much of his life in Europe, through the publication of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dubliners, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake, his final novel. He lived a life of considerable excess and was frequently ill. Toward the end of his life, his eyesight had declined so much he was almost blind. He died in Zurich on January 13, 1941, as a result of complications from intestinal surgery.

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