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Psychological Realism of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Updated on March 26, 2010

The psychological realism of the book “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” By James Joyce is evident in the fact that the entire story revolves resolutely on its main character,
Stephen Dedalus.  “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” is actually a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s life as a young man.

The novel is written as a third-person narrative with less dialogue. The narrator seems attached to the main character.  The book's opening lines present popular examples of Stephen's thoughts and conscious experience when he is just a child. Take these lines for instance, “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. . . ..

The first few lines of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man shows Joyce's attempt to describe the scene through the eyes of a very young boy.   He littered the sentence with languages associated with children such as "moocow," "tuckoo," and "nicens."

Aside from the childlike speech, Joyce also makes use of syntax of his sentences and paragraphs to show how a child thinks.  The train of thought is also another indication that the story comes from a child.  There seems to be no sense of direction or sense of time in his narratives. As if he is just mumbling those words for no reason. 

Joyce’s style in writing realism is distinctive and unique. It differs from other works that delves on similar topic.  What sets this story apart is that most of the action occurs predominantly in the mind of the protagonist, Stephen.  In order to make that portrayal believable, Joyce creates and employs a technique called interior monologue, or stream of consciousness wherein the arbitrary thoughts of Stephen are being quoted such as those found in the first pages of the book.

Stephen invariably relates the story to himself as he becomes the Baby Tuckoo in his father’s story and the song he hears become his song.  There is a progression of Stephen’s thoughts as the story unfolds.  Joyce’s style is less child-like as Stephen matures.  This is apparent in Stephen’s language who as a little boy would mutter "nicens little baby tuckoo" and as a young artist who notes in his diary promises of forming "the uncreated conscience of my race."

Throughout the book, the author skillfully maneuvers language and prose to depict Stephen’s thoughts and how the events in his life affect him through the eyes of the narrator.  Joyce’s lenghty accounts in some chapters can be attributed to the fact that he chooses to portray the Stephen’s subjective experience using language instead of presenting what occur in a prose narrative.  Joyce is also known to use quotation marks instead of dashes. 

The way the story moves forward also differs. Most novels use chronological progression or flashbacks. Joyce instead uses a series of experiences that may appear to be unrelated but are in truth interrelated through symbols, images and languages. 

Images and symbols that are oft-repeated are designed to convey Stephen's innermost feelings.  Take for instance, a rose or the color of rose which represents the young man’s quest for romance and beauty; the color yellow stands for utter dislike from unpleasant  experiences or realities; and birds or flight, an allusion to the young man’s craving for creative freedom.  Sometimes these symbols are used by the author to represent the threat of being punished and loss of independence.  These images are drawn from religion, philosophy, and myth which Joyce masterfully intertwined and represented in the tale.

Realism wasn't the only influence found in Joyce’s works. Allusions and symbolisms such as those inspired by French poets like Stephane Mallarme and Arthur Rimbaud, whom he greatly admired in his younger days, also abound in his book.  Joyce employs these evocative poetic imagery to portray various meanings.  This strategy enables Joyce to use words to  suggest psychological implications.

One of the most quoted allusion used by Joyce in the story is the myth of Daedalus and Icarus.  The entire novel is actually structured around this famous myth. The constant reference to the story of Daedalus and Icarus inculcates in the minds of the readers the parallelisms in Icarus and Stephen’s lives.

This famous story in Greek mythology is about a father Daedalus who creates wings of feathers and wax so he and his son can escape the labyrinth.  As they fly to freedom, Icarus discontent and curiosity bid him to fly higher.  The wax on the wings however melts and Icarus plunges to his death.  The same way that Stephen in the story strives to move away from his father’s grasp to follow his destiny as an artist.  This perfectly sums up the protagonist’s quests for creativity, self-discovery and independence. This is the central theme which resonates throughout the story. 

Stephen's name is another allusion derived from Saint Stephen who was known to have conflicts with religion. Stephen Dedalus has the same conflicting desire within him – to be free of Catholic and Irish conventions which he feels to constraint him.

The amalgamation of words, images, and symbols makes A Portrait of the Artist quite a complex taste for most readers’ palate.  One has to dig deeper beyond the surface in order to fully comprehend a complex character such as Stephen Dedalus.  It's not easy to peal all the layers of the novel and get to the bottom of things.
Stephen's mind seems a mad jumble of places and ideas.  Joyce doesn't explain them either.  The story does not progress in a usual manner.  Scenes overlap; time is unspecified. It's up to the reader to make the necessary associations in order to fully understand the story. This may prove to be a huge challenge to most but the effort would be all worth it. 

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