Although it is now an acknowledged literary masterpiece, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was all but rejected when first presented to the world (no one in Britain would publish the work). The book relates the story of Stephen Dedalus, from young child to early manhood, charting his journey of self-discovery, from the trials of boarding school, through the sexual awakening of adolescence and rebellion against Ireland’s religious strictures to his own very personal battle to discover meaning and ‘a voice’ as a budding artist.
Stephen Dedalus is James Joyce’s alter ego, an attempt at “turning his life into fiction”. Joyce himself struggled with all his hero’s problems, and the book is patently semi-biographical. More importantly, it is also Joyce’s attempt to break free from the rigid literary forms of his time: he uses a variety of experimental techniques to give depth and colour to his narrative, mixing styles to emphasise the chaotic nature of his hero’s thoughts, and revealing a gradual complexity of mentation as he moves towards manhood. The result is a surprisingly profound and moving account that succeeds in laying bare, on multiple levels, the complexity of human existence.