Book Review: A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man - #2 In My Modern Library Classics Challenge


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

“Et ignotas animum dimittit in artes”, or in translation “And he sets his mind to unknown arts”   Ovid’s description of Daedalus in his Metamorphoses, VIII:188., as quoted in the epigraph to A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man

The Book Review

James Joyce was born in 1882 and died in 1941. His novel Ulysses is heralded as a hallmark of the early twentieth century Modernist style. It’s also hailed as barely readable. You see, Joyce, unlike many writers of his time, is still being read even now, and views on his books are still being debated with intensity. Eighty years after his death Joyce still has a following - still has “fanboys” - and that alone tells you much about what he was able to achieve.

I freely admit I am not a Joyce fanboy. A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man is my introduction to Joyce. For others who aren’t familiar with him and his works, Portrait is an often recommended starting point.

My initial reaction as I started reading this book was that it’s a museum piece. Written in a ten year span from 1904 to 1914, it’s very much a product of its time and place. That’s understandable, as it’s a semi-autobiographical account of the young life of the author.

To best experience it, you’ll benefit if you have something of an understanding of the 20th century history of the Irish, their struggle with the British, and their relationship to the Roman Catholic church. There’s also plenty of Irish slang and many passages in Latin in the book that you may need a guide (or several Google searches) to get through. 

Portrait is Modernist in the sense that it's written to let us directly into the head of the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus. Parts of it are written as stream of consciousness and can be hard to parse. It's also very cinematic in that it's not a straightforward narrative but rather a sequence of scenes through five chapters, each corresponding to five ages in young Stephen’s life. 

Interestingly, the style of each chapter changes to reflect Stephen’s age at the time. In the first chapter for example Stephen is very young. He hides under a table at a family gathering. He wets the bed. This chapter is written from the perspective of a child, about the things that a child will see and feel. And so on through each chapter.

The book is a coming-of-age story. It tells how Stephen struggles with religion, his growing awareness of the politics of his time and the misfortunes falling on his family, his typical teenage angst around sex and desire, and finally his struggle to articulate his feelings about art and his desire to pursue an artistic life even though his family may not approve.  

There are brilliant passages of prose in the book. The best for me was in Chapter III, where there are several pages of an over the top hellfire and damnation sermon that Stephen hears at a boys retreat in his school. The sermon is so seriously taken by Stephen that he turns into a model Catholic (a model he can’t hold on to for too long). For me, an American reader in 2022, the sermon is simultaneously both hilariously unreal, and also far too serious and realistic to not be based on the writer’s own experiences. I have to believe that young Joyce was subject to sermons just like this.

After finishing the book and reflecting on it, I have come to feel that, for a museum piece full of old slang and Latin, it’s actually quite effective. I can’t say that I loved it, but I liked it quite a lot.

It doesn’t feel right to me to put Star ratings on classics like this.  I do recommend this book, but it is best suited for people who 1) like coming of age stories, 2) are of Irish descent and/or have an interest in Irish history, 3) don’t mind getting a guide or running to Google to translate stuff as they read, and 4) like me, are new to James Joyce. 

Classics Challenge

This is the second book in my 2022 Modern Library Classics Challenge. I’m challenging myself to read at least one of my Modern Library classics each month this year. It’s part of my overall goal to read 100 books. 

I own over 40 Modern Library editions that I collected in my first years out of college. At the time I was buying them, I admired them more as “art” than as books. I just liked the idea of pocket sized hardcovers, which is interesting since at the time most of the books I was buying to read were trade-sized paperbacks. As art on my shelf, I haven’t ever read my Modern Library books. So, it’s about time to do so now that I’m retired.

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Borrow or Purchase A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man here:

📙  Borrow this book: Find out if your library has the ebook or audiobook available through OverDrive or Libby.

📘 Buy this book: Amazon* | Barnes & Noble | Books-A-Million* |AbeBooks* | Powell’s | ThriftBooks 

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NOTE: The Modern Library small hardcover edition of A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man was published from 1928 until 1956. Based on the Modern Library logo on my book, it appears to be from sometime between 1941 and 1953. (Dates courtesy of 

The book is now in the public domain and many versions are available in print and audiobook. The version highlighted below (and, for the most part, highlighted in the bookseller links above) is printed by the successor firm of the old Modern Library: 

Title: A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man
Author: James Joyce
Publisher: Penguin Classics*
Publish Date: March 25, 2003*
ISBN-13: 9780142437346
Publisher’s List Price: $11.00 (Paperback as of 02/2022)

* Originally serialized in the English magazine The Egoist in 1914 and 1915, Portrait was first published in book form by the American publishing house of B.W. Huebsch on December 29, 1916. In 1925 Huebsch merged with Viking Press, which today is an imprint of Penguin Random House (PRH)

Modern Library is also now an imprint of PRH. PRH itself became a subsidiary of the privately held German conglomerate Bertelsmann as of April 2020.