A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as a Modernist Novel | Steam of Consciousness | James Joyce

James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” is a forerunner of the modernist novel written in reaction to the Realist technique which was dominating in the 18th and 19th century.

Along with T.S Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Virginia Woolf, James Joyce was the producer of literary compositions answering to a quickly changing world in which capitalism, religion, and social institutions were cross-examined after the First World War. The terrors of war abandoned people, and they felt deceived by the institutions or systems they once trusted. So writers like James Joyce applied literature to examine those institutions and started looking at the inner side of themselves for the solutions they could not discover in the outside world.  As a result of this, modernist writers used modernist techniques such as stream of consciousness, fragmentation, and a unique language, and “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” is no exception. 

Narrative Techniques:

Modernist writers questioned the prevalent narrative techniques. Most of the 19th-century writers like Charles Dickens and George Eliot would present an omniscient narrator who would present the story, give the required background details, and also explain the story for the reader. But Joyce does not narrate the story in that way. Joyce’s narrative is restricted and firmly absorbed; he doesn’t explain what is happening but aims to show the action of the novel without describing the events he is showing.  The novel’s protagonist Stephen says at the end of the novel that the past has been mixed into the present and he is living in the present only because it brings forth the future. According to Joyce, one cannot get away from the past because it decides the present and the future. This blending of past, present, and future in Joyce’s work is presented through the stream-of-consciousness style which is the main characteristic of modernist fiction. 

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Fragmentation is another important characteristic of modernist novels. In his novel “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” the story is not presented continuously or chronologically by Joyce but with fragmentation and with breaks in the chronology. All the events that occur in the novel have been presented through the point of view and consciousness of the hero Stephen. Thereby, Joyce starts the story of his novel in uncomplicated vocabulary and emulates the approach of children’s story. When Stephen becomes a little young, he listens to a political argument that occurs between Stephen’s father’s friend Mr. Casey and Stephen’s aunt Dante in the course of a Christmas dinner. Stephen does not know what the argument is all about. But this much he knows that it is distressing and that it unsettles the peace of the Christmas dinner. Yet, Joyce, the writer, is aware that his readers would have remembered the importance of the political argument which tells of the late Irish leader Charles Stuart Parnell. So the author Joyce knows what is going on, the reader knows what is going on but the hero of the novel, Stephen, does not know what is happening. “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” is packed with this kind of narrative doubleness. 

The Stream-of-consciousness technique:

The stream of consciousness style is a radically modern approach that has attempted to change the technique of narrative practically in every regard. With the help of the Stream of Consciousness technique, Joyce wanted to show that the consciousness of human beings does not remain constant; it is something flowing and running like a stream. It is a continuous and ceaseless flow of emotions, thoughts, impressions, conceptions, and imaginations. The modernist writer does not just state what the character is thinking, but he presents his stories in such a way as if he were inside the character’s consciousness. 

The use of language:

The way James Joyce used language in his novel “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” also makes this novel a modernist novel. His fondness of language was useful in his exploratory writing that employed history, mythology, and literature to produce a creative language using symbols and other several fictional forms. For instance, the most important symbol in the novel is flight and birds. This reveals the theme of liberty and the myth of Daedalus. According to Greek Mythology, Daedalus makes wings of wax for him and for his son Icarus so that they can escape. They escape but Icarus tries to soaring up and eventually as Icaurs reaches too near to the sun the wings melt and he drops down into the sea. So Joyce very artistically uses mythology and symbols in his novel “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”.

Joyce has also challenged the traditional way of writing by using unusual punctuation in his novel. Joyce has not used quotation marks in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” instead he utilizes extended dash (-) at the opening of a paragraph where he wants to show a speech by a character. Joyce has also not use commas (,) while writing long sentences. Joyce does this purposely to convey the flow of thoughts of the character. 


So in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” Joyce does not present his story with a well-organized plot and a proper beginning, middle, and an end. Rather he uses the stream of consciousness style to show the important moments in the protagonist’s life. So because Joyce’s novel challenges the old norms and conventions, therefore we can call this novel a modernist novel. 

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