Criticism of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Criticism of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

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James Augustine Aloysius Joyce, the author of A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, was once described by a friend, Constantine Curran, as "a man of unparalleled vituperative power, a virtuoso in speech with unique control of the vernacular." While Constantine viewed Joyce's quality of verbal abuse "powerful," and praised his "control" of the language, many viewed this expressive and unrestrained style of writing as inappropriate and offensive. A dramatic new step for modernism, Joyce used language, style, and descriptions of previously unwritten thoughts and situations which stirred the cultural norm, thus sparking controversy over what was necessary and acceptable in literature.

While the reactions to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man were not as severe as were those of Ulysses, it was still considered shocking, and was judged by critics including "The Times," "The Manchester Guardian," and even Edward Garnett, who had encouraged D. H. Lawrence. Criticisms and complaints about the book's "occasional improprieties" (The Times), and "astounding bad manners" (Manchester guardian) were common, and it is easy to see why taking into account the reserved culture in 1916. This aspect of supporting whether or not I agree with the accusations of the books morality and appropriateness is difficult because one cannot base the subject matter and use of language on today's culture and acceptance. Surely the material written by Joyce does not provoke the same feelings today as it did when it was first published, but, putting the time period in respect, I would agree that it was inappropriate material to have presented. Considering that even the bed-wetting event which takes place on the first page of the book was considered unsuitable, I feel that while it may have been practiced, such matters of prostitution and sexual promiscuity were certainly unnecessary.

In addition to the controversial content of the book was the matter of Joyce's style. Not denying Joyce's ability, Garnett wrote it was "ably written," except he felt that it was too "discursive, formless, unrestrained, and ugly things, ugly words, are too prominent." Also, Garnett criticized that it was too "unconventional," and "unless the author will use restraint and proportion he will not gain readers." Having read the book, I too agree with Garnett that the style in which the book was written does not encourage the reader to advance through the story.

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As Professor Brandon Kershner of the University of Florida at Gainsville notes, "Portrait is among the most frequently taught novels in modern university curricula." At this age and educational level, it is discouraging to continuously flip back and forth between the footnotes so that the story can be fully understood. The language he uses is informal and culturally specific to such a degree that it seems to separate the reader instead of connect, as a result, also gaining the criticism of the Irish community, who were more offended than even the British, because of the way they are stereotyped, for example, to hate the English.

However, while it's cultural criticism and controversial language were what sparked censure from critics, reviewers and society, it nonetheless has become "Joyce's most widely-read work," suggests Professor Kershner, who feels that Joyce is one of the most influential modern writers. The inappropriate material, the sexual implications, the "filth" that so greatly disturbed the literary world when it debuted in 1916, has become the reasons for its popularity and success. While the material today is by no means offensive to the previous extent, it is now something that the undergraduate students, those that Kershner has identified as the greatest majority of its readers, can relate to; frustration under the authority of church, state, and parents.

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