…had The Portrait of the Artist been frank only for frankness’ sake, she would have asked why I had given it to her to read.
Signoria Popper pronounces that the shock value of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man would not appeal to her. She sees amorous intention in her professor. Amalia allows that the novel has sufficient artistic weight to meet her juvenile approval while seeming to disapprove of the baser elements of this new style of literature. If Joyce intended titillation with naughty content, she would not react. The Maestro is bemused by his young charge’s literary assessment. He might also hope that he has turned the girl’s head despite her protest.
Amalia was not the only commenter to temper praise of the novel because of indelicate content and vocabulary. In March 1917, H.G. Wells published a review of the book that blended his literary assessment with four parts of Social Darwinism, one part commentary on punctuation, and one part generalization about an Irish obsession with matters “cloacal.” Mixed in was a grudgingly favorable review of the masterpiece. Joyce exacted an act of customary revenge in Ulysses, intimating that the British empire’s most outstanding achievement was the water closet’s globalization.
Her youth was not the greatest obstacle to Amalia’s understanding of A Portrait. She came as a child to a city with a cosmopolitan and blended society, and no one will claim that a Jewish immigrant’s lot was easy. However, life in a diverse city where nearly half the population did not even speak Italian might seem less oppressive than some other cities. In Trieste, there was no dominant local culture. The most significant impediment to Amalia’s appreciation of the novel is that A Portrait examines the plight of not an immigrant but a different class of outsider, the forced emigrant. There is another type of oppression in heterogeneous societies that might be overlooked by the immigrant who might believe all “natives” are privileged. Signorina Popper could not appreciate the torment of an insider compelled to break with the conventions of a stiff-necked, prudish Edwardian society, opening himself to public scorn. Joyce’s improprieties are sexual and hygienic but also heretical, political, familial, and economic.
Wells recognized the importance of the artist’s perspective within a closed society but abruptly redirected the reader’s attention. In his limited discussion of the novel’s plot, he psychoanalyzed Stephen’s terror at sermons promising damnation and contrasted this unfavorably with Lord Jim’s personal and private guilt. Wells didn’t acknowledge that Conrad was an immigrant, relieved of his Polish-Ukrainian Catholic culture’s burdens through immigration. The reviewer could no better appreciate Joyce’s catharsis than could Amalia Popper.
Joyce’s novel has special meaning to the “insider” alienated from a strongly centralized society with a hierarchical church like Catholicism forbidding independent interpretation of dogma, perhaps, or to the colonial subject of an empire. Here is a different type of suppression than the kind experienced by immigrant newcomers. This suppression is equally painful for the native unable to accept a dominant and oppressive culture. This societal pressure is the cynosure of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Preparing for the centennial of Joyce’s first masterwork, Fintan O’Toole wrung out the intention of Joyce’s theme for The Irish Times (“The impact of ‘A Portrait’ has waned for modern young men,” July 20, 2013). He then hung out, for all to see, the life-changing effect that book had on him and two generations who preceded him. The book delivered to O’Toole a body blow. C.S. Lewis’ aphorism says: “We read to know we are not alone.” O’Toole’s more cutting observation was that no contemporary teen could feel the same after reading the book. The “religious empire… its power and its seductions” no longer exists.
don ward September 22, 2020