James Joyce’s Modernism: The Rise of Uncertainty in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

This essay is the first of three on the effects of scientific and mathematical discoveries on the evolution of Modernist Literature. The works of James Joyce will be the focus of these essays. In an unchronological order, the first review will be of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) proceeding rather than following Dubliners (1914). A Portrait presents first because it is the best vehicle to showcase the subjective narrator’s voice. Ulysses will conclude the series. The discussions will consider “voice” for A Portrait, “design” for Dubliners, and Ulysses will address the space-time adventures of “plot.”

The Foundations of Certainty

An isosceles triangle of tenets tested the authenticity of “facts” during the 19th Century. The oldest of these, at the top of the triangle, we will date for convenience at 300 B.C. Proposed by Euclid, we’ll call the point The Geometry. To the left, dated for convenience at 1250 A.D., is The Catechism, fathered by Aquinas. Auguste Comte anchors the right leg, his product is Positivism, and his date of comfort is 1850 A.D. In the center of the triangle is the all-seeing eye. This is not the eye of God that is reserved for the Almighty Buck and Masonic totems. This is the eye of man. Perhaps we’ll add the legend VIDENS CREDENS (Seeing Is Believing).

Physical proof dominated science until about 1900 under the rules dictated Positivism. Under Comte’s philosophy, visual evidence, sometimes supported by the other senses, was the only evidence acceptable as scientific proof. Euclidean geometry, a representative visual proof, was consistent with Positivism and therefore also irrefutable. Four clear, concise self-evident postulates supported it.

1. Given two points, there is a straight line that joins them.

2. A straight line segment can be prolonged indefinitely.

3. A circle can be constructed when a point for its center and a distance for its radius are given.

4. All right angles are equal.

Euclidean geometry supports and illustrates a two-dimensional view of up to three dimensions of reality.

In the 4th Century A.D., Augustine of Hippo began incorporating Plato’s principles of an ideal world into Christian theology. Still, geometry remained less the— “study of an ideal order [than] a science of the real world.” By the 13th Century, Aquinas, who prioritized visual evidence above all other senses, began to use the visual nature of Euclidean diagrams as a preliminary exercise in spiritual education. By the 14th Century, Duns Scotus described “all forms of intellectual perception in terms of sight” (Rice 15-17). Sight validated the physical world, and Euclid’s diagrams, axioms, and postulates predicted known reality perfectly.

Rennaisance perspective in the visual arts blended Euclidean models with visually objective reality. The German artist Dürer constructed a machine that recreated Rennaisance perspective manifesting Euclidean perfection. Rene Descartes’ 17th Century image of reality invented an observable universe. His logic included using syllogisms in an attempt to prove the existence of God. Descartes employed premises including Euclidian-style axioms. Mathematics was absolute, and God was in his Mathematical heaven.  

By the 1830s, the Jesuits made Euclidean Geometry an essential part of the order’s teaching curriculum. They related geometrical proofs to the Catholic theological proofs. Euclid’s Geometry or the Catechism taught or could prove everything worth knowing. As late as 1902, in Euclid: His Life and Systems, Thomas Smith claimed that “Objective truth exists and should be sought…” (Rice 15). This tandem of belief in human understanding of an objective, knowable world and religious dogma were the foundations of James Joyce’s Jesuit education and religious beliefs.

Non-Euclidean Discoveries

Euclid, however, included a fifth postulate. This introduced cloudy wording as if intending to be unclear. It says:

5. That, if a straight line falling on two straight lines make the interior angles on the same side less than two right angles, the two straight lines, if produced indefinitely, meet on that side on which are the angles less than the two right angles.

It seems there was an intention not to mention parallel lines. Euclid indicated parallel lines must not meet, but the discussion only works in a two-dimensional universe. Lines of Longitude on a map rather than a globe are parallel at the equator. However, they intersect at the poles. If the world had been flat, the Euclid would remain irrefutable in the face of this example, but since the globe and the universe beyond are curved, the fifth or parallel postulate brings Euclidean infallibility under question. If Euclid falls, the Catechism might also tumble, along with the old beliefs of objective reality based on visual observation. In 1795, John Playfair’s version of the Euclid clarified the fifth postulate, further tarnishing objective reality (Rice 19).

Before the 1880s, Positivism demanded visual observation for a theory to be credible. When Positivism began to teeter, thinkers questioned Newtonian laws about gravity and motion for the first time. Elsewhere, French mathematician and theorist Poincaré made the outrageous declaration: “Geometry is not true, it is advantageous.” He argued against the convenience of three-dimensional Positivism and proposed that a geometry can function for any number of dimensions. That Euclidean geometry was not a unique, inevitable, and absolute truth about the world came as a stunning blow (Rice 53). 

As this unfolded, Cézanne in graphic arts was experimenting with spatial ambiguity. He experimented with “fusing planes and integrated objects and space” (Miller 5). In reaction against the Positivism philosophers Comte and Mach, a trend toward “idealism” emerged led by Henrí Bergson. He claimed that perceptions were unreliable and that humanity could be productively unconscious, anti-logical, and intuitive (Miller 23-24). An onslaught of unobservable products of 19th Century science supported the claim. The wireless telegraph and the telephone shook public belief in the simplicity of Positivism. Radioactivity and the electron followed. X-rays revealed the invisible. In 1906, Roentgeon reported rats could be sterilized by radioactivity and rats embryos killed. In every case, there were presumed effects, but some scientific minds were now “believing without seeing.”

Until then, only Rosicrucian mystics accepted that unseen forces were part of objective reality. The poet Apollinaire from Picasso’s clutch in Paris believed this (Miller 27). Picasso began a series of Harlequin paintings, including self-portraits. The Harlequin, Miller believes, was the symbol of the new scientist and artist, free to imagine without the burden of direct visual evidence.

The overturned perfection of Euclidean geometry, linked by Augustine and Aquinas to the Catechism, threatened all the certainty built up over 1500 years. The scientific world could now consider whether Newton was not completely right. This also meant serious thinkers could now endure Einstein’s ideas of 1905, although there was no evidence beyond thought experiments until 1919. Tutored by Maurice Princet (Miller 100), Picasso used non-Euclidean formulas to design his most revolutionary paintings. James Joyce changed the voice of his novels from the objective to the subjective, unpredictable, engrossing, vacillating, and only sometimes disembodied voice in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Breaks with Naturalism in Literature

During Joyce’s brief stays in Paris, he may have encountered some readers, writers, and artists who later frequented the Steins’ salon or Picasso’s informal assemblages in his shabby digs dubbed Bateau Lavoir. Picasso and Joyce later connected only through a second-degree of separation with the Steins. Joyce and Einstein never met, missing each other in Zurich by a year. And Joyce’s connection to the avantGarde writers of the Paris Vortex was only later. During his first stay, Joyce suffered too much from poverty, hunger, and dental anguish to be much involved with the intellectual discourse of the city. During his second 1903 sojourn, he mainly cafe-ed with the ex-patriots of all nations. There were no notable literary names except for Synge’s (Ellmann 120). But before 1904, the battle over Euclidean infallibility was already raging. H.G. Wells had written about the fourth dimension, and Wilde alluded to it. Thomas Smith (previously mentioned) and Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) defended Euclidean perfection. Bertrand Russell at first defended Euclid and then reconsidered. Poincaré and others attacked without relenting. The opening of the fourth dimension, spacetime, would require the acceptance of fourth-dimensional or non-Euclidean geometry, causing the triangle of certainty (The Catechism- Euclidean Geometry-Positivism) to collapse.

Joyce’s Jesuit education taught him to apply mathematical approaches to writing. In literary style, young Joyce was drawn to Zola (Miller, 177). Having lost his intellectual foundations of an objective, observable certainty as Euclidean Positivism began to tumble, Joyce also saw the erosion of religious dogma since the Catechism had been lashed to geometry by Plato/Augustine and Aristotle/Aquinas (Rice 23). Writing Stephen Hero, Joyce continued to create with the voice of a Naturalist’s narrator who relied on observable phenomenon. Meanwhile, however, Einstein was beginning to convince the scientific world that intuition without visual evidence can offer insights that Positivism would deny. He said: “Great music cannot be ‘created’ any more than great physics can be deduced strictly from experiential data. Some aesthetic sense of the universe is necessary for both” (Miller 186-187).

The openness to change and the acceptance of uncertainty led James Joyce to reconsider what voice a changeable narrator should have in a universe filled with unreliable shapes and misunderstood motion. James told Stanislaus in Ellmann’s re-telling that “our maturity is an extension of our childhood.” Stannie recorded that in the first draft of A Portrait, Joyce thought of a man’s character as developing “from an embryo” with constant traits (Ellmann 296). “His decision to rewrite Stephen Hero as A Portrait in five chapters occurred appropriately just after Lucia’s birth” (Ellmann 296). The new design builds with ontological change and uncertainty. “The five-part structure, with climax in the fourth and resolution in the fifth, is that of classical drama, Joyce’s model maybe,” says William York Tindall (59). 

Joyce’s Abandonment of Naturalism and Euclidian Positivism 

Naturalism was an outgrowth of Social Darwinism. It presumed that social conditions, heredity, and environment had an unavoidable influence on human development. Naturalistic writers wrote with highly detailed objective observation. These writers created narrative voices that were comfortable corollaries to the scientific Positivism espoused by Comte. Although the philosopher died in 1857, his influence continued, and Positivism remained dominant until about 1900. Joyce was educated during this time. His artistic model was Naturalist Zola. Then, disillusioned by suspicions about the ineffectiveness of Euclidean geometry, Joyce adapts from the naturalist narration of Stephen Hero to a dual style of Modernist narration. His narrator shifts from an observer to a voice, sometimes disembodied, sometimes Stephen’s, deluded, emotional, drunk, or blind. Joyce’s narrator can spring up on flights of memory triggered by places and objects. Tindall explains: 

The subjective-objective method is the invention of Henry James….Often called “impressionism,” the Jamesian point of view allows the author, at once within his subject and somewhere between it and the audience, to control as he presents the impression of an observer. Not what he observes but the observer observing is the subject and his mind our theater (63). 

Joyce uses places to trigger trace memories and enable travel through time. Returning to Tindall’s observations, a series of key words (such as “apologize”) also repeat as triggers for the narrator’s memory movement across time. According to Ellmann, he also incorporates both anima and animus into the narration. The novel begins with the father and ends in “severance from mother” (Ellmann, 296-297).

Joyce used Euclidean images as representations of mistakes and confusion. Rice notes Joyce’s use of “circle” as a verb. Stephen “timidly circles Monto” (Dublin’s red-light district). He feels threatened when “goatish creatures move in slow circles, circling closer and closer.” His responsibilities for the salvation of his soul “circled about its own centre of spiritual energy.” The circle or its inconstancy under non-Euclidean geometry became symbols of fear or entrapment. Rice also mentions that Stephen is elbowed into a “square ditch,” that ditch being the cesspit. The change in focus from single objective narrator to dual narrator and subjective voice is a substitution of an ellipse for a circle (Rice 74-79).

Tindall points out that religion offers no haven from discord either. Religion fails to bring peace and goodwill to a bittered Christmas dinner, neither does it prevent an unjust pandying by Father Dolan. That injustice is reported amusing to the Jesuits (56-57). 


Ezra Pound embraced A Portrait  under “pressure from Hulme and [Wyndham] Lewis.” They believed the novel would lead to the abandonment of the “objectivity of works of art” (Ellmann 351). Rice thinks the novel succeeded because it is “a thoroughly non-Euclidean novel in form and subject” (54). A contemporary editorial in New Freewoman praised it for “describing a man as he feels himself instead of in the terms of the physical image he presents to sight…” (Ellmann 352-353). None of these fully explain the leap made with this novel. In attempting to explain the phenomenon, Kenner said: “…it is now possible to explain to people why they can’t sail directly from Naturalism to Joyceland across the Freudian Sea” (144); Ellmann added:” We are still learning to be James Joyce’s contemporaries” (3).

There are three artifacts Dedalus creates in the novel that you might find also show the development of this creation in a post-Euclidean, uncertain, and curved universe. Firstly is the expanding location Stephen logs on the flyleaf of his Geography:

Stephen Dedalus

Class of Elements

Clongowes Wood College


County Kildare



The World

The Universe (Joyce 15-16)

Secondly, formulas open and expand while he attempts to comprehend. The first “began to spread out a widening tail, eyed and starred like a peacock’s; and, when the eyes and stars of its indices had been eliminated, began slowly to fold itself together again. The indices appearing and disappearing were eyes opening and closing; the eyes opening and closing were stars being born and being quenched” (Joyce 106).

[This noted by Tindall “Stephen’s first equation, like the vast cycle of stars, bears his mind outward and inward to the accompaniment of ‘distant music'” (81).]

And thirdly, that the novel concludes with diary entries. These are perfect forms of combined objectivity and subjectivity, the solution(s) to the equation modernity seeks to solve (Joyce 252-257).


Works Cited

Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1983, pp. 3–7., 292-299, 339-356.

Joyce, James, and Richard D. Brown. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Alfred A. Kopf, 1991. 

Kenner, Hugh. “‘Remember That I Have Remembered.'” Gnomon, McDowell, Obolensky, New York, 1958, pp. 144–161. 

Miller, Arthur I. Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time and the Beauty That Causes Havoc. BasicBooks, 2002. 

Rice, Thomas Jackson. Joyce, Chaos, and Complexity. University of Illinois Press, 1997. 

Tindall, William Y. “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” A Reader’s Guide to James Joyce, Noonday Press, New York, 1963, pp. 50–100. 

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