A Portrait of the Artist…, 100 years on: Joyce and the emergence of Modernism
2017 marks the centenary of the UK publication of a milestone in modernist literature. James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man shattered many preconceptions of what a novel should be, combining ideas about national identity, the life of the mind and the essence of literature itself in a way that arguably redefined fiction in the English language.
Utilising the established ‘Bildungsroman’ form, Joyce ruminated on the importance of language and personhood in a work that still demands attention a hundred years on, and without which an understanding of the author’s towering legacy is incomplete. Seamus Deane captured the magnitude of its influence when he said of the novel’s protagonist, Stephen, that, ‘he is leaving behind not only Ireland but also the nineteenth-century novel and its elaborate apparatus for the siting and description of character’.
How does the novel’s reputation – and that of literary modernism – hold up today? Have experiments with the novel form been exhausted, and has literature lost some of its cultural impact as a result? And what of the persistent theme of national and personal identity in the novel – does it still have the power to move the twenty-first-century reader at a time when national identity is just one of many ways individuals define themselves?