Point of View | A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Just as the literary style of Portrait of the Artist is more subtle and in some ways more difficult than that of traditional novels, so is the novel’s point of view. Portrait of the Artist is, in general, an example of a third-person, limited omniscient narrative. Stephen Dedalus doesn’t tell his story himself. But in general, we perceive only what he perceives. We don’t enter other characters’ minds. Only occasionally—as at the Christmas dinner scene, or during the trip to Cork with Simon Dedalus— do we even hear or see other characters who haven’t been completely filtered through Stephen’s perceptions.
Indeed, the book focuses so closely on Stephen and takes us so. Deeply into his mind, that at times it resembles a first-person narrative. In fact, however, the book is a little trickier than that. If Portrait of the Artist were a first-person narrative, or a traditional third-person, limited omniscient narrative, it would be difficult for us to get outside of Stephen. We would see him only as he sees himself. We could judge him only as he judges himself. But that isn’t what happens.
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First, Joyce very occasionally lets us step outside of Stephen’s consciousness. For example, at the end of the Christmas dinner scene, we are told that Stephen raises “his terror-stricken face.” Stephen, of course, can’t see his own face while sitting at the dinner table—but by taking us outside Stephen for this instant, Joyce emphasizes the impact the vicious argument has had upon the young boy.
More subtly, and more frequently, Joyce lets us stand just slightly outside Stephen—in this way giving us the distance we need to judge him—through the language he uses to describe Stephen’s thoughts. For example, in Chapter Two, Stephen dreams of finding ‘in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld. …. They would meet quietly as if they had known each other and had made their tryst … and at that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured.” Some readers feel such sentences are merely accurate descriptions of Stephen’s thoughts; they feel that since Stephen approves of his own thoughts, Joyce does too. But many other readers feel that Joyce has purposely laid it on a little too thick here, and in many other parts of the book. They feel the language, he uses to express Stephen’s thoughts is purposely a little too “poetic,” because Stephen himself is a little too poetic. He takes himself, his art, and his rebellion too seriously. Even the famous lines — “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”
Can be taken as a brave vow or as an eloquent-sounding but hollow promise that Stephen won’t be able to fulfill. In these ways, language in Portrait of the Artists becomes closely connected to point of view. We are inside Stephen’s mind, yet Joyce’s language may put us slightly outside it as well.