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The Antimodernism of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 40, Number 4, Winter 1994
pp. 891-894 | 10.1353/mfs.1994.0041

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Modern Fiction Studies 40.4 (1994) 891-894.

Book Review

Weldon Thornton. The Antimodernism of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1994. xv + 233 pp. $45.00 cloth, $22.50 paper.

One of the promotional "blurbs" on the back of Weldon Thornton's The Antimodernism of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man characterizes it as "original and unconventional" and, at the same time, "controversial." It is, in various respects and at various moments, all of these things, and in some quarters it will almost surely be the last of these -- controversial. A critical work such as this, of course, might ignite controversy for any number of reasons: its argument, for example, might subvert orthodox opinion so radically that it creates waves or incites further discursive skirmishing in the intellectual community to which it is addressed. Or, it might do just the opposite: instead of advancing an emergent or radical reading, its author might quite purposefully retreat to a kind of residual position, basing his or her critical project on long familiar -- and, in some circles, now debatable or even discredited -- interpretive or historical premises. And, as this book suggests, another possibility exists, for in The Antimodernism of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Thornton does a little of both, at times reading Joyce's novel with great insight and, at others, seemingly inviting opposition.

The title of the book begs the question Thornton considers throughout: What is so "antimodern" about Joyce's novel? Several things, it would seem the most significant of which are the depths to which the "Cartesian subject/object dichotomy has penetrated" Stephen Dedalus' psyche and the manner in which Joyce distances himself from or works to dismantle this inherently modernist position. Hence, early in his book Thornton asserts that although the "modernist idea of 'discrete individualism is "undoubtedly a central theme" of Portrait, Joyce's "purpose in the novel is not to celebrate such individualism; on the contrary, it is to show how superficial and insufficient this understanding of the individual psyche is." This is an important point, one that underscores Stephen's "penchant for dichotomizing the world into 'inner' and 'outer"' and unsettles the commonplace critical presumption that Stephen's "aspirations to self-knowledge and self-determination" are identical with Joyce's. From such theses adumbrated in the first half of the book ("Contexts"), Thornton proceeds in the three chapters that constitute the text's second half ("A Portrait of the Artist") to present a deft, sensitive reading of the structures, motifs, and allusions in Portrait that illustrate the "inextricable inter-relatedness of 'individual' and 'social,' conscious and unconscious." Especially valuable, I think, is the chapter on "The Verbal Simulation of Stephen's Psychic Milieu" in which Thornton explores the ways in which Joyce's "distinctive mode of third-person presentation undermines the subject-object distinction that Stephen would read into his experience."

Anyone who teaches Portrait within a larger discussion of point of view and fictional narrative strategies will appreciate Thornton's often subtle unpackings of substantial passages from the novel in which a variety of first- and third-person modes of presentation are combined precisely to blur distinctions between subjective and objective realities. Equally illuminating are the chapters on "Structures" and on "Motif/ Complex/Allusion" in Portrait. In the latter chapter, Thornton's readings of the novel's bird motif and of what he terms Stephen's "Irish shadow" --a "complex" in Stephen's psyche in which the Irish peasantry, Irishness, and the "incompleteness of consciousness" are linked -- have the virtue of uniting significant moments and figures throughout the novel into what is finally a very incisive explication. Again, attentive readers of the last half of The Antimodernism of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man -- and of a brief discussion of the antimodern valences of the Bildungsroman earlier -- will surely return to Joyce's novel better prepared to plumb its depths than they were before. In this way, Thornton's is an "original" and very useful book.

The first half of this text, however, where Thornton endeavors to contextualize his very fine reading of...

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