"Out of Mere Words": Linguistic Placement, Displacements, and Replacements in A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man
Barchet, Alexander W.
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James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, while seemingly simple both thematically and structurally, is a deceptively complex novel which embodies the major development in Joyce’s fiction— Joyce’s movement past realism and into modernism. When reading Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, readers are painfully aware that language, philosophy, and references are functioning at a level above their, and usually the characters’, understandings. In contrast, Portrait is almost universally relatable. Due to its episodic construction, as well as the fact that the narrative focuses initially on Stephen as a child, Portrait exhibits some of Joyce’s most insightful observations about the shifting nature of language as well as how it functions on a societal level. Through parallel incidents in each of Portrait’s five chapters, Joyce shows the tendency of people and institutions to “displace” Stephen through language. Which in this case is meant to indicate an attempt to position Stephen, either consciously or unconsciously, through language or to place him in a certain role, the good Catholic, the good Irishman, the good son, the artist. Displacements may be thought of as a type of mental or psychological shift, which generally takes the form of a hallucination, a nightmare, or a contemplative daydream. Following these displacements, Joyce shows how Stephen uses language to reposition, or “replace” himself. Essentially, after being displaced, Stephen attempts to return to his previously held belief, although he often finds it insufficient. Stephen must subsequently modify his position in order to accommodate the new information, interactions, and understandings that he acquires.