By Thomas Andrews

James Joyce with bookseller Sylvia Beach and poet Adrienne Monnier at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, 1920 (via Wikipedia)

By now, most people who have read James Joyce’s work or studied him at even the most cursory level will have come across the dirty letters he wrote to his wife, Nora Barnacle. Joyce’s literary abilities were employed to their fullest when he wrote about his fetishes for anal sex, flatulence and scatology, but this was kept out of the public eye until 1975, when the letters were published.

Yet even before the publication of Selected Letters of James Joyce, the author’s presentation of Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and central character of Ulysses (1922), can be recognized as a semi-autobiographical veil for his sexual confessions.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (via Penguin Books Australia)

In his essay on A Portrait, author James T. Farrell refers to Stephen as “an artistic image of Joyce himself,” and indeed the progression of Stephen’s life in some ways follows Joyce’s. The character's experiences with family, boarding school and Catholicism all include moments plucked from the author's actual life. They mirror each other so closely, in fact, that when discussing Stephen and Joyce, many critics (e.g. Declan Kiberd, Steven Connor, Seamus Deane) refer to both with a single phrase: “Joyce-Stephen” or “Stephen-Joyce.” Thus, the sexual behavior that the character engages in can be viewed in reference to the writer's own.

It was never Joyce’s intention to have his letters to Nora reach readers’ hands, but perhaps A Portrait includes everything he’d ever want to admit. Throughout the novel, Stephen struggles to deal with his less-than-socially-acceptable desires. After confessing to his friend Davin that he has been writing sexual fantasies on pieces of paper and hiding them in public places, the latter replies, “When you told me that night in Harcourt street those things about your private life, honest to God, Stevie, I was not able to eat my dinner. I was quite bad. I was awake a long time that night. Why did you tell me those things?”

Joyce refrains from offering readers the same disturbing insight into Stephen’s private life, but after reading the author’s letters to his wife, one can imagine. More significant — at least in terms of literature, if not gossip — is the idea that A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is Joyce’s confession, written on pieces of paper, “hidden” in public.

Thomas Andrews is writing as much as he can and calling it a job. He just finished his master’s at University of St. Andrews in Scotland and is heading to Dubai to teach for a few years. When he’s not playing golf or skiing, he’s probably playing music and feeling bad for not writing. Modernism is his field, and William Butler Yeats is the man.

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