Portrait Of The Artist As Young Man

Religion is an important and recurring theme in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the
Artist as a Young Man. Through his experiences with religion, Stephen Dedalus
both matures and progressively becomes more individualistic as he grows. Though
reared in a Catholic school, several key events lead Stephen to throw off the
yoke of conformity and choose his own life, the life of an artist. Religion is
central to the life of Stephen Dedalus the child. He was reared in a strict, if
not harmonious, Catholic family. The severity of his parents, trying to raise
him to be a good Catholic man, is evidenced by statements such as, “Pull
out his eyes/ Apologise/ Apologise/ Pull out his eyes.” This strict
conformity shapes Stephen’s life early in boarding school. Even as he is
following the precepts of his Catholic school, however, a disillusionment
becomes evident in his thoughts. The priests, originally above criticism or
doubt in Stephen’s mind, become symbols of intolerance. Chief to these thoughts
is Father Dolan, whose statements such as, “Lazy little schemer. I see
schemer in your face,” exemplify the type of attitude Stephen begins to
associate with his Catholic teachers. By the end of Chapter One, Stephen’s
individualism and lack of tolerance for disrespect become evident when he
complains to the rector about the actions of Father Dolan. His confused attitude
is clearly displayed by the end of the chapter when he says, “He was happy
and free: but he would not be anyway proud with Father Dolan. He would be very
kind and obedient: and he wished that he could do something kind for him to show
him that he was not proud.” Stephen still has respect for his priests, but
he has lost his blind sense of acceptance. As Stephen grows, he slowly but
inexorably distances himself from religion. His life becomes one concerned with
pleasing his friends and family. However, as he matures he begins to feel lost
and hopeless, stating, “He saw clearly too his own futile isolation. He had
not gone one step nearer the lives he had sought to approach nor bridged the
restless shame and rancor that divided him from mother and brother and
sister.” It is this very sense of isolation and loneliness that leads to
Stephen’s encounter with the prostitute, where, “He wanted to sin with
another of his kind, to force another being to sin with him and to exult with
her in sin.” He wants to be loved, but the nearest thing he can find is
prostitution. In the aftermath of this encounter and the numerous subsequent
encounters, a feeling of guilt and even more pronounced loneliness begins to
invade Stephen’s being. Chapter Three represents the turning point of the novel,
for here Stephen turns his life around. After the sermon on sin and hell,
Stephen examines his soul and sees the shape it is in, wondering, “Why was
he kneeling there like a child saying his evening prayers? To be alone with his
soul, to examine his conscience, to meet his sins face to face, to recall their
times and manners and circumstances, to weep over them.” Religion pushes
its way suddenly and unexpectedly back into Stephen’s life. After his confession
at the end of Chapter Three, he begins to lead a life nearly as devout as that
of his Jesuit teachers and mentors. Even as he leads this life, however, shades
of his former self are obliquely evident through statements such as, “This
idea had a perilous attraction for his mind now that he felt his soul beset once
again by the insistent voices of the flesh which began to murmur to him again
during his prayers and meditations.” Here it is evident that, even as his
life becomes more and more devout, he can never lead the perfect and sinless
life of the Jesuit. The offer of a position as a priest is met by memories of
his childhood at Clongowes and thoughts such as, “He wondered how he would
pass the first night in the novitiate and with what dismay he would wake the
first morning in the dormitory.” Stephen realizes that the clerical collar
would be too tight for him to wear. A walk on the beach confirms this thought in
Stephen’s mind through the statement, “Heavenly God! cried Stephen’s soul
in an outburst of profane joy.” The sight of a woman and the knowledge
that, as a priest, he could not even talk to her, finally convinces Stephen to
abandon religion. His running escape from the woman also symbolizes his run from
religion and restriction, a run to freedom, to the life of an artist. The life
of an artist is one of individuality and solitude, both of which Stephen
exhibits in the final chapter. Religion is the last thing on Stephen’s mind as
he formulates his theses on art, aesthetic beauty, ideal pity and ideal terror.


While these theses are important to the continuity of the novel, religion does
not resurface until much later. Near the end of the novel, Cranly sees the folly
of the life Stephen is trying to make for himself. He is surrounding himself
with beautiful thoughts and images, but these images will not hold him later in
life. Realizing such, Cranly gently tries to push religion back into Stephen’s
life, stating, “Do you not fear that those words may be spoken to you on
the day of judgment?” This question, however, is met by the rebuke,
“What is offered me on the other hand?…An eternity of bliss in the
company of the dean of studies?” Stephen’s bitterly sarcastic denunciation
of the religious life represents a final break from all religion. The end of
Stephen’s life in Ireland rings hollow, for this exchange shows the emptiness he
has to show for it. In response to the question of whether he loves his mother,
Stephen says, “I don’t know what your words mean.” This statement
shows the lack of love in Stephen’s life that results from the absence of
religion, for without religion there can be no true feeling or outlet for these
feelings. While Stephen eventually turns away from religion, it is an important
facet in his development as an artist. Religion, originally one of the
“nets” by which he flies, leads to the loss of his naivet and later
to his disillusionment with a conformist society as a whole. Stephen’s thoughts
are too independent and liberal for his contemporaries, and thus it is
inevitable that he will cast away his nets, reject society, and become an
artist. Religion disturbs, shapes, and finally changes Stephen for good. While
religion leads to an artistic and lonely life, Stephen can never totally break
from his family or need for companionship. At the close of the novel he says,
“Old father, old artificer, stand by me now and ever in good stead,”
belying the fact that no matter how independent Stephen becomes, no man can be
an island.

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