December 19, 2000
Acclaimed Irish author, James Joyce, uses conflict as a major tool in enhancing his novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. One of the best illustrations of how conflict is used to give life and color to the novel, is the conflict between Stephen Dedalus’s loyalty to the church, and his own need to satisfy his carnal desires, and even more than that, Stephen’s need to be an individual, and not conform to the standards of the church and society. The reader watches Stephen grow and change from his first sexual encounter, through his intense guilt and suffering, and finally to the time he relieves himself of his guilt by confessing his misdeed to the kindly priest. Joyce demonstrates how Stephen is affected by his actions, and how his actions change him into the man he will become.
Stephen’s first sexual encounter is one of the most important formative events in his life, as well as one of the most vital elements of the novel. His night with the prostitute is the pivotal event that sets the stage for the rest of the story. These events cause him to reevaluate his faith in the church, and his feelings about himself. After Stephen first commits the sin of fornication, he is torn between feelings of intense guilt and extreme pride. He believes himself to be so wicked that he is beyond the realm of forgiveness. In fact, he wishes damnation upon himself, so great is his self recrimination.
“Devotion had gone by the board. What did it avail to pray when he knew his soul lusted after its own destruction? A certain pride, a certain awe, withheld him from offering to God even one prayer at night though he knew it was in God’s power to take his life while he slept and hurl his soul hellward ere he could beg for mercy. His pride in his own sin, his loveless awe of God, told him that his offence was too grievous to be atoned for in whole or in part by a false homage to the Allseeing and Allknowing.” (73)
While Stephen feels as though he should desire forgiveness or redemption for his sin, he still feels “a cold lucid indifference… in his soul”.(73) At times it troubles Stephen to be oblivious to the prospect of eternal damnation, therefore causing him to question the truthfulness of the Church’s teachings. Outwardly, the effects of his sinfulness affect him in other ways. He has no appetite for food, and feels that his lust has led him to become infected by anger, pride, and slothfulness. The uneasiness Stephen feels at this time is the first step toward his realizations regarding the church and himself.
The next segment of Stephen’s growth takes place during the school’s three-day-long religious retreat. When the rector first makes the announcement regarding the retreat, Stephen finds the very prospect makes him miserable, as he is still ridden with guilt and self pity over his sexual encounters.
Despite Stephen’s reluctance, he has no choice but to go to the retreat with everyone else. To Stephen’s surprise, it is Father Arnall, his old Latin teacher at Clongowes, that is the featured speaker at the retreat. Father Arnall gives three sermons, depicting Death, Judgement and Hell. Each sermon grips, fascinates, and terrifies Stephen, and it almost seems as though they had been written for him alone. At this time in his life, Stephen is given no frame of reference in which to understand his alarmingly intense new feelings of lust. The only thing he has to compare himself to is the religious ideal of purity proposed by the Catholic Church. The sermons occur at exactly the right moment to shock Stephen from his state of indifference, and into action. Directly after listening to Father Arnall speak, Stephen feels he should repent of his sins, but feels to ashamed to confess to the priest. As he tries to sleep, he is haunted by images of monstrous creatures filling the depths of Hell. The intensely painted images used in the sermons appeal to Stephen in such a way that he is suddenly, desperate to confess and be delivered from his sorrows. After he finally finds a church and confesses to the priest, he is so grateful to be released from the chains of guilt, that consumed him. The relief Stephen finds causes him to once again evaluate his life. In his euphoric state, Stephen feels as though he should dedicate his existence to paying homage and giving thanks to the Lord for his forgiveness. He literally feels on top of the world’.
“He knelt to say his penance, praying in a corner of the dark nave: and his prayers ascended to heaven from his purified heart like perfume streaming upwards from a heart of a white rose. The muddy streets were gay as he strode homeward, conscious of an invisible grace pervading and making light his limbs. In spite of all he had done it. He had confessed and God had pardoned him. His soul was made fair and holy once more, holy and happy.” (103-104)
And so ends the second segment in Stephen’s discovery about his dedication to the church and about himself. Father Arnall’s sermons evoked a tremendous fear into Stephen, and it is largely this terror, rather than true faith, that caused him to confess. His fear causes his inner guilt to explode to an almost unbearable level. The other part of Stephen’s religious awakening is a desire for the world to make sense. At this point in his young life, Stephen is being bombarded from both sides by opposite ideals, one side being the church, the other being society and politics. In embracing the ways of the church, Stephen hopes to be able to put his life into perspective, and lessen his confusion.
During his time of religious fervor, Stephen devotes himself to purity and piety. His religious diligence is so apparent, that the director of the school speaks to him about the possibility of joining the priesthood. Briefly, Stephen is attracted to the notion. The idea of being able to learn the secrets of both the church and the congregation very much appeals to him, as does the sense of separateness and the beauty of the church and mass itself. However, once Stephen begins to think about it more seriously, he realizes the hardships of religious life, and feels that if he were ever to mess up again, he would be in greater danger of eternal damnation because of his status in the priesthood. The religious fervor that once gripped Stephen begins to burn out as he recognizes his growing doubts about the church, and acknowledges his desire for independence. It seems that the harder he tries to discipline his feelings and conform with the moral expecatations of the church, the more he’s denying his true character. Once Stephen realizes this, he decides he no longer wants to live a lie. A short time after his meeting with the priest, Stephen sees a young girl standing on the beach, and is entranced by her beauty. This encounter is one of Stephen’s greatest epiphanies. Watching the girl, he has a moment of profound insight. He ceases to feel shame for feeling drawn to her beauty, and feels called to experience life to it’s fullest.
“Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy. Her eyes had called him and his soul had leaped at the call. To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life. A wild angel had appeared to him, the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!” (123)
Watching her, Stephen realizes that he is not inherently wicked or sinful, as he had previously imagined. Rather, he sees himself as normal young man, who can appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the things surrounding him without it being shameful or wrong. Compared to this new revelation, the Church seems eerie and unnatural, full of hypocrites who are so wrapped up in sin and darkness, they can’t see the splendor that surrounds them. Stephen’s comparison reinforces his previous decision not to join the priesthood. Upon seeing this girl, Stephen is moved to break away from the nets that are holding him down. Suddenly, Stephen is compelled to go on with life with the upmost zeal and be who he wants to be.
“He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and wilful and wild hearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the sea harvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight and gayclad lightclad figures of children and girls and voices childish and girlish in the air.” (122-123)
He no longer feels compelled to conform to the church, his family, or society in general. Stephen wants to be his own person, and he is determined that no one will stand in his way. Stephen has come to the end of his journey, and though it started out in misery and guilt, at last he feels free to be the person he wants to become.
Throughout four chapters of this classic novel, readers are able to watch Stephen grow and change, from an awkward boy-man, confused and guilty in his religion and newfound sexuality, to a self assured young man, ready to go out and live his life as he sees fit. It’s a remarkable change to witness. Stephen starts out his journey by committing a sin that he can’t forgive himself of, and then, by way of trial and error, finds for himself his true calling in life. He discovers that he is not meant to live a life of ceaseless piety, but rather one of joy and happiness, a life where he can appreciate and express the beauty of the world around him. By the end of Stephen’s journey, he no longer is tied down by the rules of the Catholic church, or by his family. Now he can spread his wings and fly.