Portrait Of The Artist As A Young


Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man Essay, Research Paper

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


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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