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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Conflicting Desires within a Doctrine

In the story, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, written by James Joyce, the main character Stephen Dedalus has many encounters with women. Women and sexuality are major influences on Stephen’s adolescent life. Another major factor that has an influence on Stephen’s life is the Church. Women and sexuality conflict with the Church and its beliefs, and that is one of Stephen’s major problems thus far. Stephen is having a very big identity crisis, from being a God fearing Catholic to a very hormonal teenager.

As Stephen sits at the “adults” dinner table for the first time, his father, Mr. Casey and Dante are fighting about religion and politics in Ireland. As they are arguing, Stephen’s train of thought leads him to think about Eileen. Eileen Vance was the little girl that Stephen wanted to marry when he was younger. She is described to have ivory hands and golden hair, which confuses Stephen with the phrases, “Tower of Ivory” and “House of Gold” which is part of the Roman Catholic Litany of Our Lady. Later when Stephen is at school, he again thinks about Eileen. Stephen gets his first sensual experience from Eileen when she puts her hand into his pocket and touches his hand.

Stephen gets quite confused with the terms of the Litany of Our Lady so he starts to associate the “Tower of Ivory” and “House of Gold” to Eileen. The way James Joyce describes the scene, “She had put her hand into his pocket where his hand was and he had felt how cool and thin and soft her hand was. “(43) gives the reader the idea that Stephen enjoyed the feeling. The only problem with Eileen was that she was a Protestant and Stephen was a Catholic. Stephen also associates women with the Virgin Mary, who was the mother of Jesus Christ.

He thinks women as pure, just s Mary was and since he already associated the “Tower of Ivory” and “House of Gold” with Eileen, he assumes her to be like the Virgin. Another influence of women in Stephen’s life comes from the story “The Count of Monte Cristo” while reading this story, Stephen starts to fantasize about Mercedes. As he fantasizes, he tries to bring her to life through another girl, known as E. C.. He has many sexual longings for E. C. but can not understand and is frustrated by his feelings. Knowing that his thoughts and his actions “perhaps he had been masturbating” put him into mortal sin, Stephen is very urdened.

Alas, Stephen is overwhelmed by his desires and ends up going to a prostitute. This prostitute is a mix of what he was looking for in a woman, the Mercedes characteristics “she came over to him and embraced him gaily and gravely her arms held him firmly to her”(101) and the motherly/pure characteristics ” she passed her tinkling hand through his hair, calling him a little rascal. “(101). Although Stephen knows that he is sinning he wants to break away somehow from the good of nature and experience what it feels like to be fallen like Adam or Lucifer. When Stephen hears the sermon by Father Arnall, he feels remorseful of his actions.

He thinks that the sermon is totally focused on him. And from hearing this sermon, Stephen decides to change his ways back towards the church. He does such a good job of being “Holy” that he is asked to join the priesthood. But this makes him go on a surge of power hunger. He thinks of all the power and respect he will get if he joins the priesthood and of all the secrets that he will hear of women and girls. This again makes him to think lustfully and makes him sin. He finally decides that instead of entering priesthood, or for that atter, even live a religious life, he would become an artist and free himself from the doctrines of religion.

When Stephen makes this decision, another girl is influential in making this happen. Stephen sees a girl on the beach and he is taken by her physically beauty but also compares her to an “angel of mortal youth and beauty. ” She was what all the girls before her were except more. This girl tells Stephen to go towards art and so that is how he finally decides to lead his life. Stephen has experienced many different feelings that were conflicting ithin him from his own desires to the doctrines of the Catholic Church.

Through out his adolescent life was a roller-coaster of emotions of sexual desires and guilt of having those desires and confusion because of the guilty feelings. A lot of the confusion, stems from the absence of a strong recognition of his own self. He was always confused with his feelings and what he thought the church expected him to feel. However, in the end, he seems to have figured out what he wanted through another desire, so I wonder if he will actually achieve what he wants to or will he fail and become confused again.

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