Like his protagonist, James Joyce was an Irish Catholic. He was also sent to Clongowes Wood College to board and study as a young
boy. In effect the story is in part an autobiography of Joyce’s own life up to the age of twenty or so (Kershner 6). In his essay A Portrait as Rebellion Norman Holland states: Because of Portrait’s peculiar combination of novel and autobiography, I feel called upon to see Joyce’s schoolfellows in two ways at once. They are characters in a novel, bigger than life, and they are real people like me and
my school and college pals. (280)
The Catholic religion is a significant and recurring theme in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Though brought up in the church, several major events lead Stephen to defy the lessons of his Catholic school education and choose a life of his own, the life of an artist. Through his experiences with religion, Stephen Dedalus both matures and gradually discovers an identity of his own.
As a young boy, religion is crucial to Stephen’s life. Stephen was reared in a strict Catholic family. The demand for compliance placed on Stephen shapes his life early at Clongowes, a preparatory school run by the Jesuit order. Even as he is adhering to the principles of his Catholic school upbringing, he becomes increasingly disillusioned. Even though Joyce spoke warmly of his own experiences at
Clongowes he portrays a different, almost opposite experience for Stephen (Kershner 4). Formerly above reproach or distrust, the priests become symbols of narrow-mindedness and repression in Stephen’s mind. Father Dolan, in particular, whose abusive and humiliating statements along with the frequent floggings, personifies the sort of demeanor Stephen begins to associate with his Catholic teachers. Joyce himself admits that he was punished at Clongowes, however, for indiscretions that justly deserved punishment. Stephen, though, is often portrayed as being punished unjustly (Kershner 4). Stephen’s self discovery highlights complaints to the rector about the actions of Father Dolan. As Stephen matures, he becomes ever more rebellious and disillusioned with religion. He begins to feel lost and forlorn. His main concern now becomes one of pleasing his friends and family. This feeling of loss and loneliness along with his hunger to be loved is what inevitably leads to Stephen’s tryst with a prostitute. These sinful encounters eventually cause Stephen to feel extreme guilt and a more profound sense of loneliness.
The state of affairs surrounding Stephens life cause him to
re-examine his existence. His lost faith is abruptly restored after his confession at Church Street Chapel, and he begins to lead a life nearly as pious as that of his Jesuit teachers. As his life grows towards a more devout ideal it occurs to him that he can never be perfect nor live the sinless life of the Jesuit. When he is offered a position as a priest the memories of his sinful past begin to haunt him. He wonders how he will pass the first night in the novitiate and with what dread he would awake with the first morning in the dormitory.
While strolling on the beach one day Stephen observes a woman
walking in the distance. Apparently he watches her with lust in his
heart, since he comes to the conclusion that because of his former
corrupt past he would never be able to talk to her in the role of a
priest. This realization convinces Stephen to again forsake religion.
He turns and runs from the woman and in effect runs from religion and
into a new life of freedom. Stephen decides to become an artist.
Suzette Henke observes in her critique Stephen Dedalus and Women:
A Feminist Reading of Portrait:
Through Portrait, Stephen manifests a psychological horror
of woman as a figure of immanence, a symbol of unsettling
sexual difference, and a perpetual reminder of bodily
abjection. At the conclusion of chapter five, he prepares to
flee from all the women who have served as catalysts in his
own adolescent development. His journey into exile will
release him from what he perceives as a cloying matriarchal
Stephen’s life as an artist is a secluded search for identity.
Stephen’s mind rarely dwells on religion at this point in time. He
spends most of his time composing his theses on art, aesthetic beauty,
ideal pity and ideal terror. While these theses are significant to the continuity of the novel, Joyce does not reintroduce religion until close to the end of the novel.
Stephen is trying to make a life for himself by surrounding
himself with beautiful thoughts and images. Cranly, a friend of
Stephen’s, seeing this as pure foolishness cautiously tries to instill
religion back into Stephen’s life. Stephen reacts to Cranly’s proddings by denouncing religion bitterly and with much sarcasm. This
confrontation with Cranly gives rise to Stephen’s ultimate break with
Stephen’s life in Ireland appears to be vacuous towards the end. In response to the question of whether he loves his mother, Stephen says, “I don’t know what your words mean.” Here Joyce is indicating the lack of love in Stephen’s life, a lack that resulted in Stephen turning his back on religion. Joyce appears to be implying there can be no true feeling or outlet for these feelings without religion.
Stephen’s turning away from religion is significant to his
development as an artist. As he loses his innocence and learns to
distrust a doctrinal society, he rejects religion and society in order to become the artist. It is here he finds his identity.
Henke, Suzette. Stephen Dedalus and Women: A feminist Reading of
Portrait. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: James Joyce.
Ed. R.B.Kershner. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press,
Holland, Norman N. “A Portrait as Rebellion.” A Portrait of the Artist
as a Young man: James Joyce. Ed. R.B. Kershner. Boston:
Bedford Books ofSt. Martin’s Press,1993. 279-294.
Kershner, R.B. Introduction. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:
James Joyce. Ed. R.B. Kershner. Boston: Bedford Books of St.
Martin’s Press, 1993. 1-18.