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.