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Religion in James Joyce's a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

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Religion and Its Effect on Stephen Dedalus

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




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