As A Young Man. Religion and Its Effect on Stephen DedalusReligion is an important and recurring theme in James Joyce’s APortrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Through his experiences withreligion, Stephen Dedalus both matures and progressively becomes moreindividualistic as he grows. Though reared in a Catholic school, severalkey events lead Stephen to throw off the yoke of conformity and choosehis own life, the life of an artist. Religion is central to the life of Stephen Dedalus the child. He wasreared in a strict, if not harmonious, Catholic family.
The severity ofhis parents, trying to raise him to be a good Catholic man, is evidencedby statements such as, “Pull out his eyes/ Apologise/ Apologise/ Pullout his eyes. ” This strict conformity shapes Stephen’s life early inboarding school. Even as he is following the precepts of his Catholicschool, however, a disillusionment becomes evident in his thoughts. Thepriests, originally above criticism or doubt in Stephen’s mind, becomesymbols of intolerance. Chief to these thoughts is Father Dolan, whosestatements such as, “Lazy little schemer.Order now
I see schemer in your face,”exemplify the type of attitude Stephen begins to associate with hisCatholic teachers. By the end of Chapter One, Stephen’s individualismand lack of tolerance for disrespect become evident when he complains tothe rector about the actions of Father Dolan. His confused attitude isclearly displayed by the end of the chapter when he says, “He was happyand free: but he would not be anyway proud with Father Dolan. He wouldbe very kind and obedient: and he wished that he could do something kindfor him to show him that he was not proud.
” Stephen still has respectfor his priests, but he has lost his blind sense of acceptance. As Stephen grows, he slowly but inexorably distances himself fromreligion. His life becomes one concerned with pleasing his friends andfamily. However, as he matures he begins to feel lost and hopeless,stating, “He saw clearly too his own futile isolation.
He had not goneone step nearer the lives he had sought to approach nor bridged therestless shame and rancor that divided him from mother and brother andsister. ” It is this very sense of isolation and loneliness that leads toStephen’s encounter with the prostitute, where, “He wanted to sin withanother of his kind, to force another being to sin with him and to exultwith her in sin. ” He wants to be loved, but the nearest thing he canfind is prostitution. In the aftermath of this encounter and thenumerous subsequent encounters, a feeling of guilt and even morepronounced loneliness begins to invade Stephen’s being. Chapter Threerepresents the turning point of the novel, for here Stephen turns hislife around. After the sermon on sin and hell, Stephen examines his souland sees the shape it is in, wondering, “Why was he kneeling there likea child saying his evening prayers? To be alone with his soul, toexamine his conscience, to meet his sins face to face, to recall theirtimes and manners and circumstances, to weep over them.
” Religion pushesits way suddenly and unexpectedly back into Stephen’s life. After hisconfession at the end of Chapter Three, he begins to lead a life nearlyas devout as that of his Jesuit teachers and mentors. Even as he leadsthis life, however, shades of his former self are obliquely evidentthrough statements such as, “This idea had a perilous attraction for hismind now that he felt his soul beset once again by the insistent voicesof the flesh which began to murmur to him again during his prayers andmeditations. ” Here it is evident that, even as his life becomes more andmore devout, he can never lead the perfect and sinless life of theJesuit. The offer of a position as a priest is met by memories of hischildhood at Clongowes and thoughts such as, “He wondered how he wouldpass the first night in the novitiate and with what dismay he would wakethe first morning in the dormitory. ” Stephen realizes that the clericalcollar would be too tight for him to wear.
A walk on the beach confirmsthis thought in Stephen’s mind through the statement, “Heavenly God!cried Stephen’s soul in an outburst of profane joy. ” The sight of awoman and the knowledge that, as a priest, he could not even talk toher, finally convinces Stephen to abandon religion. His running escapefrom the woman also symbolizes his run from religion and restriction, arun to freedom, to the life of an artist. The life of an artist is one of individuality and solitude, both ofwhich Stephen exhibits in the final chapter. Religion is the last thingon Stephen’s mind as he formulates his theses on art, aesthetic beauty,ideal pity and ideal terror.
While these theses are important to thecontinuity of the novel, religion does not resurface until much later. Near the end of the novel, Cranly sees the folly of the life Stephen istrying to make for himself. He is surrounding himself with beautifulthoughts and images, but these images will not hold him later in life. Realizing such, Cranly gently tries to push religion back into Stephen’slife, stating, “Do you not fear that those words may be spoken to you onthe day of judgment?” This question, however, is met by the rebuke,”What is offered me on the other hand?.
. . An eternity of bliss in thecompany of the dean of studies?” Stephen’s bitterly sarcasticdenunciation of the religious life represents a final break from allreligion. The end of Stephen’s life in Ireland rings hollow, for thisexchange shows the emptiness he has to show for it.
In response to thequestion of whether he loves his mother, Stephen says, “I don’t knowwhat your words mean. ” This statement shows the lack of love inStephen’s life that results from the absence of religion, for withoutreligion there can be no true feeling or outlet for these feelings. While Stephen eventually turns away from religion, it is an importantfacet 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 tohis disillusionment with a conformist society as a whole. Stephen’sthoughts are too independent and liberal for his contemporaries, andthus it is inevitable that he will cast away his nets, reject society,and become an artist.
Religion disturbs, shapes, and finally changesStephen for good. While religion leads to an artistic and lonely life,Stephen can never totally break from his family or need forcompanionship. At the close of the novel he says, “Old father, oldartificer, stand by me now and ever in good stead,” belying the factthat no matter how independent Stephen becomes, no man can be an island.Category: English