Stephen’s Relationship With Religion in Joyce’s ‘Portrait of an Artist As a Young Man’

Stephen Dedalus is a young man lost in the world; he spends the majority of his life in religious schools, divorced and detached from his family and his parents. The heads of the schools, the Fathers, become his real fathers. When in college, he remembers not his family but “Father Arnell… at Clongowes”, and his soul becomes “again a child’s soul” (116). His most prevalent memory in his childhood is the church, and religion becomes his parents. The Church’s teachings have been pressed so thoroughly into his mind that they become his identity. However, at the end of chapter three he begins to slide into a life of sin, and he begins to detach himself from the church. He resents the “dull piety and sickly smell.. the hypocrisy of others”, language that echoes his thoughts towards his real parents in later chapters (111). His break from the church mirrors the typical adolescent rebellion from a normal family. Instead of typical forms of rebellion, Stephen’s show of solidarity comes in the form of continual sins that shame him so thoroughly that he cannot imagine returning even if he had wanted, destroying his last parental figure. The void left by his lack of parental authority drives him to an infantile state and to the whorehouse, where he asks his prostitute to “hold him in her arms” like a child (107).

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However, through a mixture of threats and promises of salvation, the preacher’s sermon encourages Stephen to atone for his sin and rejoin God, Stephen’s father, and the Virgin Mary, Stephen’s mother. Before, after disregarding the Church, Stephen attempted to follow the example of his biological father (who was known to be somewhat of a ladies’ man). Stephen leaves the most controlling structure in his life in order to attempt to forge his own separate identity as a thinker and an artist. He believes that sin and rebellion will “transfigure” him (61). Once he realizes his sin, however, he thinks himself “not worthy to be called God’s child”, and wraps himself in blankets as if he is a child hiding from the eye of an angry parent (148). He then confesses to a Father, who he equates with God, his heavenly father. The Virgin Mary follows his image of the perfect woman – though he shuns all those in church, the image of her “held his soul captive”, for she represents the ultimate woman, the perpetual mother, who he is not angry at but ashamed in front of (112).

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Source by Fiona F Fimmel

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