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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 evidencedby 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.
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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 naiveté 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.
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: New American Library, 1991.