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“To Thine Own Self Be True”
article [ Books ]
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

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by [lavacaloca ]

2004-03-12  |     | 



James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man provides an introspective exploration of an Irish Catholic upbringing. In this novel, Joyce sets forth the childhood, adolescence and early manhood of his character, Stephen Dedalus. The plot is sustained through Joyce’s masterful use of symbolism and imagery. Joyce travels through Stephen’s mind and soul allowing us to experience his mental and spiritual development while witnessing the physical changes he goes through as he matures, since what transpires inside Stephen’s head is actually more important than what happens in the physical world. The other characters in the novel exist to enhance Stephen’s character and its development in relation to their own singular lack of artistic awareness. As Stephen gets older and more debatable, the other characters become less defined. Stephen struggles with the relationship between spiritual love and physical love. He must sort his physical desires from his spirituality and artistry. Stephen searches for the truth; he does not find it in the history of his nation, Ireland, nor in the rituals and liturgies of a religion, Catholicism, which gives him no comfort.
Though reared in a Catholic school, several key events lead Stephen to throw off
the burden of conformity and choose his own life, the life of an artist. Religion is central to the life of Stephen the child. He is reared in a strict, if not harmonious, Catholic family. The first Christmas dinner Stephen eats at the same table as his parents and their friends, and it is the first time Stephen seems confused. At the Christmas table, Charles Stewart Parnell, a politician who advocates for the rights of the Irish, is discussed, and it is with this first confusing moment that Stephen has to decide whether he agrees with his father and Mr. Casey, or Dante. Mr. Casey criticizes priests and says “a priest ridden Godforsaken race” referring to those who are opposed to Parnell. He says “No God for Ireland! Away with God” and acknowledges Parnell as “my dead king.” Dante, being a former nun, finds what is said by Mr. Casey as blasphemy and leaves the table abruptly. Stephen is beginning to wonder where he stands regarding politics and his religion. Even as he is following the principles of his Catholic school, 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. Stephen's individualism, but lack of tolerance for disrespect, becomes evident when he complains to the rector about the actions of Father Dolan. His confused attitude is clearly displayed 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 the priests, but he has lost his blind sense of acceptance. His fear and respect of the priests diminishes when he realizes they are humans, just like him.
Stephen shows to have peculiar taste in literature, at least according to his schoolmates who do not think it adequate for him to enjoy reading Lord Byron, whom his schoolmates (Boland and Heron) claim to be a heretic. He himself is called a heretic by a teacher, Mr. Tate, for writing “about the Creator and the soul…without the possibility of ever approaching nearer” when his teacher exclaimed “that’s heresy.” As Stephen grows, he slowly but inexorably distances himself from religion.
Stephen like any male teenager at the age of sixteen, struggles with his sexuality. He experiments with prostitutes and masturbation; this of course goes against everything he has been taught to believe in. Stephen encounters his first taste of sin when he has sex with a prostitute, and he describes the experience by saying “It was his own soul going forth to experience, unfolding itself sin by sin…At his first violent sin he had felt a wave of vitality pass out of him and feared to find his body or his soul maimed by the excess.” Later Stephen acknowledges that he has truly sinned and thinks himself to be damned to the fires of hell, “he had sinned mortally not once but many times and he knew that, while he stood in danger of eternal damnation for the first sin alone, by every exceeding sin he multiplies his guilt and his punishment.” For the first time Stephen experiences a true sin, he had lost his innocence in the eyes of God and could only redeem himself by confessing. “His sin, which had covered him from the sight of God, had led him nearer to the refuge of sinners.” Stephen had fallen into a lustful existence, in which pleasure is his religion. Joyce uses this epiphany, a moment of vast revelation for a character, to spark a dramatic change in Stephen. Stephen experiences this epiphany when he finally fully realizes that he has actually had sex with a prostitute, has had lustful thoughts, and has actually sinned. When asking himself if this is really true, “His conscience sighed in answer. Yes, he has done them.” This realization had been brought about by the three-day spiritual retreat he attended in which Father Arnall talks in his sermon about fire, brimstone, sin, and hell, and helps Stephen return temporarily to Church doctrine. The message of hell and sin leads him to dream about what his own personal hell will be like, which drives him to feel more guilt, and to confess at a remote church. His fears of hell make Stephen want to purge himself of all sin and live a spartan lifestyle, thus making his character change from a lustful existence to a religious and pious way of life.
Stephen becomes almost fanatically pious, devoting himself daily to prayer and contemplation of Catholic doctrines. He forces different forms of mortification on himself to punish his five senses. He prays fervently, and attends Mass every day. At times, he is even gripped by a great, spiritual love for God and His Creation. But before long, Stephen’s old ways begin to reassert themselves. He finds it difficult to maintain a state of saintly serenity. If anything, his various methods of self-discipline make him more irritable. “A present feeling of guilt would always be present in him: he would confess and repent and be absolved, confess and repent again and be absolved again, fruitlessly. Perhaps that first hasty confession wrung from him by the fear of hell had not been good? Perhaps, concerned only for his imminent doom, he had not had sincere sorrow for his sin?” Stephen questions if he is truly purged from sin, or if it is all a façade to help himself feel redeemed and innocent again. Having noticed Stephen’s piety and his academic talent, the Director of the school wants Stephen to consider the priesthood. The Director of the school tries to draw Stephen to the calling by describing the incredible responsibility and power of a priest. The idea is not without its appeal, for Stephen as he says “he would know the sins, the sinful longings and sinful thoughts and sinful acts, of others, hearing them murmured into his ears…but rendered immune mysteriously at his ordination.” He thinks about a long life of pondering obscure questions of Catholic doctrine, but in the end realizes that such a life repulses him, for it would be contrary to Stephen’s desire for freedom and independence. On the way home, he sees a tidy shrine to the Virgin, and he smells the faint smell of rotting cabbages coming from the kitchen gardens. “He smiled to think that it was this disorder, the misrule and confusion of his father’s house and the stagnation of vegetable life, which was to win the day in his soul.” He realizes that his soul belongs to this kind of disorder rather than to the tidiness of the shrine to the Virgin. He prefers the worldly smells and sensations of life and living.
When Stephen is taking a walk he encounters some school friends who are swimming, who call out to him by his Greek name “Stephanos.” As they call his name he thinks of the Greek myth’s artificer, Daedalus, who fashioned a pair of waxwings that enabled him to escape from his island prison. As implied in Stephen’s name, which is derived from the first Christian martyr who was stoned to death for preaching the new religion, Stephen must decide if he will be a martyr for his religion or fly away from his circumstances. Joyce uses Daedalus, Stephens’s mythical namesake, as a symbol for what Stephen was born to do, he must escape Ireland, and Catholicism, which constrict his freedom. Stephen is torn between being a true pagan or dying a martyr for his beliefs. As he continues to walk on the beach, he comes across a beautiful girl; the vision of her beauty helps him realize the truth, that beauty is his religion. This epiphany is the revelation Stephen has been awaiting all through his life. From that moment on, Stephen made sure his life went according to his vision of beauty. As Stephen accepts this new truth, about beauty being his religion, he talks to his friends at the university about his aesthetic theory. He takes his friend Cranly aside, and talks to him about how his mother wants him to attend Easter mass, but he cannot see himself conforming to his past beliefs, he must be true to his new ideals. Stephen and Cranly discuss what it is that Stephen actually believes in. Cranly asks Stephen questions to see if he really has renounced his friends and goes to the extreme by saying “Did the idea ever occur to you, that Jesus was not what he pretended to be?” to this Stephen answers that “the first person to whom that idea occurred, was Jesus himself.” Cranly then hardens his speech and says, “…did the idea ever occur to you that he was himself a conscious hypocrite…that he was a blackguard.” Too many, what Cranly said would have been considered blasphemy, including to Stephen, who ask him if he is trying “to make a convert of me or a pervert of yourself?” As the conversation progresses, Cranly is still not convinced that Stephen has really lost his Christian faith, he asks him if he intends to become a protestant, to which Stephen answers “ I said I lost the faith, but not that I had lost self-respect.”
Stephen rejects not only his religion, but he also rejects his family and his fatherland as he says to Cranly “I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that n which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can using my defense the only arms I allow myself to use - silence, exile, and cunning.” Stephen wants to be and independent thinker, be an artist, he does not want the company of family or of friends, and this is why he decided to leave Ireland. Stephen Dedalus is the common stereotype of how so many youths find themselves trapped in obligations and expectations, but as Joyce suggests, through Stephen that it is by being oneself that one is truly free. It is ironic to think, that that which Stephen has abandoned from his past life, is what he now readily accepts, God in nature, art, and beauty.

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