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Stephen Dedalus: Religion

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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 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 ...

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