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“A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” is James Joyce’s first significant novel. One the one hand, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” mirrors the main character’s life and challenges he faced. On the other hand, the novel raises extremely important issues, such as problems of political and religious identification, demonstrating cultural and religious internal conflict, and national freedom.
The main topic discussed in the paper is religious crises faced by the central character in the novel. Therefore, this paper seeks to analyze the reasons that lead the character towards his conception of himself as a priest of the world and his race, and the character development in the crises he faces. Moreover, it aims to discuss the image of the protagonist as an artist, and how it is depicted by the author.
The main character of the novel, Stephen, is initially brought up in a very strict Catholic family. Nevertheless, as Stephen grows, he starts to lose his faith in the morals of the Catholic Church. He realizes that he cannot solve the problems of theology by himself and accept them. It can be proved by the following evidence form the text: “It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant and that he did not know where the universe ended. He felt small and weak” (Joyce 17). This means that he did not know anything about the creation of the world and him as a human, which is a first religious crisis he faces. This makes him seek answers in order to clarify his religious views.
Lewis (451), states that Joyce’s narrative technique highlights the distinctive connection between Stephen’s religion and the Irish race. As a matter of fact, in this book, Stephen personifies the role of Jesus Christ in the Irish theology, reshaping the faith of his race. Therefore, such theology highlights the role of the race in the individual’s experience. The author comes to an important theological definition of the role of the artist. He considers that the work of the artist is not a creation “out of nothing”, but “reconfiguration of the eternal forces” that influenced the racial conscience. As a matter of fact, the main role of he artist is not to invent a new idea of race or religion, but to sum up the old racial and religious ideas which influenced the creation of both the artist and people (Lewis 451).
In the book, Joyce discusses the Christian theological view of “creation”. On the one hand, Ibsen Brand, to whom the main character writes the entry of his diary, states that: “That is the uncreated soul of man” (Joyce 19). This means that he proposes the heretical view, as, according to the Catholic tradition, God alone is uncreated, but all the humans are created by God. On the other hand, Stephen is immensely conscious of the theological implications of creation. While he listens to the sermon on creation, the priest tries to persuade him that God created each soul on the Earth. However, Stephen denies that, as he believes in uncreated conscience of his race, which puts his race on the same level with God (Lewis 455).
Stephen’s beliefs lead him to the deeds, which negatively influence his personality. As a result, he falls into the sin; he constantly sleeps with prostitutes and gives up on religion. This is the next religious crisis he faces. However, he is aware of his sins and of that he violates the rules of the church. Therefore, when the father’s speech inspires him to return to his religion, he becomes an opposite of what he has been before. He tries to become a perfect example and role model of religious obedience and devotion.
The next crisis comes in the final chapter of the novel, when Stephen tries to devote himself and imitates the life of Christ which implies the opposite heretical position, as he wants to actually reach the perfection and become as innocent as the God’s son. He starts rejecting his mother in order to imitate Jesus: “Jesus, too, seems to have treated his mother with scant courtesy in public” (Joyce 242). Stephen thinks a lot of Christ’s mission of saving the humanity, and he plans to become the same person as Christ for the Irish nation.
There is an intense controversy between the deterministic conception of his religion and the desire for autonomy. Stephen considers that his unity with his race will help him to overcome this tension. He states that he will be able to resolve this controverssy: “You talk to me of nationality, language, and religion. I shall try to fly by those nets” (Joyce 203).
However, the tension between his real self as an Irish and his striving to become purely Catholic strongly increases. Stephen starts to rely more on his experiences which finally transform his consciousness. This gives him an idea of meaningful freedom, which would not deny his roots and traditions, but would let him be the one he wants to be in terms of religion. Therefore, the Stephen’s ability to live and create art in “unfettered freedom” depends on the transformation of “experience” into “ever-living life”. Stephen must think of himself as a world-soul, who in his own actions lives out the fate of the entire race (Lewis 455).
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Finally, Stephen realizes that the following opposite ways of life that he had, the sinful and the religious ones, are false and do not characterize his personality. Stephen does not want to live a sinful life, but he still rejects some Catholic rules. He considers that in some way these church principles negatively affect his life and do not allow him to live a decent human life. Therefore, Stephen decides to embrace his life as it is and enjoy it as much as he can. Ultimately, Stephen decides to celebrate his life and his being a human after meeting a girl at the beach. This girl symbolizes a pure goodness of his life, which he finally gained in the battle with himself.
Consequently, by this novel, Joyce managed to create a figuratively new type of “artist”, who would not invent a new idea of religion, but would summarize the old religious ideas. The religious crises that Stephen faces lead him to the idea that he should define himself as a priest of his own life and nation. This character development demonstrates his religious revolution. Each of the crises shapes his mind and religious views. Witnessing Stephen’s development, one can define the book’s main idea is that no one can abandon one’s roots and history, as it defines one’s destiny and future life. The book “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” has a very patriotic background, which shows the independent spirit of Irish people and their traditions.