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Themes

Marx famously wrote that religion is a kind of drug constructed to keep the masses bovine (cow-like) and contented, chewing their cud comfortably and not confronting the true nature of life. Joyce delivers a similarly cynical and unflinchingly critical picture of religion in Portrait of the Artist; our hero, albeit in a markedly un-cow-like and intensely cerebral fashion, also latches on to religion as a system of definite explanation. However, religion is rejected as a solution to life’s unanswerable questions, both by Joyce and by Stephen, who realizes that life is not that simple, and that the strict rules and regulations of the Church can’t explain everything. The book implies that no religious doctrine, Catholic or otherwise, can provide universal solutions, and furthermore, that dogma often limits the possibilities of human accomplishment.

Questions About Religion

  1. In this novel, how much of religion is simply ritual and practice, and how much is actual belief?
  2. How much does Stephen’s enjoyment of words and images relate to his religious faith, starting in the beginning of the novel?
  3. In his heavily religious phase, does Stephen think of religion in any social way (i.e. does he consider its role in a broader community), or is his faith purely personal and self-centered?
  4. What role does the Catholic Church play in Stephen’s diagnosis of the condition of the Irish people?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

The defining feature or religion throughout the novel is a lack of passionate involvement in the world.

Stephen pursues Catholicism in an attempt to impose an external system of order on his life, and thus hopes to resolve the confusion of his home life, identity, and lack of purpose.

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