Study Guide

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Religion

By James Joyce

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Chapter 1

It was very big to think about everything and everywhere. Only God could do that. He tried to think what a big thought that must be; but he could only think of God. God was God's name just as his name was Stephen. Dieu was the French for God and that was God's name too; and when anyone prayed to God and said Dieu then God knew at once that it was a French person that was praying. But, though there were different names for God in all the different languages in the world and God understood what all the people who prayed said in their different languages, still God remained always the same God and God's real name was God. (1.2.40)

Stephen understands that God exists and has a name, but he doesn’t quite understand what God’s purpose is or how He works. Not that any of us really understand that – after all, the point of organized religion is to explain these things – but Stephen is still grappling with the most basic concept of divinity.

There was a cold night smell in the chapel. But it was a holy smell. It was not like the smell of the old peasants who knelt at the back of the chapel at Sunday mass. That was a smell of air and rain and turf and corduroy. But they were very holy peasants. They breathed behind him on his neck and sighed as they prayed. (1.2.45)

Holiness, to Stephen, is tied up in sensory experience. Because he associates a certain smell with the physical space of the church, that smell becomes holy. Furthermore, the peasants’ presence in the church makes them holy, as well, even though we’re pretty sure that they’re just your average Irish peasants.

– No God for Ireland! [Mr. Casey] cried. We have had too much God In Ireland. Away with God! (1.3.66)

Mr. Casey blames God (and his Church) for the failure of Irish nationalism. His anger is connected to the downfall of Parnell because of his affair with Kitty O’Shea, which was condemned by the Church.

– We go to the house of God, Mr Casey said, in all humility to pray to our Maker and not to hear election addresses.
– It is religion, Dante said again. They are right. They must direct their flocks.
– And preach politics from the altar, is it? asked Mr Dedalus.
– Certainly, said Dante. It is a question of public morality. A priest would not be a priest if he did not tell his flock what is right and what is wrong. (1.3.25)

Conflicting views on the role of the Church arise here. Mr. Casey and Mr. Dedalus don’t believe that the Church should use its influence on politics, but Dante claims that it’s the duty of the priests to direct their congregations. This sets the stage for Stephen’s own struggles with religion.

Chapter 2

On the way home uncle Charles would often pay a visit to the chapel and, as the font was above Stephen's reach, the old man would dip his hand and then sprinkle the water briskly about Stephen's clothes and on the floor of the porch. While he prayed he knelt on his red handkerchief and read above his breath from a thumb blackened prayer book wherein catchwords were printed at the foot of every page. Stephen knelt at his side respecting, though he did not share, his piety. He often wondered what his grand-uncle prayed for so seriously. Perhaps he prayed for the souls in purgatory or for the grace of a happy death or perhaps he prayed that God might send him back a part of the big fortune he had squandered in Cork. (2.1.5)

We get the feeling that Stephen doesn’t have a need for religion yet. As a child, he can only understand what adults might pray for from a theoretical perspective.

Chapter 3

On Sunday mornings as he passed the church door he glanced coldly at the worshippers who stood bareheaded, four deep, outside the church, morally present at the mass which they could neither see nor hear. Their dull piety and the sickly smell of the cheap hair-oil with which they had anointed their heads repelled him from the altar they prayed at. (3.1.6)

At his point, Stephen is wholly dominated by his senses. He perceives the "dull piety" and the "cheap hair-oil" with the same physical disgust.

Chapter 4

His life seemed to have drawn near to eternity; every thought, word, and deed, every instance of consciousness could be made to revibrate radiantly in heaven; and at times his sense of such immediate repercussion was so lively that he seemed to feel his soul in devotion pressing like fingers the keyboard of a great cash register and to see the amount of his purchase start forth immediately in heaven, not as a number but as a frail column of incense or as a slender flower. (4.1.4)

This passage highlights the mechanical nature of religious practice, unbeknownst to Stephen. Thanks to Joyce’s use of Free Indirect Discourse (see "Style" in our analysis section), we are allowed to see the ridiculousness of the image of the cash register, even though to Stephen, it is deadly serious.

Chapter 5
Stephen J. Dedalus

– Then, said Cranly, you do not intend to become a protestant?
– I said that I had lost the faith, Stephen answered, but not that I had lost self-respect. What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent? (5.3.100)

Stephen still values Catholicism over other religious systems; he recognizes it as "an absurdity" but still holds it above Protestantism. At least Catholicism is a "logical" absurdity. This whole distinction seems a little absurd.

He knelt before the altar with his classmates, holding the altar cloth with them over a living rail of hands. His hands were trembling and his soul trembled as he heard the priest pass with the ciborium from communicant to communicant.
Corpus Domini nostri
Could it be? He knelt there sinless and timid; and he would hold upon his tongue the host and God would enter his purified body.
In vitam eternam. Amen
Another life! A life of grace and virtue and happiness! It was true. It was not a dream from which he would wake. The past was past.
Corpus Domini nostri.
The ciborium had come to him.

This is a deeply powerful depiction of the concept of "transubstantiation" – that is, the idea that the Communion wafer isn’t just a metaphor for the body of Christ, but it really is in essence the body of Christ. At this moment, Stephen believes that this sacrament will save him from his past life. Look for a related scene in Chapter Five where Stephen draws again upon transubstantiation, this time as a metaphor for art (5.2.16; see "Spirituality").

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