By Chet Yarbrough
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
By James Joyce
Narrated by John Lee
James Joyce (1882-1941, Irish novelist, poet, teacher, and literary critic.)
James Joyce gives us a picture of Catholic Ireland in the early 20th century. He describes an Irish home; i.e. riven with Catholic guilt and ambivalent beliefs about God and Ireland’s place in the Gaelic world.
Joyce’s main character, Stephen Dedalus, is born into an upper middle class Irish family that falls on hard times. Dedalus graduates from a Jesuit school and moves on to college but his life steers away from God and Ireland in his journey to manhood.
Stephen chooses his own path in life but like all humankind he carries the genetics of family and circumstance that compel life’s decisions. Like his father, Stephen is drawn to agnosticism, bordering on atheism, because of worldly pleasures and pains. The pleasures of sexual adventure and the pains of Irish conflict (about religion and statehood) drive Stephen’s escape from Catholicism and his father’s fall from grace.
The fragility of the Catholic Church is evident in James Joyce’s “…Portrait…” Dedalus is portrayed as a top of his class student that is coveted by the Church hierarchy that wants Stephen to become a Jesuit priest.
The strength and allure of the Church at that time is clearly evident in Joyce’s description of the Catholic Priesthood’s power to attract the best and the brightest of its brethren. However, Dedalus, after a day contemplating the Church’s offer, chooses to pursue a broader life.
Even though the Church offers a vocation of prominence and security, Stephen rejects it. The irony of the rejection is that Stephen’s Catholic guilt propels him away from a life of Catholicism. Stephen realizes that he cannot resist worldly temptation.
To Stephen, the mechanism of Catholic forgiveness of sins seems formulaic and inadequate for the purpose of cleansing one’s soul.
The prescience of Joyce’s insight is fully realized in today’s Catholic Priesthood and its failure to protect Catholicism’s children.
And so, Stephen Dedalus is cast adrift. He is a teacher and poet; highly regarded by most of his peers and recognized by many as an intellectual superior. He wishes to escape Ireland; to see the world. This is “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”.
At best, one sees Stephen Dedalus as a burgeoning Humanist; at worst, a hedonistic life traveler. A great read; well told by John Lee.