A Look at James Joyce’s Display of the Challenges of Stephen as Described in His Book, A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man
Children are constantly asked about their dreams and aspirations. This never-ending stream of directed questions can only lead to the disillusionment that everyone has some great destiny awaiting them. In James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the protagonist Stephen is struggling through inner turmoil between the man Irish society and institutions want him to be, and the man that he thinks he wants to be. This definite piece of Irish literature is so dependent upon both the politically historical and religiously centered social background that every reference is crucial to the overall feeling of the novel. However, astonishingly the overlying message surpasses the barriers of time and place to give meaning to a reader from any culture or era. Because people think there is a great destiny awaiting them, they are in constant search of a secure home to nourish their dreams and give comfort to the individual soul.
The political debacle over Irish independence shined through Stephen, who although ironically was dissatisfied with his country, embodied its basic elements of individualism. Consider the Christmas dinner where Dante defended herself by stating “a priest would not be a priest if he did not tell his flock what is right and what is wrong”(31). The underlying sense of anger in this scene originates from how Mr. Casey and Mr. Dedalus are contempt with the lack of Irish independence from England. This political background is key to Stephen’s approach in his journey of becoming an artist. A parallel can be drawn to the theme of independence, and following one’s own journey rather than the road others lay out. Furthermore, as a young adult Stephen finds himself rather discontent with Ireland as his ancestors “allowed a handful of foreigners to subject them”(203). This again references Ireland’s lack of independence. Stephen eventually opts to depart his home because Ireland’s lack of freedom was not propelling him towards his singular destiny of becoming an artist. Here Stephen was so dissatisfied with his home that out of frustration for an individually compelling environment, he leaves. These political references to emphasize independence and freedom in both the country and individual soul render late 19th century Ireland as essential to generating Joyce’s arguments.
Joyce’s mockery of hypocritical religious institutions that ruled Irish society at the time emphasizes Stephen’s struggle over whether or not society was to feed his destiny or not. To begin with, society stressed upon him the indisputable influence of religion. Therefore Stephen became contrite over his sins with women. After “he had confessed and God had pardoned him, his soul was made fair and holy once more, holy and happy”(145). Stephen felt a false sense of security by the institution of religion as well as society that he was now going to be all right. Even with going though the motions of a pious Catholic, Stephen could not feel completely at home. This sheds light on how many “devout” religious beings may actually feel on the inside. Their actions are rather mechanical Not all religiously active people feel holy on the inside. Ultimately, Stephen faced the unavoidable decision to either join the priesthood or follow his “destiny” to become an artist. This further ridicules the process of selecting higher religious figures. It is based on sheer outward appearance, quantity, and frequency of religious endeavors rather than the quality of religious work. Stephen realizes that Irish society is not contributing to his destiny when he comes to the consensus that “he was destined to learn his own wisdom apart from others or to learn the wisdom of others himself wandering among the snares of the world”(175). Consequently Stephen again departs his past “home” for the university that becomes his new “home” for the time being. Joyce clearly wanted to depict the oppressing and shallow nature of Irish society that revolved around religion. The Irish background adds on to the void feeling Stephen has even upon technically doing all that he was told by the institutions.
Although the setting served to build the background to concepts Joyce wanted to portray, the actual ideas manifested throughout the novel are relevant to human nature regardless of generation and location. To begin with, Stephen never truly grasps the concept of “home.” As a young child he was sent to boarding school, and after returning he was constantly moving from house to house. Gradually “a vague dissatisfaction grew up within him as he looked on the quays and on the river and on the lowering skies”(66-67). From a young age Stephen grows up in a home that lacked stability. He was never able to find comfort in his own home. This dissatisfaction is universal to humans, for people find discomfort in trying to not only find their identities, but also find their destiny to where they fit in to the universe. This abstract concept is applied to Stephen as his search for identity is paralleled to truly finding his “home,” a place of security and feeling of belonging. It is only human nature to want to have a rightful place.
Throughout the novel, Joyce masterfully takes advantage of incorporating Ireland into all aspects of the novel from its setting to character names to society. These compel the novel to be exactly that – an Irish novel. However when taking a step back, one can see that as a Bildungsroman, the theme of ones journey in search of ones destiny or place in the universe is applicable to all. Humans have an innate desire to feel at “home.” Joyce urges the reader to notice the ups and downs to hunting down what one believes is his or her destiny regardless of the rest of one’s community rather than rationally thinking through what is best for the situation.
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