By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by John Lee
Joyce gives us a picture of Catholic Ireland in the early 20th century.
Joyce describes an Irish Catholic family; i.e. riven with Catholic guilt and ambivalent 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.
The fragility of the Catholic Church and organized religion is evident in James Joyce’s “…Portrait…” The character of Stephen Dedalus is portrayed as a top of his class student that is coveted by the Church hierarchy to become a Jesuit priest. The strength and allure of the Church 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 secular life.
Even though the Church offers a vocation of prominence and security, Stephen rejects it. The irony of his rejection is that Stephen’s Catholic guilt pushes him away from a life of religion. Dedalus realizes that he cannot resist worldly temptation and the mechanism of Catholic forgiveness of sins is temporal and would not truly absolve him of sins he feels he will continue to commit. Stephen realizes he cannot be Holy enough to be a priest.
The prescience of Joyce’s insight is evident in today’s Catholic Priesthood with its failure to protect its children. A belief in forgiveness of sins and the inevitability of sinful repetition handcuffed the Catholic Church when action needed to be taken to remove pedophilia from the Holy Order through exposure and prosecution. And so, Stephen Dedalus is adrift like today’s Catholic Church.
Stephen chooses his own path in life but like all humankind he carries the genetics of family and its interaction with life circumstance, pulling and pushing him to make life altering 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 prosperity.
Dedalus 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 where “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” ends.
At best, one sees Stephen Dedalus as a burgeoning Humanist; at worst, a hedonist life traveler. A great tale; well told by John Lee.