By Lily Van Patten
As I read Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man, the religious themes of the novel stood out to me the most. Although I never will have the specific experience of being a poor, Irish boy at a Catholic school, I certainly was able to identify with some of Stephen’s religious struggles and epiphanies. Father Arnell passionately uses his scare tactics in his fiery sermon in Chapter Three, in which he burns the image of a horrid and tortuous hell into the minds of the young students. This imminent fear that Stephen describes as a result of the sermon, immediately brought to mind memories from my own life. At the age of eight I moved with my family across the country from San Francisco, California, to Wake Forest, North Carolina. When asked by my third grade classmates what church I belonged to (and I being unaware that I had just landed myself in the southern bible belt), I responded: “Church? Oh I’ve never gone to church.” This shocked my classmates, who, open-mouthed and gaping, exclaimed: “Well, then you’re going to burn in hell!” Terrified that I would land myself and my family in a pit of eternal torment, I pressured my parents into going to Sunday services at all types of churches, in the hopes that our attendance would save us.
Stephen’s view on religion, first expressed in Chapter Two, quickly caught my attention. I related to Stephen’s respect for those who are faithful, coupled with his personal lack of faith: “Stephen knelt by his side respecting, though he did not share, his piety” (Joyce 62). Although I admire those who have found faith and comfort in religion, I do not share that same belief and trust in a God. The more I read of Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man the more I saw more of myself in Stephen. As he wrestled with his faith as a youth, I saw myself as a young woman deciding not to pray at bedtime anymore, attending church less and less often, and so on.
By the end of the novel I had made an important discovery. My religious journey is not over yet, and it may never be over: I may never have a definitive answer as to how I feel or what I believe. Portrait helped me to see that I am undergoing a process of religious maturation. Joyce constructs the novel as a Bildungsroman, a genre that focuses on the spiritual, psychological, and social development of a main character from childhood to maturity. Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness writing style in Portrait was effective in making me feel close to Stephen, because I was experiencing the story almost as if I was inside Stephen’s head (regardless of whether or not the point of view is in third person narrative). The novel imitates the manner in which thoughts and ideas flow into and through a person’s mind. Joyce closes the book with Stephen right on the brink of embarking on a new journey. His ideas and dreams are about to take flight as an artist, away from the confines of Ireland, yet the road ahead is paved with unknown experiences and changes await him. Just like Stephen, I may think I know where I am going, but I can’t know what experiences in the future may influence and change my feelings. Just like him, I have much more to learn before I can say what I believe.
By Lily Van Patten
North West School of the Arts
1415 Beatties Ford Road, Charlotte NC, 28216