(continued from my first post on A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)
Great literature should take us away to wild and strange places. A Portrait of the Artist takes us inside the human mind, arguably the strangest place there is. Joyce teaches us about the strange, unpredictable, decidedly non-linear workings of the human mind. That, in itself, makes the novel memorable, but it would hardly be worthy of greatness if that’s all it did.
Another goal of literature is to show a character with total honesty. It’s impossible for any one human being to have direct access to the mind of any other human being. Experiencing a character through literature is about as close as we can come to fully encountering another human mind. Stephen Dedalus is among the most total and realistic characters in literature. In A Portrait of the Artist, we get to know what it’s like to be him.
Stephen is a young man, as the title says. Like all young men, he cycles rapidly through many different outlooks on life. He is deeply into literature, then drama. He gets religion, then loses it. He is committed to his family, then he isn’t. He’s an ascetic, then a free spirit. At each stage of his mental development, he thinks he has found the thing, the one and only approach to life that is correct and which commands his total attention. He doesn’t even seem to be aware of the fact that he’s constantly making big changes in his outlook on life.
At the same time, reality keeps intruding on Stephen’s life in so many ways. His family’s financial situation, academic rules, the behavior of friends, and his own sexuality–all are constantly playing tricks on him and preventing him from taking a linear path through the world. Stephen tries to be a serious intellectual, but his fellow students are more interested in crude humor and other distractions. He beats against their indifference without any success. In this respect as well, Stephen’s experience is something we can all relate to, particularly those of us who were once budding young intellectuals in a largely non-intellectual world.
I can’t conclude without mentioning religion. Joyce is not a big fan, particularly not of the conservative Catholicism that dominated Ireland when he was young. Since the novel is set largely at Catholic schools and colleges, Catholicism plays a large role throughout the novel. It’s most important in chapter three, the novel’s central chapter. At this point in the novel, Stephen, at the tender age of 16, is routinely visiting prostitutes in Dublin. One of the priests at his college takes the students on a retreat, during which he gives them a lecture on the torments of Hell. (Ironically, this same priest was kind to Stephen during childhood.) The lectures go into excruciating details, describing the physical pain, horrendous sights and sounds and odors, burning heat, and so forth that are present in Hell for all eternity. No mention is made of how the priest knows these facts, nor is there much attention paid to the love and saving grace of Jesus Christ. It’s just Hell, Hell, Hell for sermon after sermon. The experience leaves Stephen fearing for his soul to the extent that be becomes physically ill and barely able to move or function.
It’s not a pleasant scene, but it is a powerful one. One advantage to reading A Portrait of the Artist is that it puts the religious experience of past eras in terms that moderns can understand. These days we find it hard to comprehend how people of centuries past thought about sin, death, and judgment. Chapter three of Portrait gives us a look at a character writhing in the throes of sin and fearing for his eternal destiny. It lets us understand that, for those who truly believed as Stephen believed, sin took on an overwhelming, almost physical presence if it wasn’t dealt with via confession and penance.