Book #16. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man


I was conceived an interest in this classic ever since encountering a passage on the Content Specialty Test on English as a part of my New York State Teacher Certification Exam. Luckily, I passed 😀 But I seriously think I was wrong on the specific question on the excerpt.

The novel is extremely interior. There is not a lot going on other than the consciousness of the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, an alter-ego of the young James Joyce. The other characters are merely a reaction to Stephen’s thoughts, desires and reflections. If Joyce is retelling his own past, I was astonished how meticulously he was able to relieve those details that might have filled his head.

The book is easy to summarize: a shy, polite and studious boy Stephen encounters profound questions to life, religion and desires as he receives rigorous Catholic education. As a catholic myself, I understood most of the Catholic terminologies and principles without consulting footnotes, which was  not even available for my free ebook. But I sincerely wished an introduction or afterword to aid my understanding of this challenging novel. I’m not sure whether I would recommend this book to anyone, especially those I met in the Parish. As famously known, the journey in this book is to grow out of the cultural, spiritual and educational perimeters set by the institution, and no one in the Church would think it desirable. But doesn’t it make sense that a reasonable human being would encounter religious ‘doubt’ at one point or another in his or her life? 

Freedom to choose is something missing in Stephen’s life. I was free to choose to be Catholic,  which allowed me also free to be doubtful. My religious ‘doubt’ was perfectly understandable to my parents whom I share relationships outside of the religious context. Conversely, Stephen did not choose to be a Catholic or enter into a Jesuit school, which caused him a great struggle to make sense of the world that could not be explained solely by Catholicism.

What did it avail then to have been a great emperor, a great general, a marvelous inventor, the most learned of the learned? All were as one before the judgement of God. (p. 316 of 734)

Ireland in his time was not labelled a totalitarian society like today’s North Korea, but in some way, it was. Catholicism presides over every single aspect of one’s life, morality and spirituality–if your future is solely decided in terms of your relationship with a single institution (i.e. Church, state, whatever), would you accept it contentedly? Even if you dont have to be sent to a gulag for not believing in the dominant cult of the country, you will be still left in a perpetual loneliness and humiliation with no chance to enjoy lively emotions.

He had known neither the pleasure of companionship with others nor the vigour of rude male health not filial piety. Nothing stirred within his soul but a cold and cruel and loveless lust. His childhood was dead or lost and with it his soul capable of simple joys and he was drifting amid life like the barren shell of the moon. (p. 268 of 734)

Pride and hope and desire like crushed herbs in his heart sent up vapours of maddening incense before the eyes of his mind. He strode down the hill amid the tumult of sudden-risen vapours of wounded pride and fallen hope and baffled desire. (p. 240)

A trapped young man or woman, unable to progress forward, has been a subject of many artworks. If Stephen could never a way out, he would perish shamefully just like Jude the Obscure. Defiance and disbelief can be the beginning of a life.

I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use–silence, exile, and cunning.

I wish I could have such courage. If I had such certainty in the newfound “mode of life,” it won’t be difficult to break free from everything that has nurtured me, including my family. That’s probably what every young man or woman should do, including myself. In three months, I hope to find myself beginning to be on my own.


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