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SETTING - BACKGROUND INFORMATION
Joyce fled from Dublin to the mainland of Europe, but Dublin never left him. He wrote about the city for the rest of his life-in Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake.
Dublin is more than the backdrop of Portrait of the Artist. It is also the symbol of Stephen's discontent. The drab, stagnant city is seen as the heart of a paralyzed Ireland that stifles the aspiring young artist. The city's streets, through which Stephen constantly wanders as he works out his future, are like the labyrinth (maze) constructed by his eponym, the mythical Daedalus. For both of them the only escape is flight.
Stephen's family starts out living in Bray, an affluent seaside village south of Dublin. However, financial problems force the family into the city, first to the suburb of Blackrock, and then to a series of progressively bleaker dwellings in the city's shabbier sections. As you might expect, these downhill moves color Stephen's view of the city and of his life. The Dublin streets reflect his dissatisfaction. There even comes a time when, disgusted with himself, he finds comfort in their foul-smelling filth-they match his own darker moods and self-disgust.
The real Dublin of Joyce's time had its gracious sections adorned by eighteenth-century Georgian brick houses and by many handsome monuments. It also had the natural beauty of Dublin Bay, the outlet of the River Liffey. Stephen is not completely blind to this beauty. In his frequent walks he goes to the water. It is on the harbor's seawall, called the Bull, that he clearly hears the call of his artistic destiny, and on the bay shore that he sees the girl who becomes a symbol of the freedom and beauty he seeks. (Some see the Liffey and the sea as symbols of the "stream" of Stephen's thoughts and as the sites of his rebirth and baptism as an artist.)
But it's the seamy side of Dublin that haunts Stephen in all its sordid detail: water-logged lanes, putrid puddles, dung heaps, odors of fish, "horse piss and rotted straw." Despite any momentary feelings of communion, Stephen must reject the "dull phenomenon of Dublin"- and Ireland-as an environment suitable for artistic growth, even though both city and country will remain a rich source of the art itself.
Joyce was reared as a Roman Catholic, as were most Irish. In Portrait of the Artist, he relives through its hero, Stephen, the struggle to free himself from the Church and its strict control over Irish personal, intellectual, and social life. At the same time, Joyce weaves through Stephen's story religious symbols and imagery, as well as the sense of religious mystery and awe that never left him. Knowing some basic Catholic tenets and rituals will help you understand some of Stephen's conflicts.
THE HOLY TRINITY
Roman Catholic dogma affirms the Gospel of Christ as handed down by tradition. Stephen and his classmates learned their catechism-the summary of the principles of the faith-which is based on the existence of the Holy Trinity-Father (God), Son (Jesus Christ), and Holy Ghost (Holy Spirit)- as one.
To sin is to rebel against God. A sin is mortal if it is both serious and committed deliberately. All Roman Catholics are expected to confess mortal sins, and they are forgiven only if the sinner is truly contrite (remorseful) and repentant (determined to mend his or her ways). The consequences of mortal sin are terrifying. Since the soul of each human being is immortal, one is held responsible after death for actions during life and can be sent for eternity to Heaven or to Hell.
The terrors of the hell that awaits unrepentant sinners are described in vivid detail by Father Arnall in Chapter Three, driving Stephen to seek forgiveness. He confesses his mortal sins especially his sexual transgressions-and is genuinely contrite at the end of Chapter Three.
God's grace-the sign of His own virtues-is given directly through a sacrament to human beings. One of these sacraments-there are seven, including baptism and marriage-is the Eucharist, the sacrament of Communion. In this sacrament, the person who receives Communion partakes of bread-usually a thin wafer-and wine, which turn miraculously into the body and the blood (the substance) of Christ himself. Confession must precede the ritual of Communion and both are required at least once a year at Easter, the celebration of Christ's resurrection. This is the Easter Duty that Stephen refuses in Chapter Five despite his mother's pleas.
To receive a sacrament without true belief-or under false pretenses, without confession and remorse-is to commit the supreme sin of sacrilege. Even a self-proclaimed nonbeliever like Stephen would hesitate to commit so great an offense. You will see how seriously Stephen takes this potential crime when he talks it over with Cranly in Chapter Five.
Roman Catholic policy in Joyce's day condemned fairly large areas of independent philosophical thinking, branding them as heresy because they were deemed to be fundamentally contrary to Catholic beliefs. Stephen is accused of heresy by his English teacher in Chapter Two because a sentence in his essay has strayed in a minor way from accepted theory. This restriction on free thought is another reason Stephen feels compelled to reject the Church.
Joyce, like Stephen, was educated by the Jesuits (members of the order of the Society of Jesus) in three of the most prestigious Jesuit schools in Ireland. Jesuit teachers were, and still are, famous for instilling rigorous standards of intellectual discipline in philosophy and the humanities, as well as in religious matters. There was great intellectual and social prestige, in addition to religious status, in being a Jesuit. You will see that this momentarily tempts Stephen in Chapter Four. Also, Stephen's intellectual orientation and his tendency to dispute things philosophically are considered earmarks of the Jesuit spirit.