Portrait response

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Analysis of chapter 1 of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young MAn

Submitted: January 09, 2012

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Submitted: January 09, 2012



Portrait Response - Chapter 1

In the first chapter of his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce introduces the reader to the tremendous influence of religion, particularly the Catholic

Church, on the life of the Irish people in the late 19th century. In particular, he graphically shows how religion dominates the thoughts and actions of Stephen as a young boy.

At the beginning of the chapter, Stephen is so embarrassed that he hides under the table. The great wrong that Stephen commits of which he is so ashamed is that he wants to marry a little neighbor girl who happens to be Protestant. Stephen’s mother says “--O, Stephen will apologise” and his nanny says “--O, if not, the eagles will come and pull out his eyes”(4). These statements seem irrational and unfair to Stephen, who has done nothing wrong. They suggest that liking someone of another faith is shameful and worthy of punishment. In fact, the image of a bird pulling out someone’s eyes is a horrifying one, and rational people likely would not wish such a punishment even on someone who has acted maliciously towards another. Thus, from the beginning of the book, Joyce seems to be criticizing religion, suggesting that it causes persons to act irrationally and to feel guilty about innocent actions. Joyce also seems to suggest that religion constrains individuals from fully leading their lives. Indeed, the reaction of the nanny is so extreme that she does not even want Stephen to play with the little girl. The eagle plucking out a person’s eyes may be a motif or representation of the dehumanizing effect religion can have.


Other instances in the chapter demonstrate the overwhelming influence of religion on Stephen. Stephen “. . . had to undress and then kneel and say his own prayers and be in bed before the gas was lowered so that he might not go to hell when he died. He . . .

knelt trembling at his bedside and repeated his prayers quickly quickly, fearing that the gas would go down”(15-16). This image of a boy quaking in fear and believing that he would suffer everlasting punishment if he did not finish his prayers before the light went out is a disturbing one. The words “quickly quickly” give the reader a strong sense of the urgency and panic Stephen feels. The reader cannot help but feel sorry for Stephen and a sense of disdain toward an institution or persons that foster such unnecessary distress in a child. Thus, Joyce again is satirizing religion.

Joyce also describes the distress Stephen suffers when he learns that some boys may have drunk the altar wine used for Holy Communion. This event brings to Stephen’s mind his own first communion, a day that is “the happiest day of your life”(47) Yet despite this glowing assertion, Stephen recalls that he felt sick on that day. Reference to this illness is another way Joyce may be conveying that religion can be a negative force in people’s lives. In all these scenes from Chapter 1, Joyce seems to advocate limiting the power of religion in people’s lives.

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