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Sin and Redemption in James Joyces
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
by Neil Murphy, Nanyang
Technological University, Singapore

Joyces A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is constructed around

a series of complex, resonant parallels between the metaphorical
language of Christian mythology and Greek mythology. Joyce uses
the imagery of Christianity to ultimately subvert its own substance,
while initiating a transference of key Christian values to the artistic
experience, or what Richard Ellmann called the transvaluation of
Christian images (42). One of the focal points of the novels structural and thematic tension is embedded in the allusive subtext of
Stephen Dedaluss name: a conjoining of the rst Christian martyr,
St. Stephen, who was stoned to death, and the great mythic articer,
Daedelus, who survived an airy escape from Crete while his son, who
ew too near the sun, died. A fusion of the Greek and Christian
worlds, Stephens doubly allusive name is indicative of the opposing
forces within his character. Ultimately, of course, the Christian vocation that at one point appears central to Stephens destiny gives way to
that of the artist, to Daedelus. hroughout this shift, it is clear that the
artistic life to which Stephen commits himself is a devotional mode
of existence. So, while Stephens desire to become an artist ultimately
overwhelms the constraints of being a Jesuit priest, and even a Christian, the art he chooses is one that is infused with the language of


James Joyce

Christianity. So what appear to be irreconcilable aspects of his name

are also conjoined, although in a denitively secular fashion. An extension of this is the way in which the traditional Christian concepts of
sin and redemption are recongured through a series of transferences
and reversals. Stephens reinterpretation of Catholicism by way of his
Daedalian aspirations becomes the source of his eventual artisticspiritual redemption, while the vocational life of the Jesuits is depicted
as a life of physical deprivation and denial of vitality. For Stephen, the
religious life in eect becomes a sin against life.
he narrative design of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is
built on an amalgamation of religious and artistic themes, revealed
in both the mythic signicance of Daedeluss status as artisan and in
Stephens eventual reconstruction of himself as artist. he narrative
aligns Stephen with Lucifer, both directly and indirectly. he reminders
of the shining angel are everywhere; in the shape of wings, and wing
beats, culminating eventually in the wings of . . . exultant and terrible
youth (275) when Stephen prepares to take ight. he images used
to describe Stephen during moments of sinor preceding sinare
replete with signicance. Stephen feels cold lucid indierence . . . in
his soul when he begins the descent into sin and grows painfully aware
that the chaos in which his ardor extinguished itself was a cold indifferent knowledge of himself (110). He is also consumed by pride in
his own sin and a loveless awe of God (111). he hidden gurative
kinship with the fallen angel extends throughout his period of sin, and
reappears again in the metaphorical subtext to his ight from Ireland.
We are also reminded in the sermons that Lucifer was a son of the
morning, a radiant and mighty angel (126; from Isaiah 14:12) who
had fallen, and of his traditional declaration of rebellion, non serviam:
I will not serve (126; from Jeremiah 2:20), which later becomes a kind
of artistic declaration of liberation for Stephen, one that coincides
with his nal rejection of Catholicism. he sermon also emphasizes
that the sin of Eve (woman), inuenced by the fallen angel Lucifer, is
a sin of the esh, just like Stephens. Symbolically, such parallels push
Stephen and the Shining One closer together in a silent brotherhood
of resistance and wild abandonment. Like Lucifers, Stephens sin is
a result of embracing lifes opportunities, while rejecting the life of
devotional service.
hroughout the novel, the characteristic rhetoric of religious
quest becomes infused with that of the artistic. Even as a boy, the

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man


forbidding imagery of sin, punishment, and hell is everywhere in

Stephens consciousness, framing his particularized sense of being in
the world; his daily existence is perpetually conditioned by a profound
sense of sin and punishment. For example, Stephen comforts himself
that he will not go to hell when he dies, because he has completed
his prayers (16). He also wonders if it was a sin for Father Arnall to
be in a wax or if it was permissible because the boys were idle (48).
Stephens early experience of punishment for a fake sin, meted out
by Father Dolan, results in Stephen developing a powerful sense of
wrongdoing, punishment, and indignation. his is, of course, a perversion of the Christian pattern of sin followed by punishment with
which Stephen is so familiar: His deep indignation is derived as much
from the variation to the central narrative of his early experiences of
Christian punishment, as it is from the implicit unfairness of Dolans
bloody-minded punishment. Furthermore, Stephens agonized reaction is marked by a deep sense of humiliation: [S]carlet with shame
he unraveled in his mind the intricacies of the unfair cruelty that had
driven Dolan (53). Shame is the appropriate response to having transgressed, but Stephens sense of shame is misplaced. he appropriate
Catholic pattern has been muddied by the priest acting improperly.
But Stephens response mechanism takes some time to adjust to this
fundamental rupture between his sense of the Catholic process and
the living abuse of it. His sense of propriety is partially restored after
his discussion with the rector, and his sense of obedience and humility
is thereafter strongly emphasized: He would be very quiet and
obedient: he wished that he could do something kind for him [Dolan]
to show him that he was not proud (6061). At this point, Stephens
need for the anchors of authority and moral certitude remain very
strong, even though his victory is extremely shallow and his resistant
urges have not yet found full expression.
When Stephen later confesses his sins of the esh, a sense of
shame again pervades: His sins trickled from his lips, one by one,
trickled in shameful drops from his soul festering and oozing like a
sore, a squalid stream of vice. he last sins oozed forth, sluggish, lthy
(156). hroughout the novel, images of squalor and disgust repeatedly
coincide with the language of sins. Stephens cry of sexual desire is but
the echo of an obscene scrawl which he had read on the oozing wall
of a urinal (106), as he wanders along a maze of narrow and dirty
streets (106). Disgust and sin are rhetorically linked; a dark, brooding


James Joyce

evil accompanies Stephens sinful actions. When he sins with prostitutes, for example, he feels some dark presence moving irresistibly
upon him from the darkness, a presence subtle and murmurous as a
ood lling him wholly with itself (106). Traditional images of hell
are not far from his imagining consciousness: Stephen is painfully
aware of the wasting res of lust, the dark presence, and the wail
of despair from a hell of suerers (106). He positively oozes sin and
advances into another realm of existence, another world . . . awakened from a slumber of centuries (107). his other world suggests
another deep linkage between Stephen and the devil and oers crucial
foreshadowing of the sermon in the retreat. he sense of dislocation
from the xed Catholic narratives of his former life is profound, even
though the language of those narratives remains the central dening
aspect of his new experiences.
he focal point for Stephens salvation from his sins of the esh is
the retreat, during which the process of redemption is characterized by
fear, a deep awareness, punishment, reverence, regret, and sorrow. More
signicant in the context of the overall arc of Stephens development,
however, is the recurring concentration on the oppositional claims
of esh and spirit: Citing Matthew, What does it prot a man to
gain the whole world if he suer the loss of his immortal soul? (118;
Matthew 16:26), the priest registers the claims of material reality over
those of the eternal spirit, repeatedly drawing attention to lower and
higher forms of existence, to the beast-like, and to the pure and the
holy, respectively. After the initial impact of the sermons, Stephen felt
that [forms] passed this way and that through the dull light. And that
was life (119). Material existence has become spectral, inconsequential;
when he later embraces art it coincides with a necessary rapprochement
with the stu of material existence, the wild heart of life (185). But
for now the esh becomes an emblem of sin and dullness.
Stephen twice seeks redemption. First via confession, repentance
and prayer, after the searing experiences of the retreat, and then via
the liberation of art, when he ultimately takes metaphorical ight. he
representation of Stephens religious experiences is not always accompanied by the hellish imagery of sin and its consequences. A profound
sense of reverence also accompanies his childhood responses to the
trappings of Catholicism, as is clear from his respect for the sacristy,
that strange and holy place (41), and his enthusiastic embracing of
the spiritual path after his redemption from sin. Of course, Stephens

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man


response to his own secular existence, in certain meditative moments,

is also depicted in a quasispiritual fashion. For example, his silent
watchful manner (71) is embraced with almost religious zealousness,
and he positively revels in the joy of his loneliness (71). hese are
recurring patterns of devotional response in Stephen, even when an
experience is not strictly religious.
After the intense enthusiasm of Stephens redemptive embracing
of his religion begins to wane, a growing artistic awareness manifests
itself, most obviously in Stephens alertness to the sensual world and
in his increasing xation on language. he swish of a soutane attracts
his attention, and Les jupes (167168) generates a mini-reverie about
an article of clothing worn by women. Gradually, his old critical eye
reasserts itself and he begins to doubt some of the statements of his
Jesuit teachers (169), and the chill and order of the religious vocation
begin to repel him (174), expressed again in terms of the deprivation
of body. Stephen now associates the priestly life with rising in the cold
grimness of early morning and the fainting sickness of stomach. In an
ironic repositioning, sins against the esh, or sins of self-deprivation,
are now oered as negative images, as opposed to sins of the esh.
Stephen swiftly asserts his conviction that a life of religious vocation
implicitly involves a denial of life, and he chooses another path to
redeem his artistic soul:
His destiny was to be elusive of social or religious orders. he
wisdom of the priests appeal did not touch him to the quick.
He was destined to learn his own wisdom apart from others or
to learn the wisdom of others himself wandering among the
snares of the world. (175)

he xed stasis of the Jesuit order, as he sees it, is represented as being

in opposition to the needs of the artist, necessarily without fetters, free
from authority. Stephens salvation, when it comes, is aected through
an aesthetic apprehension of reality:
. . . a prophecy of the end he had been born to serve and had
been following through the mists of childhood and boyhood,
a symbol of the artist forging anew in his workshop out of
the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable
imperishable being. (183)


James Joyce

he new vital bond between artistic being and materiality, between

the imaginative mind and the body, is crucial here. he body, formerly
the source of repugnant sin, now becomes a central component of
Stephens salvation and rebirth. And yet the esh that was the source
of his earlier anguish has also been transformed by his new visionary
way of seeing. he rst prostitute he slept with, [a] young woman
dressed in a long pink gown (107), and the occasion of his sin, is also a
prophetic echo of the girl on the strand who initiates his epiphany and
signals his redemption. he contrast between the two events is tangible,
particularly because the prosaic descriptions of the earlier encounter
with the prostitute are barely memorable, unlike the highly charged
Christian-inuenced metaphors that accompany his epiphany:
Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had
broken the holy silence of his ecstasy. . . . To live, to err, to fall, to
triumph, to recreate life out of life! A wild angel had appeared
to him, the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from
the fair courts of life, to throw open before him in an instant of
ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory. (186)

he deep religious tone of his response bespeaks a transference of

devotional need from one sphere to another. She is an angel who
enters his soul in communion with the holy silence of his artistic
reverie, she is an emblem of life and the sensuality of living youth, she
is his mortal angel, the replacement of pure spirit with the spirit of
mortal aestheticism. In her Stephen has a perfect example of the esh
remade into art. As such she becomes an agent of his redemption.
Joyces use of epiphanies does not mean the manifestation of Christ
(as they traditionally might), but the epiphanies do serve an important
gurative function in Joyces eorts to create a secular art to rival the
spiritual intensity of Christianity. he explanations of epiphany in
Joyces earlier unpublished novel Stephen Hero, a precursor to A Portrait,
are fully immersed in the language of Christianity: the revelation of
the whatness of a thing . . . the soul of the commonest object . . . seems
to us radiant (217218). he epiphany is the most complete example
of Joyces accommodation of Christian imagery; Joyce had experimented with simply writing out short epiphany episodes, of which 40
still exist, although most are much less extravagant than those readers

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man


encounter in his rst novel ( Joyce 1991, 161200). In A Portrait, the

apparition of the girl on the beach signals the initiation of Stephens
most sustained epiphany in the novel and fully utilizes the trope of the
angel, while also conjuring the Virgin Mary, to elevate the essentially
human aesthetic experience to the level of claritas. Later in the novel,
Stephen, paraphrasing Aquinas, declares the artistic discovery and
representation of the divine purpose in anything or a force of generalization which would make the esthetic image a universal one, make
it outshine its proper conditions (231), but he then dismisses this and
replaces it with a secular version that focuses on the supreme quality
[that] is felt by the artist when the esthetic image is rst conceived in
his imagination (231). he transference of a Christian to a predominantly aesthetic religious experience is clear, as it is when he fully
identies with art, christening himself the priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body
of everlasting life (240).
Joyces appropriation of his former religions language to create
metaphors that represent his vision of art is clear. But his decision to
adopt the language of Christianity in order to erase the signicance
of the religious language itself is both provocative and ingenious.
Joyces commitment to Christian imagery reveals his awareness of
the profound metaphorical sophistication of this body of images,
from which he would draw inspiration throughout all of his work.
A. Norman Jeares has pointed out that Joyce owed much to the
ordering cohesion oered by Catholicism, despite his essential rejection of the religion: Stephen realizes that his true vocation is that of
the artist, blending aesthetic experience with the logical ordering that
he has learned from his Catholic upbringing ( Jeares 222). And it is
here that the central irony of his approximation of Christianity resides.
Stephen sins and is redeemed by the traditional Christian procedure of
confession, penitence, and forgiveness. But he then turns this process
in on itself when the Christian vocation is presented as a grievous sin
against the fair courts of life, a sin of avoidance and sacrice. Ultimately, the source of Stephens redemption becomes the emblem of sin
itself, which is subsequently redeemed by embracing reality. Stephen,
like Christ, is resurrected from the dead and goes forth to pursue the
reality of experience (275). Under the guise of the savior turned artist,
he nds redemption.


James Joyce


Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. London: Penguin, 1992.
. Stephen Hero. Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1963.
. Epiphanies. Poems and Shorter Writings. Ed. Richard Ellman,
A. Walton Litz, et al. London: Faber and Faber 1991: 161200.
Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Jeares, A. Norman. Anglo-Irish Literature. London: Macmillan, 1982.