The story of The Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man is James Joyce’s story.
His grandfather and his father both married affluent wives (like Fitzgerald’s family). Depressingly though, Joyce’s father John was horrible with money and the drink. He had to declare bankruptcy and subsequently lost his job. Joyce goes from a life that is tinted with rose colored lenses to being plunged into all that is dark and dismal in life.
Joyce attended Clongowes Wood School when he was young but when the funds dried up his family was forced to give up their home and moved to Dublin. Where Joyce’s life and Stephen's seem to separate (because I cannot assume everything in the book is based on Joyce’s life, but more than likely he kept drawing off his own experiences) is when Stephen enters Belvedere College and embraces the monastic lifestyle of the Jesuits. This fervent religious awakening comes from Stephen’s attending a religious retreat where the fires of hell lick at his feet and his guilt at having frequented so many prostitutes consumes his every thought. He is quite sure he is beyond redemption but believes just maybe if he confesses, repents enough and lives an austere life, he might not be swallowed up in ever lasting darkness. Like Stephen, Joyce completely gives up Catholicism at sixteen.
In Chapter Three, there is a massive sermon delivered that describes hell in all its graphic gore. Now, you might be asking yourself as I did, who is visiting hell and coming back with the details? Supposedly, these details come from the visions of saints. I’m sure if I starved myself, wore a hair shirt, flogged myself daily, and was terrified of evil spirits, I could conjure up hallucinations of hell that would put St. Frances of Rome to shame (this happens if I don't have enough coffee!). I have heard of saints who lived in caves and others who sat on top of poles where everything had to be hoisted up to them. What is the purpose of this kind of behavior? I don’t recall in the Bible Jesus doing any of these shenanigans. He helped the poor, the sick, the weak and shared his message with thieves and prostitutes, nobody was beyond redemption. But, he did go into the desert for forty days and nights and was tempted by satan, but why would someone want to relive that part of Christ‘s life? My husband has a friend who doesn’t go to church all year, can kill a thirty pack at one poker game and then gives it all up for lent. “My husband asked him, don’t you think God would rather you not imbibe in your vices all the rest of the year and then you can go hog wild for forty days?” He didn’t seem to understand what he was saying.
According to the sermon in Chapter Three, hell is so packed with people that one cannot move their arms to swat away a worm gnawing on their eyeball. It is perpetually black, not one drop of light. The damned are screaming and cursing themselves and everyone they ever knew. Their dirty deeds are relived in their minds constantly, but through God’s eyes so they truly know how vile and filthy they are. After, hearing about forty pages worth of this rant, all as dismal as the aforementioned description above, Stephen decides he better change his lustful whoring ways. He sits in the most uncomfortable positions, in the coldest parts of the room, curbs his diet to the most blandest of foods, deprives himself of all worldly joys and prays continuously for forgiveness, because he never knows if it is enough. Finally, after being observed by the leaders of the Jesuit school he is singled out and asked to consider a career in the church. Stephen ponders the idea of what that life would be like: walking the Jesuit walk, eating with the community, clothed in the same garb, getting up at the same hour every day for the rest of his life, assigned to the same room until he dies. Stephen tries out the title:
“The Reverend Stephen Dedalus, S.J.”
“His name in that new life leaped into characters before his eyes and to it there followed a mental sensation of an undefined face or colour of a face. The colour faded and became strong like a changing glow of pallid brick red: Was it the raw reddish glow he had so often seen on wintry mornings on the shaven gills of the priests? The face was eyeless and sour favored and devout, shot with pink tinges of suffocated anger.”
WHAT A DESCRIPTION!
After the most depressing of thoughts of what that life would entail, Stephen basically says thanks but no thanks, and decides to go back to his heathen ways figuring he’d end up there sooner or later anyway. “The wisdom of the priest’s 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.”