Considered a thinly-veiled autobiography, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man provides insightful glimpses into the mind of one of history’s most fascinating authors, an Irish Catholic whose most widely-praised work, Ulysses, has rarely actually been read by many of those praising it. The reason for this lies in Joyce’s modernist style of writing, in which he cast aside conventional narrative in favor of a more segmented style of storytelling. Portrait’s protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, is Joyce’s alter-ego, and the book’s portrayal of a young author’s intellectual maturation while a student in successive Jesuit schools lends it special significance as a prelude to his later works.
The passage specified in the question – “At least he had understood: and human life lay around him, a plain of peace whereon ant-like men labored in brotherhood, their dead sleeping under quiet mounds” – can only be understood in the context of Joyce/Dedalus’ life in which rejection of the strictures of Catholicism were interwoven with an underlying fealty to the morality implicit in theological conviction. Prior to the specified passage, Joyce depicts a tortured process in which his alter-ego confronts the Biblical implications of a life lived increasingly outside conventional boundaries:
“He could not grip the floor with his feet and sat heavily at his desk, opening one of his books at random and poring over it. Every word for him. It was true. God was almighty. God could call him now. . . He had died. Yes. He was judged. A wave of fire swept through his body . . .”
Stephen emerges from his wakened dream still very much a part of this world. And in his reawakened state, he is reminded of the stultifying atmosphere in which he exists:
“The voices that he knew so well, the common words, the quiet of the classroom when the voices paused and the silence was filled by the sound of softly browsing cattle as the other boys munched their lunches tranquilly, lulled his aching soul.”
And now, in the context of the classroom in which “cattle” (or sheep) function in zombie-like trances, considerations of the implications of religious teachings being drummed into his head, his mind turns to the Bible, specifically, the passage from Mark 8-36: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul.” He is experiencing revelation. The world in which he was raised was not the one in which he belonged (Joyce would spend his adult life in Europe far removed from his native Dublin), but the theological tenets of religion would never leave his subconscious. Joyce/Dedalus is not rejecting God; he his rejecting religion.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a window into Joyce’s soul. He is the “artist,” and the portrait is of his life and how he came to be.