Summary and Analysis
In the days following Stephen's first sexual experience (Joyce refers to it as Stephen's "first violent sin"), he discovers that he craves food; his sexual appetite has seemingly whetted his appetite for meat and carrots and potatoes. His studies suddenly become either wholly unimportant — or else they take on new, shaming importance; for example, while completing a mathematical equation, Stephen is reminded that his sinful nature is increasingly multiplying.
Often Stephen feels slothful — lethargic, apathetic, and unable to pray. He feels that "a wave of vitality [has passed] out of him," taking with it his resistance to temptation. Although he knows that he is in danger of "eternal damnation," a "cold indifference" has seized him and prevents repentance and reparation.
Stephen feels contaminated by every kind of sin, but he continues to serve as the prefect of the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The statue of the Virgin, the symbol of the "refuge of sinners," does not humiliate Stephen; he finds pity and comfort in the words of the litanies that he says in her honor.
Stephen also continues his catechism classes, but now he begins to contemplate the technicalities of religious doctrine that pertain to his "violent sin." He analyzes the origin and the result of his present sinful status, and he realizes that his sin of lust has rapidly spread into the other "deadly sin" categories — anger, covetousness, pride, envy, gluttony, and sloth. Then, at the very moment when Stephen is convinced that he has a consummately sinful nature, and when he is questioning the spiritual reality of the sacrament of the eucharist, he hears the rector announce the beginning of a three-day spiritual retreat which will be held at Belvedere in honor of the school's patron saint, Francis Xavier. The announcement of the retreat "wither[s] up" Stephen's heart.
On the first day of the retreat, Stephen sits on the front bench of the chapel as Father Arnall begins his sermon on the "last things" that happen to people — "death, judgment, hell and heaven." The gravity of this Judgment Day sermon, taken from Ecclesiasticus 7:36, penetrates Stephen's heart, making him vividly imagine the judgment that he would receive for the sin of lust — if he were to die suddenly. Father Arnall emphasizes that one should examine one's conscience and repent one's sins while one still has the chance. Stephen earnestly considers his pitiful state and the enormity of his offense against the omnipotent personality of God. His guilt increases, making him feel as though every word of the sermon is spoken personally to him.
Later, Stephen's thoughts turn to Emma (the girl about whom he fantasizes), the "packet of pictures" he hid, and the "foul long letters" which he left in a place where he was certain that some unknown girl would find them and read them. He shamefully entreats the Blessed Virgin, who is less stern toward the sinner than God the Father, to understand his mistakes and have mercy on him — despite his terrible sins.
On the second day of the retreat, the sermon begins with these fearsome words from Isaiah 5:14: "Hell has enlarged its soul and opened its mouth without any limits." In other words, Hell has not yet gorged itself. Hell is still hungry — hungry for Stephen.
Stephen hears how God's once-beloved angel Lucifer, because of his pride, was hurled into the everlasting darkness of Hell by a vengeful God. Lucifer's sin was his refusal to serve God (non serviam). In order to fill the seats left vacant by Lucifer and his cohorts, God created Adam and Eve, but even they failed to obey His commands. Thus began the "inheritance" of mankind's sinful nature.
The retreat master reminds the boys that they were redeemed from Original Sin (their inherited sinful nature) by the death of Jesus Christ, who suffered crucifixion for the remission of the sins of the world. However, this reminder of God's supreme sacrifice of His son fails to comfort Stephen; instead, it causes him to grow increasingly remorseful as the speaker depicts ever more vividly the dark, burning punishments of Hell.
These graphic descriptions of Hell — its stench and its torments — are extremely painful for Stephen because the retreat master continually dwells on how the sinner will suffer through the senses — what the sinner will hear, what he will smell, what he will see, and the pain he will feel. Remember that despite Stephen's cold, rather contemptuous intellectuality, he has, since the beginning of this novel — ever since the moocow incident — perceived the world around him primarily in terms of his sensory awareness of it. Here, during Father Arnall's sermons, Stephen's deepest fears become frighteningly real. As he listens to the retreat master describe the crowded confinement of Hell, he can almost feel the bodies of the damned; as he imagines the smoky darkness of Hell, his eyes struggle to see; as he imagines the shrieking cacophony of Hell, his ears throb with pain; and as he imaginatively inhales the reeking inferno into which he will be cast for eternity because of his sins, the smell is overpowering.
But, Arnall emphasizes, the physical torture in Hell is only a part of eternal damnation; the psychological punishment will be as terrible as the physical punishment. He stresses that people who are consigned to Hell will have to endure the piercing, painful howls of the other damned sinners, as well as the jeers of the demons — all the while knowing that escape is impossible. Once a person is in Hell, there is no escape: he is there for eternity.
With his "legs shaking and the scalp of his head trembling as though it had been touched by ghostly fingers," Stephen leaves the chapel, horrified and guilty, fiercely aware of his need to be saved. Although he knows that he must make an immediate confession, he asks God to forgive his reluctance to do so in the college chapel because his shame is too great.
Later, after Father Arnall has discussed the physical existence of Hell in the first sermon and the physical and psychological torments in the second sermon, he begins his third sermon. Using Psalms 30:23 as an introduction, he describes the spiritual pain in Hell, focusing particularly on the poena damni, the pain of loss when one is removed from God's sight. Using bold, concrete imagery, he describes the cruel worm's (Satan's) "triple sting," the pain of conscience which causes the sinner to (1) remember his past pleasures with disgust, (2) see the "hideous malice" of the sin as God Himself sees it, and (3) realize that he deliberately chose not to repent and, therefore, must suffer damnation for eternity. The retreat master concludes by leading the congregation in an act of contrition.
Overwhelmed by the searing impact of the sermon, Stephen humbly returns to his room; he examines his conscience, and, one by one, he calculates the magnitude of his sins. Later, as he climbs into bed, his imagination conjures up cruel, grotesque creatures, crowding around him in filthy, foul-smelling surroundings, swishing their long tails.
Shaken, Stephen flings back the blankets, absolutely convinced that God has given him this ominous vision in order to enable him to see "the hell [which was being] reserved for his sins."
Stephen vomits profusely "in agony," prays to the Blessed Virgin for help, and begins wandering through the "slimy" streets of Dublin in search of a remote church where some unknown priest can hear his confession. At a chapel on Church Street, he finds an old, kindly Capuchin cleric who listens lackadaisically, gives him his penance, and tells him platitudinously to ask the Blessed Virgin for help in overcoming temptation.
Relieved and elated, Stephen leaves the chapel in a state of grace. Next morning, he takes Holy Communion during Mass and vows to begin a new life of purity and sanctity.
Having committed the "violent" sin of lust, Stephen fears that he has initiated a chain reaction, what Thomas Aquinas called the Seven Deadly Sins. Stephen is aware of a "pride in himself," a pride in the "greatness" of his sin, a "covetousness in using money" to buy sexual favors from prostitutes, an "envy" of those whose vices are even more serious than his own, anger toward his innocent classmates, a "gluttonous enjoyment of his food," and a "spiritual and bodily sloth" which seems to have drained his whole being.
This obsession with sin causes Stephen to conjure up a series of "if's" and "why's" pertaining to religion. He tries to demystify his faith, challenge its validity, and perhaps find absolution through a religious technicality. Unhappily, the announcement of the retreat causes him to feel the full weight of his sin. He approaches the retreat experience with a "withered" heart and a feeling of dread.
The first and the briefest of the retreat sermons urges the boys to remember God's purpose for creating mankind; afterward, they should consider the present condition of their souls and then determine their fates if they were suddenly to die and have to face Divine Judgment. Would they go to Heaven? Or to Hell?
Clearly, this challenge of purity is difficult for a sixteen-year-old boy who enjoys sex and seeks out prostitutes as often as he can afford to do so; ironically, Stephen is viewed by the priests and the other boys as one of the "elder boys," a boy whose model behavior should be emulated by the younger boys. Throughout the first sermon, Stephen feels as though his spiritual life is passing before him, and, here, Joyce graphically records the details of Stephen's vivid imagination pertaining to his death and judgment. Stephen feels particularly agonized by Father Arnall's description of a lost soul because Stephen believes that he is already a lost soul. He believes that the sermon is delivered specifically to him — that he is being specifically warned about his sins: "Every word for him!"
At this point, Stephen begins to respond to life more intensely than ever in terms of his basic physical senses. Even after the sermon, Stephen continues to feel caged and tortured with guilt. He hears the "words of doom cried by the angel" and is mocked by the sound of a girl's laughter as he walks home from the retreat. In his mind, he sees the desecrated image of Emma, upon whose "innocence" he has "trampled"; the "sordid details of his orgies stank under his very nostrils." Next, he remembers touching the "sootcoated packet of pictures" and placing the "foul long letters" where a young girl can find them. Finally, he tastes tears on his lips as he imagines kissing the sleeve of the Blessed Virgin, imploring her to intervene and save his soul from eternal damnation.
Ellman's biography of Joyce suggests that there are parallels in Joyce's life with certain key features of this chapter. For example, Joyce's own sexual initiation occurred at a time when he himself was serving as prefect for the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin; later, Joyce possessed a perverse longing to "adore and desecrate" the one love of his life, Nora Barnacle. Joyce also wrote a series of "foul long letters" to Nora during their brief separation in 1909, but despite Nora's efforts to destroy these letters, Joyce hid some of them away, hoping that someday others might read them. Many people have read them; the letters offer keen insights and explanations for Joyce's literary treatment of women.
The second sermon of the retreat begins with an examination of the origin of sin — specifically, Lucifer's prideful refusal to serve God and obey His will. A description of Adam and Eve's fall from grace follows, and Christ's sacrifice is also detailed. The purpose of this spiritual exercise is to create the most terrifying vision imaginable of the physical torments of Hell and infuse the boys with anguished feelings of guilt and fear.
The priest intends to "put the fear of God" into these potentially wayward young boys. The "nature of that abode of the damned," as Joyce portrays it, dramatically reveals the underpinnings of Dante's Inferno. This coincidence is not surprising because Joyce revered Dante's masterpiece almost as much as he did the Bible; he considered Dante's works to be "spiritual food." Nonetheless, this particular Hell is very definitely a realm of Joyce's own design, wherein his fears of restriction and darkness are merged with residual anxieties from his early experiences with the Roman Catholic Church.
Joyce's personal hell is revealed through his emphasis on sensory details in this chapter. His poor vision required that he rely on his remaining senses; thus he emphasizes the stench and the taste of the air of Hell, filled with the toxins of "rotting human fungus," the interminable screams of the anguished sinners, and the "unspeakable fury" of the flames as they devour human flesh.
Joyce also understands the internal torment of the "company of the damned" and describes its lowly stature with vivid animal imagery: "a cock, a monkey and a serpent . . . hateful and hurtful beasts." This animal imagery, as well as the "goatish" beasts which haunt Stephen's dreams, is derived from our enormous stock of Western mythical lore and symbols.
The final sermon of the retreat climaxes in a series of questions from the "voices of conscience": "Why did you sin? . . . Why did you not give up . . . that impure habit? . . . Why did you not . . . repent of your evils ways?" Here, Stephen suffers a "spasm of religious terror" and is obsessed with a burning need to confess and begin a dedicated reparation of his life.
During the third sermon, Stephen contemplates the torment of a life without God. As the retreat master focuses on the darkness of an eternity removed from God's divine presence, Stephen imagines himself bearing the full burden of his sins until the end of time. Finally as the retreat master examines the concept of eternity in a vast metaphor and concludes by discussing the grandeur of God, Stephen's "brain reel[s] dizzily" as he tries to fathom the enormous everlastingness of eternity.
During the past three days, Stephen has suffered terribly as he emotionally conjured up the burning torments of Hell. He has undergone physical anguish, as well as spiritual and imaginative Hell; his has been a journey that parallels the period of testing common to most mythical heroes. The mythical hero's descent into Hell is detailed in Dante's Inferno, and Daedalus, Stephen's mythical namesake, disobeyed orders from the powerful King Minos and was cast into the labyrinth of his own design, imprisoned with the monstrous Minotaur. Similarly, Stephen, through his disobedience to God's will, has been cast into a loathsome hell of his own imagination, where he suffers restriction and is threatened by beasts within his soul.
Stephen's repentance and humility are closely paralleled with the biblical story of the disobedient Jonah, who was confined in the belly of a whale. After three days and a humble repentance, Jonah was cast out of the whale. This duration of three days also carries the symbolic significance of the three days during which Christ descended into the depths of Hell and returned with the keys of Hell and Death; thus he atoned for man's sins and became his Redeemer. Stephen's three-day retreat enables him to imaginatively experience Hell, repent his sins, and fly free (like Daedalus) from damnation, through sincere and contrite confession.
It is worth noting that although the chapter concludes with Stephen's confession and rededication to a life without sin, the Capuchin priest was chosen by Stephen because he believed that the Capuchin would be more merciful in his directives than Stephen's own priest would have been at Belvedere College. Note, too, that Stephen shows his preference for the benignity of Mary, rather than confront the stern justice of an omnipotent male God. Even the act of confessing to a Capuchin priest ("capuchin" also means a hooded cloak worn by women), rather than a possibly "tough" priest at Belvedere College, indicates Stephen's growing tendency toward creating a softer, more beautiful world to exist in, rather than enduring the harsh, more realistic one.
his scribbler his notebook.
Shelley's fragment the reference is to Shelley's unfinished poem "To the Moon."
sinned mortally To commit a mortal sin, one must be fully aware that a sin is being committed; knowingly and willingly acting against the laws of God.
grace the freely given, unmerited favor and love of God; the condition of being in God's favor.
surd an irrational number; the root of an integer.
Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary a religious association formed by the Jesuit order and based on Loyola's devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Stephen is the administrative leader (prefect) of this organization, which performs charitable works and meets on Saturday mornings for prayers in honor of the Virgin Mary.
Quasi cedrus exalta sum . . . odoris. I was exalted just as the cedars of Lebanon and the cypress trees of Mount Zion. I was exalted just as the palms in Cadiz (Spain) and as the roses in Jericho. I was exalted just as the beautiful olives on the plains and the plane trees that grow alongside the streams. Just as I gave forth the strong fragrance of cinnamon and the balsam tree, I also gave forth the sweet fragrance of the choicest myrrh.
sums and cuts The teacher has assigned the next problems to be done.
Ennis, who had gone to the yard Ennis had gone to the school urinal.
We can scut the whole hour. We have the next hour free.
catechism a series of questions and answers containing the summing up and the key principles of Catholicism.
the particular judgment This judgment occurs immediately following death; the Day of Final Judgment, the Last Judgment, occurs when Christ returns to earth and pronounces the final destiny for those who are still alive.
Emma The reference is to Emma Clery, the young girl to whom Stephen has written poems, much as Dante did to Beatrice.
hanged upon a gibbet a strange, seemingly vernacular description of the Crucifixion; perhaps Father Arnall is using the phrase to impress upon the boys the fact that Christ was executed "like a common criminal."
in a blue funk to be in a state of terror; in American slang, one could say that Father Arnall was trying to scare the boys out of their wits.
Saint Thomas Saint Thomas Aquinas; thirteenth-century monk, theologian, and philosopher. His works summarize all that is known about God by evidence of reasoning and faith and serve as the cornerstone of the Roman Catholic faith. Stephen develops his own aesthetic theory from the ideas of Aquinas and Aristotle.
venial sin a minor sin, committed without full understanding of its seriousness or without full consent of the will.
he repeated the act of contrition Stephen is repeating the traditional prayer of repentent sinners, vowing nevermore to sin.
his angel guardian Every baptized Roman Catholic has a personal guardian angel.
the ciborium the container for the consecrated wafers.
Corpus Domini nostri the Body of our Lord; the words spoken before serving the Host, or wafer, during communion.
In vitam eternam. Amen. Into eternal life. So be it.