A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man By James Joyce Summary and Analysis Chapter IV

Summary

The chapter opens with Stephen's dedicating himself to a life of "resolute piety," vowing to adhere rigidly to the rituals of the Catholic faith. Every day he attends early Mass, says rosaries on the beads which he carries in his trouser pockets, offers up supplications to remit the sins of those in Purgatory, and prays daily to be purged of the seven deadly sins.

In order to prove the sincerity of his renewed dedication to God, Stephen begins a series of mortifications of the flesh, trying his best to undo his sins of the past. "Each of his senses was brought under a rigorous discipline" (emphasis ours). He wakes early, endures the raw morning wind on his way to Mass, observes all Church-sanctioned fasts, and even attempts to sleep without movement in order to bring each of his senses under this new, harsh discipline.

As a result, Stephen begins to feel awe for the "august incomprehensibility" of the Trinity; he is similarly overwhelmed by his present state of grace and by the love which he believes God has for his soul. In time, however, old feelings — anger, willfulness, and desire — begin to creep under this new, amended facade. He begins to doubt the condition of his soul, and he fears that his soul might already have "fallen," without his knowledge.

Stephen's doubts increase. He wonders whether his hasty confession to the Capuchin was genuine or merely a reaction to Father Arnall's orchestration of terror. He searches for a sign that his "confession [was] good," then realizes with astonishment that the "surest sign" of a good confession is this fact: "I have amended my life, have I not?"

Coincidentally, the director of the school has taken notice of Stephen's fervent piety and invites him to his office to discuss the possibility of a religious vocation for Stephen. During the meeting, Stephen is puzzled; the director's tone reveals an almost flippant worldliness, and Stephen also discerns obvious attempts at manipulation.

Stephen confesses to the director that he has considered becoming a priest, and almost immediately, he begins to fantasize about the power he would possess if he were to join the clergy. The director's somber warning to consider the seriousness of "the call" ends the meeting, and they part with a handshake and an agreement to pray about Stephen's decision.

Afterward, Stephen considers the grim realities of the clerical life and the truth about his apparent inability to control troubling, emotional urges which continue to surface. As he recalls the restrictions of his years at Clongowes and Belvedere, his body seems instinctively to revolt against thoughts of living for the rest of his life in a confined community. He begins to realize that the basic weakness of his nature will inevitably lead him to "fall" and that his probable "destiny [is] to be elusive of social or religious orders."

Troubled by these truths while he is walking home, Stephen crosses the bridge over the Tolka River. Reflecting on his past, he looks back and sees the shrine of the Blessed Virgin; it seems to be a "faded" memory. Stephen turns and goes forward with an unburdened heart toward the "disorder, the misrule and confusion of his father's house."

At home, he learns from his sister that the family is moving again. Once more, Mr. Dedalus' mounting debts have dashed any hopes for stability in the Dedalus household. The young children attempt to make light of the situation by playing word games and singing songs, but Stephen notices that despite their gaiety, they all seem to be "weary of life." As he watches them, and even joins them briefly in song, he realizes that he deeply desires to be free — not only free from the religious life, but free from the hopelessness and the poverty of his family.

Walking seaward, Stephen feels oddly optimistic — perhaps his destiny is not doomed, after all. He is sure that he can find "better things" in life if he attends the university. He is troubled now only because he doesn't have a sense of direction for his life.

Shortly thereafter, a group of his friends playfully announce his arrival: "Here comes The Dedalus!" Stephen interprets this mild derision as a kind of prophesy, and impetuously he casts aside his uncertainties. He vows to be like his namesake — Daedalus, the "great artificer." He will soar above the religious and cultural restrictions of his past and fly toward a future of his own artistic freedom.

Realizing the importance of this revelation, he senses that he has left his boyhood behind. "Alone . . . unheeded . . . and near to the wild heart of life," Stephen moves toward the sea, where he sees a young girl standing in midstream, gazing out to sea, her skirts tucked up around her waist. Stephen studies her as she stands before him, and she returns his gaze. Silently, she gives him the answer he seeks.

This is a moment of epiphany for Stephen. He cries out "Heavenly God!" in "an outburst of profane joy." In this girl's image, Stephen realizes the importance of solitude in the appreciation of beauty. He can "worship" her as though she were an object of art, and he no longer has to feel shame because of his desire for her. She reveals to Stephen that his vocation, or his "call," is to live his life fully, regardless of error, and while doing so, "recreate life out of life!"

The chapter concludes as Stephen pauses to rest on the beach. He falls asleep and awakens much later, long after night has fallen.

Analysis

After his confession to the Capuchin, Stephen overcompensates for his sins of the past. He becomes a slave, as it were, to the rituals of the Catholic faith. He devotes all his free time to prayer and meditation. Imagining himself to be one of the first Christians "kneeling at mass in the catacombs," Stephen tries simultaneously to experience the privilege and the persecution of practicing his faith. However, by subjecting himself to continual self-denial and repeated physical discomforts, he seems more a sinner than a young, zealous Catholic. Moreover, his compulsion to fill his time continually with some form of devotion reveals a deep fear of allowing himself even one free moment — lest some minor, impulsive "weakness" manifest itself.

In this chapter, Joyce looks back on his own youth, and through Stephen, he "mocks his own religious revival a little" (Ellman). In particular, Joyce satirizes the compulsive, repetitive nature of the Roman Catholic faith. Stephen's obsessive observances of the mass, the rosaries, and the contemplation of each person of the Trinity makes him melodramatically aware of the "great mystery of love" which God has for him, but the discovery of this love is not comforting. It causes Stephen to mortify his flesh increasingly through ever more strict discipline of the senses.

As we have seen on several occasions, Stephen perceives the world through his senses; therefore, his mortification of his senses is a supreme sacrifice. Stephen is voluntarily relinquishing both the judgments and pleasures which he once derived from his sensual perceptions of the world. By shutting his eyes to diversions, enduring foul smells and harsh sounds, observing all fasts and controlling his physical movements in bed, he (like the mythical Daedalus) is creating a restrictive environment in which he is unwittingly imprisoning himself. It is almost inevitable that he will soon feel the urgency to escape this prison.

In spite of Stephen's valiant efforts to suppress his natural instincts, he is aware that his basic sensual self is reemerging. One by one — beginning with anger — his former "sinful" tendencies begin to surface, and, one by one, the "withered" layers of his forced spirituality begin to fall away. Feeling terrified and defenseless against growing temptations, Stephen seeks proof of salvation.

Instead of proof, though, Stephen finds only silence, and here is one of the key turning points of this chapter. Here is the advent of Stephen's non serviam credo.

The following scene, dealing with Stephen's possible religious vocation, is rich with religious allusions, all reflecting on the various themes of the novel. But before we discuss the specifics of the dialogue between Stephen and the director, we should point out a truism about many young Catholic boys and girls who attend conservative, parochial schools.

It is practically universal that students who have been schooled by church clergy or laity have, at least momentarily, considered a religious vocation. Some students are attracted by the power, others by the ritual, and still others by the unselfish devotion of missionary work. Consequently, when a teacher, priest, or nun notices the piety and dedication of a student like Stephen, that student is usually targeted for a talk about a religious vocation. Here, Joyce satirizes the so-called honor of being selected by a priest to discuss a "religious calling." Note also Joyce's elaborate use of religious imagery here.

The description of the director, as he stands in front of the illuminated backdrop of the window, makes him seem like an icon, or a saintly object of religious worship. Joyce soon reverses this image. When Stephen enters the room, he sees the director "leaning . . . on the crossblind." This image is a clever pun, indicating the director's actual, physical stance, as well as his intention to "lean on" Stephen about choosing a religious vocation — primarily because Stephen has been made temporarily "blind" by the "cross."

Note, too, the director's calculated smile as he "slowly dangl[es] and loop[s] the cord of the other blind"; Joyce makes the director seem like a skillful hangman, eagerly awaiting a chance to snare Stephen in his noose. In addition, the priest's face, in "a total shadow," raises the possibility of an underlying darkness in his nature, with the "deeply grooved temples and the curves of his skull" reminiscent of the skull which rested conspicuously on the rector's desk at Clongowes. Ultimately, this view of the priest causes readers (and possibly even Stephen) to wonder whether the cleric is really no more than a religious hangman who intends to make Stephen his next victim.

The conversation between Stephen and the director is less pious than Stephen imagined it would be. Instead of discussing profound matters of faith, the priest attempts to disarm the youth by speaking of his own school days and ridiculing the dress and manner of various, less worldly orders of the priesthood. When he discusses the long-robed Capuchins, he mocks them, referring to them as "Les jupes" (the skirts). Stephen is startled, even embarrassed, by the director's inappropriate comment.

This moment of insensitive ridicule reminds us of the time when Stephen's father laughed heartily with the Jesuit priests about Stephen's pandying incident at Clongowes. Here is another instance of Joyce's theme of betrayal by the father(s). Stephen has been betrayed by his own father (Simon), by Father Conmee, and Father Dolan. Now, this "father" has seemingly betrayed Stephen's concept of what a priest should be. Clearly, the director is not a man of discretion; he has revealed a worldliness that Stephen finds distasteful and inappropriate.

Throughout this scene, we can see a pattern emerging, linking significant events throughout the novel. Stephen is an unusually sensitive young man, and he is beginning to realize that anyone who expresses any measure of passionate concern (such as Parnell, Brother Michael, the Capuchins, and especially Stephen himself) is destined for betrayal by Ireland's proud and practical "fathers." This scene, focusing on the theme of betrayal, prepares us for Stephen's impending decision to choose a new kind of life for himself.

Stephen compares his childhood perceptions of the priesthood with his present, more discerning viewpoint: "Lately, some of their judgements had sounded a little childish in his ears and had made him feel a regret and pity." He leaves the meeting with a feeling of "unresting doubt" about a religious vocation.

At this point, we have little doubt about Stephen's final decision regarding a religious vocation. Joyce's diction reveals the conclusion of the matter. Note his description of the "grave and ordered . . . passionless" life from which Stephen turns as he crosses the bridge over the Tolka and "descend[s]" into the disorder of the natural world.

When Stephen turns on the bridge and looks back, symbolically he is choosing between his mother's religiously restricted world (his mother's name is Mary, the same as the name of the Blessed Virgin) and his father's irresponsible and reckless world. For the present, Stephen turns from religion and enters his father's world, but eventually Stephen will reject the restrictions of both worlds, preferring to create a new and better life, one which offers more hope for his future.

Stephen decides that his new life should begin with his studying at the university. The possibility of limitless knowledge excites him to view the beauty of the day and enunciate his feelings about its beauty in a vivid arrangement of words that he retrieves from his memory lore: "A day of dappled seaborne clouds," he says. He realizes that the beauty of the day can be captured, contained, and painted in words. The artist in Stephen has once again surfaced.

Also simultaneously as he is "fabricating" his poetic vision, he is addressed by his friends as "Stephanos the Dedalos," and he realizes that his destiny lies with the spirit of his mythical namesake.

This scene intricately interweaves references to Daedalus and Icarus as they both relate to Stephen's experience of leaving adolescence behind and entering the adult world. Joyce refers to Stephen's hearing the "noise of the dim waves" calling him to freedom; he imagines that he can see a "winged form [Daedalus' son Icarus] flying . . . and climbing the air." This symbol from the Daedalus myth becomes clearer; it is a "hawklike man flying sunward above the sea." Then Joyce draws our attention to the fate of Icarus, and we hear the playful comments of one of Stephen's friends crying out: "O, cripes, I'm drowned!"

As the boys call out to Stephen, "Stephaneforos!" (effero in Latin means "to designate, or call forth by name"), the rebellious boy within Stephen dies (young Icarus drowns), and the great artist within Stephen (Daedalus) emerges. Joyce emphasizes the significance of this moment of death/birth by saying, "His soul had arisen from the grave of boyhood, spurning her graveclothes." This passage, reminiscent of Lazarus' and, specifically, of Christ's resurrection from the dead, is followed by a repeated affirmation of life, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" (words which Joyce reiterates in the final chapter of Ulysses). Stephen is announcing the new "freedom and power of his soul" which he intends to express through his life as an artist.

This moment of heightened emotion and artistic spirituality marks the climax of the novel, and Joyce provides Stephen with an accompanying epiphany. His description of a young woman standing in the sea is difficult for most readers to comprehend initially, but a careful examination of the imagery reveals the incredible impact of this experience on Stephen.

This scene is best understood if one views it as two separate scenes — first, we must realize that the girl is both an object of worship and an object of desire; second, the girl is a vehicle which compels the latent artist in Stephen to come forth. These two views overlay one another and effect Stephen's transition from adolescence into manhood.

The girl is a composite of the ideal female. We see her mythical significance as a "magic . . . strange and beautiful seabird," a bird that is also kin to the Daedalus myth. In addition, she is adorned with "emerald" (Irish) seaweed. For Stephen (the young, latent artist), she is both spiritual and intensely physical. She is "pure" and "ivory," and, at the same time, Stephen is keenly aware of her sexual allure, triggered by the sight of "the white fringes of her drawers." Stephen refers to her as a "darkplumaged dove"; this is an ideal oxymoron for this particular situation: doves are usually white, but this symbolic dove is dark, like Shakespeare's dark temptress.

Unlike the women whom Stephen has previously desired, this one accepts his worshipful desire and invites him to express his natural reaction of wonder. She encourages him by moving "her foot hither and thither," and, ultimately, she kindles Stephen's artistic nature by returning his gaze with the approval of the "faint flame . . . on her cheek." In Stephen's cry, "Heavenly God," he proclaims the "advent" of his life's purpose. He has discovered that he can see with the eyes of a man and, simultaneously, with the eyes of an artist. Afterward, he sleeps, awaiting the dawn of a new day and the dawn of his new life as a young artist.

Glossary

ejaculation a short, sudden prayer or exclamation.

rosary a series of prayers (usually said with rosary beads) consisting of 15 decades (a group of 10) of aves, each decade being preceded by a Paternoster and followed by a Gloria Patri. One of the mysteries or events in the life of Christ or the Virgin Mary is recalled at each decade.

the three theological virtues faith, hope, and charity.

Paraclete another name for the Holy Ghost.

twigging scraping a twig broom across a carpet.

foxpapered discolored by age or mildew.

Inter ubera mea commorabitur part of Song of Solomon (1:13), rendered in Latin. The entire verse reads: "My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh that lies between my breasts." Traditionally the image suggests Christ's precious relation to the Church.

dominicans a Catholic order founded by St. Dominic for the purpose of saving souls by preaching the gospel.

franciscans a Catholic order founded by St. Francis for the purpose of imitating Christ's life of asceticism, coupled with a deep love of nature. Today, the order is associated with learning.

a muff someone who's awkward at sports; here, Stephen is using the term to describe his youthful naivete at Clongowes.

thurible a censer, where the incense is burned.

chasuble a sleeveless, outer garment worn by the priest who celebrates the mass.

paten the metal plate on which the bread is placed for the celebration of the Eucharist.

Ite, missa est words spoken at the end of the Mass, meaning "Go, the Mass is ended."

the sin of Simon Magus a magician who tried to persuade Peter and John to sell to him the power to confer the spirit of the Holy Ghost.

a novena a devotion consisting of prayers on nine consecutive days.

a stuff in the kisser a punch in the face.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

After he commits the “violent sin” where does Stephen hear sermons that terrify him?




Quiz