Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Chapter Three from James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man"

If Stephen Dedalus finds sexual ecstasy a blessed relief in Chapter Two of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by Chapter Three his fleshly desires have devolved into hedonism and lechery. Throughout the chapter, Stephen compares himself to a vulgar beast, and he grapples with guilt and shame.

For example, in the opening paragraphs, Stephen "feels his belly crave for food," and hears it counsel him to "stuff it in you." Stephen's focus on the primitive, gluttonous desires of his body demonstrate that he is neglecting his spiritual and intellectual sides. Sex, which seemed a dark and beautiful mystery at the end of the previous chapter, has also lost its luster. The young woman in a pink dress from Chapter Two, her profession left unmentioned, has given way to scenes of "whores...yawning lazily after their sleep and settling hairpins in their cluster of hair." Gone is the romance and excitement of Stephen's first experience--instead, Joyce depicts the women Stephen visits as pedestrian whores. While Stephen previously reveled in a fragment from Shelley's poem, now he imagines that his soul is "quenching its own lights and fires" and instead equating himself to a pale moon, he feels like "cold darkness filled chaos." Stephen's indifference reflects the lack of balance in his life; like many adolescents, he continually goes to extremes. In this case, his extreme focus on his bodily pleasures leaves him spiritually empty.

But Stephen does not remain in this state for long. He is initially repelled by "sickly smell of cheap hairoil" he notes in churchgoers, showing a contempt for people based on superficial physical characteristics, but his school requires its students to attend a religious retreat in honor of their patron saint, Francis Xavier.  This retreat gradually awakens Stephen's spiritual side, driving him though stages of guilt and fear until he finally makes his confession and discovers spiritual ecstasy.

The retreat opens with the return of Father Arnall, one of Stephen's masters from his childhood at Clongowes. Seeing his old teacher reminds Stephen of his lost innocence and childhood, and his soul "[becomes] again a child's soul." This begins the awakening of Stephen's soul--the return to childhood represents the first stage of his spiritual development. During Father Arnall's first speech he tells the boys that the purpose of the retreat is to help them focus on their souls without the distraction of studies or worldly influences. In particular, the priest intends to focus on the "four last things," which are "death, judgement, hell, and heaven." The priest's words have a profound effect on Stephen. His disgust with himself increases, and he imagines that "his soul was fattening and congealing into a gross grease," yet he also a dull fear. His focus on his body leaves his spiritual side deeply unsatisfied, and thus vulnerable to the fearful manipulations of religion.

Father Arnall's lecture the next day focuses on death and judgement, and in his guilt and terror Stephen empathizes so deeply with the dying and condemned that he "felt the deathchill touch the extremities and creep onward to the heart." Stephen convinces himself that "every word of [Father Arnall's lecture] is for him" and that the "whole wrath of God" aimed at his sins. If before he felt disgusted with himself, now he feels ashamed. Yet, though he agonizes about his sins, Stephen still feels helpless to seek forgiveness or ameliorate his guilt in any way. This helplessness echoes the impotence he felt while watching the adults argue as a child in Chapter One, or the frustration he felt in Chapter Two when he can't find Emma after his play.
The priest's next lecture lasts for six page, and focuses on the fall of Lucifer and the tortures of hell. It is stuffed with the most vile tortures that ever a twisted old man thought up to terrify young people into religion. The hell he describes is so merciless, so abjectly frightening, that it's hard to imagine what kind of demon God would create such a place. Father Arnall describes the damned as "so utterly bound and helpless that...they are not even able to remove from the eye a worm that gnaws it." God designed this "straitness" to punish those "who refused to be bound by his laws." The damned lie in complete darkness, and the stench of hell is "like some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing in the grave, a jelly-like mass of liquid corruption." But all those other physical tortures pale beside the unending fire that "rages with incredible intensity [and] it rages forever." Hell, according to the priest, also contains the miserable company of the damned and the demons, who scream and howl at each other.

Stephen is so deeply affected by this nightmarish speech that he fears he has already died, and that at any moment God would cast him into the pit. He thinks "his brain [is] simmering and bubbling within the cracking tenement of the skull." It's only the mundane voices of his classmates that bring Stephen back to reality, and remind him that he's still very much alive. Grateful for his reprieve, Stephen vows to repent of his evil deeds. Yet, given a chance to make his confession, he does not go, to ashamed to reveal his sexual sins to the priests at his school. But the old priest has still another lecture (eight pages) with which to rouse Stephen from his reluctance to confess. This one discusses the spiritual pains of hell, namely being deprived of the divine light, the pain of conscience, the pains of extension and intensity, and worst of all, the eternity of hell. These spiritual pains somewhat contradict the previous lecture, where the priest said that the damned have no humanity or conscience in hell, but only rage against their fate and the people who lead them astray. Despite Father Arnall's insistence that God is just, and that sin is so vile he must punish it this way, it's clear that the endless tortures he imagines the damned suffer seem deeply disproportional to their actual sins.  Stephen feels intensely guilty and frightened as he listens to this lecture, believing every word is for him. Yet his actual sin, sleeping with prostitutes, is a fairly mild one, and likely a very common one for men of that time period.

At last, Stephen returns home, and still feeling the pain of conscience, imagines the hell God has in store for him. He dreams of a field of rank weeds and nasty smells coming from "stale crusted dung." He imagines himself in a "stinking, bestial, malignant...hell of lecherous goatish fiends." Stephen is so distraught over his dream that he leaps from bed and rushes to an anonymous chapel to confess. After his intense guilt and fear, the relief of confession leaves Stephen in a state of bliss. He feels pure and holy, and just as he had experienced sexual/bodily ecstasy at the end of Chapter Two, now he experiences religious/spiritual ecstasy. But the intensity of his religious fervor leaves him unbalanced again--caring only for his soul, and neglecting his intellect and his body.

Blogs for James Joyce's Dubliners:

"The Sisters" and "An Encounter"

"After the Race" and "Two Gallants"

"A Little Cloud" and "Counterparts"

"Clay" and "A Painful Case"

"Ivy Day in the Committee Room"

"A Mother"


"The Dead"

Blogs for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Blogs for James Joyce's Ulysses: 

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