Friday, January 11, 2013

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

Just as Stephen Dedalus's sexual ecstasy declines into lechery in Chapter Three, his religious fervor quickly devolves into narrow-minded zealotry. He devotes himself to religious contemplation, laying out "his daily devotional areas" and practicing supererogation. Yet, although Stephen imagines himself growing closer to eternity, his base motives and rigid methodology undermine his chance at true spiritual growth. Like the "businesslike priest" from "Grace", Stephen transforms spirituality into a crude transaction. He even imagines his "soul in devotion pressing like fingers the keyboard of a great cash register" until "the amount of his purchase" ends up in heaven.

Despite his efforts to pray constantly and mortify his flesh, Stephen discovers that he has less patience and compassion for others than he had before. He becomes angry at his poor mother when she sneezes, or at his other family members when they "disturb his devotions." If his spirituality does not make him a more loving, kind person, what does that say about the practices of the Catholic church? To his discouragement, Stephen remembers his Jesuit masters displaying similar signs of trivial anger--"twitching mouths, closeshut lips and flushed cheeks." This lack of patience reflects the unbalanced lives both the priests and Stephen lead; their excessive devotion to the spirit leads them to neglect or even abuse their bodies and their emotional lives. Ultimately, Stephen finds himself stuck in another rut, this time one of "spiritual dryness" and desolation. Though he confessed his sins and received absolution, he still feels guilty.

Stephen's intense piety does not go unobserved. The director of his college invites him to his office to ask Stephen if he has a vocation (a calling to join the priesthood). Yet even in the beginning of their meeting, Stephen's mind wanders as he remembers all the naive and romantic beliefs of his youth. In particular, he remembers his disillusionment when he discovered the brittle texture of women's stockings, when he had imagined them to be as soft as rose petals. These musings foreshadow Stephen's growing disillusionment with the church. He feels fond of his masters, but has gradually realized how deeply their religious beliefs have limited their intellectual capabilities. He's embarrassed when he remembers how one of his Jesuit masters insisted that Victor Hugo became a lesser writer after he gave up Catholicism. Throughout the chapter, Stephen gradually recognizes that his own unbalanced spiritual devotion will inhibit his intellectual and emotional development, as it has inhibited his masters.

Belvedere College, Dublin

The school director nonetheless does an excellent job of appealing to Stephen, despite his many doubts. The old priest cleverly appeals to Stephen's pride by telling him that a vocation for the priesthood is the highest honor God can bestow upon a man, and that "no angel or archangel in heaven, no saint, not even the Virgin herself has the power of a priest of God." Indeed, Stephen briefly fantasizes about his life as a priest, imagining the pomp and circumstance and his own preening humility as he embraces the priestly role.

But the second he steps outside Belvedere College, Stephen sees the energy, freedom, and passion of the outside world embodied in four joyful young men, who are singing and half dancing down the street. In contrast, the director's face shows only "a mirthless reflection of the sunken day." As he considers the "grave and ordered and passionless life" that awaits him as a priest, Stephen feels a "feverish quickening of his pulses" and deep unrest. When he thinks about who he'd become as a priest, he sees his face "eyeless and sourfavored and devout, shot with pink tinges of suffocated anger."

As Stephen realizes that he will never become a priest, the separation he feels from his family and fellow men fades away. Instead of feeling impatience with his family, he smiles at "this disorder, the misrule and confusion of his father's house." Still, even his new found sense of camaraderie does not prepare him for the news that the family must move again because their landlord is kicking them out. Stephen listens "with pain of spirit to the overtone of weariness behind their fresh innocent voices." His brooding melancholy reminds him of Newman and Virgil, perhaps foreshadowing his budding desire to become a poet.
In the next section of the chapter, Joyce reveals the new direction in Stephen's life: attending university. Instead of a dull, passionless life, he seeks a new adventure. As if to emphasize the contrast between his new life and the priest's life he successful avoided, Stephen sees a troop of Christian Brothers, looking humble and plain. Despite recognizing their goodness and humble piety, Stephen feels nothing but shame and commiseration for them. But a beautiful poetic phrase quickly pulls him out of his dull bitterness, and once again Stephen feels alive with the beauty and poetry all around him.

As he walks through Dublin, some of his friends call out to him while they swim on the beach. But Stephen does not reply to their calls, instead heeding the "lust of wandering in his feet" as he vows to "create proudly out of the freedom and power of his soul." As he wonders, he encounters the bird-girl, a young woman who's wading in the stream. Stephen is enchanted by the girl's beauty, to him she "seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird." He is so effected by her that he believes that her "image had passed into his soul for ever [although] no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy." Stephen wonders on, feeling the wild call of the creative life, enjoying his youth and freedom in a joyful world.

Other blogs for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Five

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 James Joyce's Ulysses: 

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