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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

by James Joyce

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Chapter 4 Summary

  • The aforementioned "new life" is pretty intense. We learn that he has gone from being a sinner to practically being a monk. His life is based around a religious schedule; he honors a different saint or religious mystery every day of the week.
  • Every part of Stephen’s day is devoted to religious practice. He prays constantly and feels like his prayers are adding up on the tally of some great cash register in the sky.
  • Stephen has always showed an interest in religion (usually from a questioning point of view), but now, he’s completely, 110% invested in it. Rather than asking questions, Stephen acts like a wholehearted believer, and he follows the rules of the Catholic doctrine compulsively.
  • Stephen’s entire life is scheduled around different prayers at different times. Some of the central elements of his religious timetable include praying three times daily to the Holy Trinity, praying every day of the week to the Holy Spirit to help him overcome the Seven Deadly Sins, and even carrying his rosary around in his pocket so he can run his fingers over it as he walks around the city.
  • Stephen’s rigorous discipline and attention to detail are actually pretty darn amazing. Picture that friend (or cousin, or sibling, etc) you have that’s totally, unhealthily, unbelievably obsessed with something – say, "World of Warcraft." Back in the day, we at Shmoop had siblings we didn’t see for months because of their inconceivable "Dungeons and Dragons" fixations. (Hey, we’re not judging.) Anyway, picture that amount of dedication, then multiply it by ten.
  • Stephen can’t believe how empty his life seemed before this embrace of Catholicism. He finds a deep and abiding belief in God – and in love – that was missing before. The whole world seems like it only exists to demonstrate the total mind-blowing amazingness of the Powers that Be. The Stephen of the first three chapters is gone here; this chapter is missing a lot of the descriptive detail we saw earlier because Stephen isn’t looking for it.
  • Actually, Stephen is trying his best to ignore his senses completely. He forces himself to undergo an intense and thoroughly revolting process of "mortification" to both undo his shameful, shameful past and to prevent any future sins that might come along. In short, what this means is that Stephen is consciously denying his body of any sensory pleasures.
  • This process is incredibly precise and obviously took a lot of thought on his part. Sure, he may be a total religious fanatic at this point, but we’re awfully impressed by how scientifically he is going about this whole thing. We get a lot of details from Joyce on what Stephen does to eliminate all sensory input.
  • He "mortifies" his sense of sight by only looking down when he walks through the crowded Dublin streets. He especially avoids the gaze of women. This is an ambitious idea and all, but we can’t help but wonder if Stephen also sustains a lot of minor injuries at this time in his life. Seriously, he must have run into a lot of people… and horses… and lampposts…
  • The next image is also simultaneously serious and hilarious to imagine. Although his adolescent voice is changing, Stephen makes no effort to control it, reasoning that he would only be trying to avoid embarrassment and sonic displeasure. We wonder if he takes into consideration the fact that other people aren’t necessarily mortifying their senses, since the sound of his adolescent yodeling is probably more irritating to them. He also makes himself put up with the sounds that he hates, like the screech of knives being sharpened.
  • Stephen invents a characteristically innovative and bizarre way of mortifying his sense of smell. He has an especially high tolerance for smells most people find disgusting, and he discovers that the only odor he can’t stand is that of urine that’s been sitting out for a while – so he forces himself to endure it whenever the opportunity arises.
  • To take all the joy out of eating, Stephen observes all of the holy fasts on the Church calendar, and he tries to distract himself during meals in order to avoid the pleasures of food.
  • Finally, Stephen brings his artistic creativity and ingenuity to the mortification of his sense of touch. He takes a bunch of little steps – never moving into a comfortable position in bed, kneeling constantly in church, even doing things as odd as leaving his face wet after he washes it and walking with his hands at his sides all the time, as Mike Flynn, the sketchy track coach, once told him to do.
  • Even though he doesn’t feel the temptation to sin big-time anymore, Stephen gets all in a tizzy because of the things he still can’t control – normal things like getting annoyed at his mother for sneezing or getting irritated when someone disturbs his prayers.
  • The idea that, despite all his hard work, he could still be like everyone else drives Stephen crazy. He can’t understand why he isn’t perfect yet.
  • This sense of discontent leads Stephen to think again about sin. He thinks of the power and responsibility he has: he could ruin everything he’s accomplished just by giving in to dirty thoughts. All it would take is one act and . . . Poof! . . . he’s back in Sin City.
  • We see Stephen go through ups and downs with his faith, as he wonders if he’s really saved from hell or not.
  • Stephen is in the office of the college’s director. He’s approaching the end of his time at Belvedere, which must make him about seventeen-ish. The director talks on and on, relating little priest in-jokes and anecdotes. We get a lot of description of the priest’s face; there’s something kind of creepy about the image of his skull and shadowed face.
  • The priest mentions a discussion among different orders of monks about dress code. The traditional outfit for priests of all kinds was a long, dress-like robe. The director mentions that in Belgium, they are called "les jupes" (in French, this means "skirts"). This word brings back images of Stephen’s former sins – the feeling of a woman’s stocking, the idea of a female body moving within soft clothes.
  • Stephen feels the priest observing his reaction to this lighthearted conversation. He thinks of all of the priests that taught him, both at Clongowes and Belvedere, and of the respect he had for them. Now, however, he’s starting to feel intellectually superior to some of them; this makes him feel a little regretful and sad, since it means that he’s moving out of childhood and into the adult world. He remembers a recent incident in which one of the priests made some exaggerated comments about how Victor Hugo’s prose style suffered after he broke with the Catholic Church. Stephen thinks it’s silly to judge a writer by his relation to the Church.
  • Stephen gets distracted by his fractured memories of childhood – his reflections are even more vague than they have been in previous chapters.
  • The priest finally gets to the point of the conversation. He wants to know if Stephen has considered joining the Jesuits, since he’s a model student and all-around star. The director tries to convince Stephen that the priesthood is his calling – the best anyone could hope for.
  • Stephen admits that he has occasionally thought about becoming a priest. He is flattered that the director thinks he’s worthy of such an honor.
  • Stephen’s romantic dreams of Mercedes have been replaced by a new, equally romantic image of himself as a young, dignified priest. He imagines himself taking on secondary roles at mass; he’s intimidated by the idea of being the center of the ritual. He prefers to think of himself occupying some smaller but necessary role.
  • The priest’s spiel is pretty seductive. Stephen is titillated by the idea of all the "secret knowledge and secret power" that he could gain through the priesthood. In our opinion, there’s something super sketchy about this power; he gets off on the idea of hearing the sins of women and girls while keeping himself immune from sin and depravity.
  • (This is probably a good sign that Stephen is not cut out for the priesthood.)
  • The director tells Stephen that he will dedicate tomorrow’s mass to him, hoping that God show him whether or not to join the priesthood. He also instructs Stephen to pray to his patron saint (St. Stephen) to ask about his true calling.
  • As Stephen leaves the director’s office, he’s thrilled by a sudden burst of music from the street. He’s unsettled when he sees the priest’s joyless face, which doesn’t react at all to the music.
  • Stephen realizes that the life he could have in the priesthood is a dull and passionless existence. He imagines his first night in the dormitory where new priests live, and it brings back unpleasant images of his boarding school days at Clongowes.
  • The more he thinks about this possible new life, the less Stephen likes it. The mere thought of a cold, ordered, dreary life in the priesthood repels him. He recoils at the image of the Reverend S.J. Dedalus; all his feelings of difference and individuality reject this common identity.
  • Suddenly, Stephen’s respect for his former teachers is replaced by laughable memories of the goofy nicknames given to them by students, and of the sour, unhealthy expressions upon their faces.
  • Stephen realizes that he will never be a priest. Furthermore, he’s certain that he would fail to uphold his vows if he joined the order, since his destiny is to learn the sinful ways of the world on his own.
  • Upon returning to the unruly and ramshackle Dedalus home, Stephen shows his first glimmer of humor in a long time – thankfully! After these two deadly serious chapters, a little relief is very welcome. He’s amused by the idea that the disorder of his family’s home, which smells of rotten cabbages, seems better than the secure, orderly life of the priesthood. He chuckles fondly at the thought of the quirky farmhand employed by his family, who was known as "the man with the hat."
  • In the kitchen, we see scraps of food and children strewn about everywhere. Stephen actually shows some tenderness towards his siblings for the first time (actually, this is only the second time we’ve seen any mention of siblings at all!). He’s amazed that they aren’t bitter towards him, despite the fact that as the older child he has privileges they don’t have.
  • Stephen asks where Mom and Pop Dedalus are. One of the children answers in a Pig Latin-esque kid language that translates as: man and dad are looking for a new house.
  • The idea of another move bothers Stephen. Even though we haven’t heard about it much, the Dedalus family has evidently been on the move a lot; their financial situation continues to worsen. He remembers his embarrassment when a boy at Belvedere asked him why his family moves so much.
  • Stephen asks the same question: why do they have to move again? The younger child answers, again in the silly child’s language, that their landlord will boot them out if they don’t leave.
  • Stephen’s youngest brother starts singing a hymn, and the other children join in. Stephen is troubled by the weariness he hears in their innocent voices. He wonders if this weariness exists in every person before they even start really living. Cardinal Newman, the Catholic writer mentioned at the beginning of Chapter Two, wrote that he noticed this same weariness in some of the Roman poet Virgil’s lines.
  • In the next section, Stephen is uneasily pacing back and forth, waiting for his father to emerge from a meeting about the possibility of sending Stephen to university. Stephen is so excited he can barely contain himself. He gets anxious and leaves.
  • His parents have mixed feelings about university; Mrs. Dedalus isn’t too jazzed about the idea, but Mr. Dedalus is characteristically proud. Stephen feels himself drifting apart from his mother because of this, and also because of his emerging disillusionment with religion.
  • The prospect of university life is thrilling to Stephen – after all, the opportunity to start over at college is priceless. His excitement makes him imagine wild, captivating music, which calls him toward his mysterious destiny. Again, we see that Stephen feels like there are great and unseen things waiting for him (again: don’t we all feel that way?).
  • After the freakishly and somewhat comically strict Stephen we saw at the beginning of the chapter, it’s really a relief to see the old Stephen reappear here. He’s interested in enjoying his senses (and life in general) again.
  • He thinks briefly about his close encounter with the priesthood – too close for comfort, actually – and wonders what made him turn away in the end.
  • Speaking of paths, Stephen is walking through the city, towards the river. On a narrow wooden bridge, a posse of priests passes him. Stephen tries to look them in the eye, but he is too embarrassed; ashamed, he watches their reflections pass by and greets them one by one.
  • He obviously has some mixed feelings toward the Holy Brotherhood, now that he’s decided not to join it.
  • Stephen turns to language to make himself feel better, just like he did as a little kid. He repeats a poetic phrase out loud: "A day of dappled seaborne clouds."
  • The next paragraph is an interesting series of multi-sensory images; Stephen ponders the "colours" of words and their "rhythmic rise and fall." Maybe he loves language because he doesn’t have great eyesight and has to express the world through words rather than images?
  • Stephen walks on towards the beach, lost in thought (nothing new here). While looking at some clouds, he has this weird primal experience in which he feels the spirit of the past around him.
  • As always, voices from the real world interrupt Stephen’s musings. He meets some of his school friends, who are swimming. He’s embarrassed by the awkwardness of their naked adolescent bodies (even though we’re pretty sure that Stephen’s just as awkward and gawky underneath his clothes and his superior attitude!).
  • The boys exchange lighthearted banter, and we sense that Stephen is more popular than he was before. That’s pretty understandable, seeing as the whole religious zealot act probably didn’t win him too many points in the social arena.
  • His schoolmates jibe him a little about his weird name, which sets Stephen on another tangential flight of fancy. This time, he thinks about his last name, Dedalus, which is certainly not your average Irish moniker.
  • So, remember when we told you not to forget about Daedalus, the Greek inventor dude from the epigraph? This is a good time to look back and brush up on his story. As you may recall, Daedalus was, like, the most amazing craftsman ever. He appears in a number of Greek myths, and was constantly in demand for his awesomeness. Here, Stephen conjures up the image of Daedalus’s most famous invention, the feather-and-wax wings he made for himself and his young son, Icarus. The two of them escaped from the island of Crete by flying away; however, Icarus got a little over-excited and flew too high. It doesn’t take a master craftsman to figure out what happened next: Wax Wings + Hot Sun = Bye Bye, Young Birdboy.
  • Anyway, let’s return to our young Mr. Dedalus. Stephen imagines a "hawklike" man flying out over the sea to be a symbol for the great artist who creates something incredible out of everyday experience. This great artist, obviously, is what Stephen hopes to be. Let’s just hope he doesn’t fly too close to the sun.
  • Stephen feels his soul taking flight – finally, he knows what his destiny is! In this moment of epiphany, he suddenly realizes that he has left behind his uncertain boyhood. He feels a fierce and wild urge to create something vibrant and living.
  • A sudden wanderlust explodes in Stephen, and he feels a desperate need to get away and see the world. He takes off his shoes and heads down to the water.
  • Stephen feels a new wildness moving through his veins, and he wonders at the beauty of the landscape around him. He feels alone and happy in a new kind of life.
  • Suddenly, Stephen notices a girl standing and looking out to sea. She is shockingly beautiful, and he envisions her as a magical seabird.
  • The girl notices him and meets his gaze for a while, before looking down and blushing.
  • Stephen’s soul cries out for joy – he tears himself away from her and goes down the beach.
  • He imagines the girl has called to him, as though she were a wild angel, inspiring him to create art.
  • Stephen feels the world around him, and he finally feels able to locate his place within it. He falls asleep and dreams rapturous dreams.
  • When Stephen awakes, he is still filled with joy.

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