Following on from Chapter 2, the start of Chapter 3 deals with Stephen’s sinfulness and his association with the Dublin prostitutes. “The whores would be just coming out of their houses making ready for the night, yawning lazily after their sleep and settling the hairpins in their clusters of hair. He would pass by them calmly waiting for a sudden movement of his own will or a sudden call to his sin loving soul from their soft perfumed flesh.” This section together with the last paragraph of Chapter 2 shows how Joyce’s use of words can conjure up a scene. Here it is the dark world of the prostitute that is examined and while the words in themselves are not sordid, the passage as a whole conjures up the atmosphere and Stephen’s desire to be engulfed by it.
Stephen submits himself to this sinful world. His lusting after the prostitutes increases his appetite, and he becomes a glutton. He now seems quicker to anger, and his overall behavior spreads into the other deadly sins – avarice, pride, envy, sloth. This degeneration slowly drains his whole spirit and his whole being.
Stephen is thrown a lifeline to escape from this existence when he hears of the 3 Day Spiritual Retreat. During this time, Stephen will hear three sermons, based on Ecclesiastes Ch.7, Isaiah Ch.5, and Psalm 30. All three texts are from the Old Testament and we can well imagine the Bible thumping Father Arnall instilling fear on his captured congregation describing the fire and brimstone of hell. The design of the sermons is to awaken even the dullard, so the impact on Stephen with his vivid imagination is striking. His recent sins are all too fresh in his mind.
In Ecclesiastes Chapter 7, we read, “The wiles of a woman I find mightier than death; her heart is a trap to catch you and her arms are fetters. The man who is pleasing to God may escape her, but she will catch a sinner.” Stephen will feel that he has been caught through the sin of lust and his behavior will be well known to God.
In Isaiah Chapter 5, we read, “Shame on you! You who rise to go in pursuit of liquor and draw out the evening inflamed with wine, at whose feasts there are harp and lute, tabor and pipe and wine, who have no eyes for the work of the Lord, and never see the things that he has done’’ but the Lord of Hosts sits high in judgement.” This follows on from the previous text. This whole section of Isaiah deals with the shame in being a sinner and Stephen feels this shame directly. He needs to confess, but cannot do so in the College Chapel and finds a more discreet place in which to obtain forgiveness.
The final sermon is based on Psalm 30, where we read of the joy of a sinner repentant and lifted up from those who are to go down into the abyss. “O Lord thou has brought me up from Sheol and saved my life as I was sinking into the abyss’’ Thou hast turned my laments into dancing; thou has stripped off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy that my spirit may sing psalms to Thee and never cease.” Stephen’s spiritual state at present is such that he will fall into the abyss and suffer the physical torments of hell and will know of the joy of heaven, but will never be able to experience it.
Stephen is resolved to obtain a state of grace by receiving absolution for his sins. He gets this by seeking out an old kindly Capuchin Cleric who seems rather off-hand about Stephen’s sins. No doubt the locality of his Chapel in Church Street means that he will not be shocked by the level of Stephen’s sinfulness, and the penance he gives Stephen will not match the penance Stephen imposes on himself later on. Stephen will wonder whether he has received true absolution later as he appears to have gone for the easy option in not seeking absolution from one of his own Priests.
From Chapter 1 we were aware of Stephen’s sensitivity and how he perceived the world through his senses. Like Joyce, we know that Stephen had problems with his eyesight and this will have enhanced his other senses. Coupled with Stephen’s imagination he is assaulted by the imagery described by Father Arnall through his sermons. By the end of these three days, Stephen can smell, hear, feel the pain, and see what is in store for those that are damned to Lucifer’s realm. We are reminded of Lucifer’s downfall and Stephen parallels his own possible fate to that of Lucifer.
Stephen can save himself and he is guided in this by the Capuchin Cleric who directs him towards the Blessed Virgin. She represents the softer side of God who is depicted by Father Arnall as a vengeful, fearsome God. Joyce is making the point that the tone of the sermons is extreme and he is making a direct criticism of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland in that it does not give enough emphasis to the God of love. Even when reference is made to Jesus, it is not as a bringer of peace, but as one who suffered pain on the cross in order to bring salvation to mankind.
The reader may think that Stephen has over-reacted, but he is only 16 years of age and still feels quite vulnerable even though he enjoys some degree of importance at Belvedere College. In fact he would normally be a role model for the younger boys and this is another aspect that makes Stephen feel guilty. Although he continues to be a somewhat solitary figure, he still recognizes that he has some responsibility to his fellow students.
There had always been a special place in his heart for Emma, but we learn that he desecrated his image of her by concocting letters regarding her of a sordid nature. He had left these in a place where a young girl might find them. The relevance of this incident and others is that they parallel similar events in the young Joyce’s life. When Joyce was apart from Nora Barnacle he wrote a series of “foul long letters”, which survived despite Nora’s efforts to destroy them. In Ellman’s biography of Joyce he suggests that the contents of these letters provide an insight into Joyce’s literary treatment of women.
It is evident that the fear of God was instilled into Joyce by the Priests of the Jesuit Schools, which resulted in Joyce’s own image of hell, which is recounted in this book. Like Stephen, Joyce has acute senses and these were accosted by the imagery that God is a fearful God and not a God of love. Rightly or wrongly, Joyce vents his criticism of the Roman Catholic Church he has had experience of.
Joyce does not wish to lay bare his own soul, so it is up to the reader to decide how much of Joyce is in Stephen and vice-versa.
In the end, Joyce is stating that it is not the degradation of the human spirit through sin, nor the physical and psychological tortures of hell that is the factor in making Stephen confess his sins, but the fact that if he remains unrepentant, he will be forever removed from God’s divine presence. However, this is not the God of vengeance, but the God of love.
The Chapter concludes with Stephen’s rededication to a life without sin.