A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
James Joyce
Contributed by Cinderella Domino
Chapter 4

Stephen immerses himself in the rituals of the Roman Catholic faith. He is resolved to be pious and give his life over to God.  He must purge himself of the sins he has committed and the temptations that he faces daily. He engages on a strict regime of prayer, attending services and austerity.  He suffers the freezing early morning conditions in order to make his way to Mass. He observes all the fasts that arise during the Church Calendar. He tries to sleep without movement to bring each of his senses under his control.  For a short time he experiences exhilaration as he believes he is getting closer to God but he is wearing a mask, for deep down his old feelings still persist even though they are currently subdued. He is unable to keep up the discipline he has set himself and slowly his mask of piety starts to evaporate.  He starts to wonder whether his hasty confession to the Capuchin was truly genuine and he tries to justify the relevance of the confession by whether in fact he has changed his life. 

Stephen’s dedication to his faith does not go unnoticed and the School Director discusses with him the possibility of taking up a religious vocation. At first this is an attractive possibility. Stephen’s imagines what power he would have as a Priest.  The School Director does not quiz Stephen about his religious vocation; he just seems keen to sign up another recruit. After further consideration, Stephen realizes that he could not devote his entire life to the Priesthood and has doubts whether he could control his emotions in order for him to carry out his duties properly.

At home, he learns that his family has to move.  Their slide into poverty continues as his father’s debts mount. It seems that Stephen will have no stable home-life and spends little time with his family. He desperately desires to be free of his grim impoverished family and decides that his only chance of escape is through a University education.

He is concerned; however, that he still has no real direction in his life. He continues to be apart from his fellow students who by and large regard him as aloof.

Whilst walking by the sea he observes a young girl who is wading in the water with her skirts tucked up around her waist.  Stephen is moved by the beauty of the scene and the girl turns and returns his gaze. Through his senses Stephen is in awe of the beautiful scene.  Although he sexually desires the girl, this is outweighed by his view of her through his artistic eyes. This unknown girl suddenly enables Stephen to see where his future lies and it is not in Ireland, but abroad where he can shake off the oppressive life he has led to date.


The start of this Chapter deals with Stephen’s quest to return to the fold after his sinful excesses. We see the pendulum swing from one extreme to the other; from Stephen’s reveling to his piety. He is determined to become a zealous Catholic depriving himself of all the normal comforts and enduring physical hardship in order to be closer to God. 

Again there are parallels to Joyce’s own youth when he went through a spiritual revival, and through Stephen, Joyce is poking fun at the Roman Catholic faith.  Despite all the hardships Stephen and Joyce went through, they do not obtain any comfort and they realize that this is not the way to become closer to God. The way to God is much broader than the road that is preoccupied with ceremony and rituals. Stephen misguidedly thinks that the way to God is to make the senses suffer. Perhaps the fact that Stephen voluntarily makes himself suffer comes home to him when he sees the suffering endured by his own family, which is forced upon them by Simon’s mounting debts. In particular Stephen’s mother suffers, not by choice, yet she does not seem to have knowledge of God’s great mystery of love.

It is not long before Stephen feels to need to escape from the self-imposed prison in which his spirit resides.  There is an interesting passage when Stephen crosses the bridge over the Tolka River. He looks back on his earlier years when he sees the Shrine of the Blessed Virgin. He has difficulty in recalling it. His memory seems blurred on the subject.

Just when Stephen is at a crossroads in his life he is approached by the School Director with a proposal that he take up a religious vocation. It was standard practice to recruit promising students into the Priesthood and those that took up the offer would do so for a number of reasons - some for the power they could wield or to carry out missionary work dedicating a whole life in the service of God, and others are attracted to the Priesthood because of the rituals. Stephen’s first thought concerns the power he would have as a Priest, but after further consideration he realizes that he could not tolerate the strict way of life he would have to follow. “Once a Priest always a Priest, remember.  Your catechism tells you that the sacrament of Holy orders is one of those which can be received only once because it imprints on the soul an indelible spiritual mark which can never be effaced.”

Joyce satirizes the nature of the Roman Catholic faith.  This is typical of the doctrines that he rebelled against.  The above statement from the catechism is mere conjecture and is designed to instill fear into those that are considering taking Holy orders.  It is far removed from God’s love and is more akin to the wrathful, vengeful God of the Old Testament.

Throughout this Chapter Joyce uses elaborate religious imagery. 

During Stephen’s interview with the Director, Joyce uses imagery to great effect.  We read Joyce’s description of the Director as follows:-

“The Director stood in the embrasure of the window, his back to the light, leaning an elbow on the brown crossblind, ’’ the Priest’s face was in total shadow, but the waning daylight from behind him touched the deeply grooved temples and the curves of the skull.”

Joyce purposely describes the Director as appearing like an icon, but the Director’s behavior soon reverses this image.  Again we have reference to a skull where you will remember that the Rector at Clongowes also had a skull on his desk. Joyce is clearly indicating to the reader that should Stephen decide to embark on a vocation in the Priesthood, it would mean the death of his free spirit.

At the end of the meeting with the Director Stephen feels embarrassed by the Director’s flippant attitude.  Again there is a feeling of betrayal, which is a theme that runs through the novel. Stephen feels that the Director is betraying his own Roman Catholic faith and in a way is betraying him by not taking the meeting seriously.

At the end, there is no doubt as to the decision Stephen will make.  Taking on a religious vocation will not solve Stephen’s problems. A career as a Priest is out of the question because it would bring too much control and confinement. He cannot stay with his own family because there lays disorder and chaos.  Ireland itself, his homeland, is controlled by the English and the Roman Catholic Church, so Stephen’s only course is to obtain education so that he can escape country, Church and family.

The end of Chapter 4 deals with Stephen’s walk by the seashore.  It is full of lyrical passages providing a descriptive and beautiful portrayal of the seascape.  He comes across a girl and we read, “A girl stood before him in mid-stream, alone and still, gazing out to sea.  She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh. Her thighs, fuller and soft hued as ivory, were bared almost to the hips, where the white fringes of her drawers were like feathering of soft white down.”  Again we have reference to birds. This symbolizes Stephen’s spirit, which up until now has been caged and longs to fly free in the sky.

Stephen experiences a mix of desire for the girl and wonder at the aesthetic beauty of the picture. He realizes that he can paint this picture in words and at last he is beginning to form an idea of what his future might hold.

This scene marks the emotional and artistic climax of the novel. The girl he describes is seen by the reader as the perfect female. There is a mystical quality to the image she projects. She is likened to a graceful bird, the crane, and her Irish ness is symbolized by the emerald green seaweed. Although Stephen feels a sexual attraction towards her, Joyce stresses the fact that the girl is innocent with references to purity and ivory.  However, there is a hint of Stephen’s darker side when he refers to the girl as a dark plumaged dove, for doves are usually considered to be white, and her situation tempts Stephen. Perhaps Joyce has been influenced by the French artist Renoir who was a famous Impressionist artist who delighted in painting the human figure, particularly women. Two of his most famous works were ‘Bathers’ and ‘After the Bath’.

We now learn that Stephen’s soul contains the image of this girl for eternity far removed from the indelible mark he would have borne had he taken Holy orders.  “Her image had passed into his soul forever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy. Her eyes had called him and his soul had leaped at the call.”

The girl is quite aware of Stephen’s gaze, and she excites him by moving “her foot hither and thither”.  This only serves to make Stephen’s artistic nature glow. 

In a state of euphoria, Stephen falls asleep on the beach and refreshed, wakens as night falls.

Stephen will meet the next day as a young artist.

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