Skip over navigation

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

James Joyce

Chapter 4, Sections 2–3

Chapter 3, Section 3–Chapter 4, Section 1

Chapter 5, Sections 1–2

Summary

This was the call of life to his soul not the dull gross voice of the world of duties and despair, not the inhuman voice that had called him to the pale service of the altar.

Chapter 4, Section 2

Vacation has ended and Stephen is back in his Jesuit school, where he has been mysteriously summoned to a meeting with the director. Stephen goes to the director and listens to his idle discussion about whether or not the Capuchin priestly robe should be eliminated. The director laughingly refers to the robe as a "jupe," meaning "skirt" in French. Stephen feels awkward. The "jupe" reference calls up thoughts of women's undergarments in Stephen's mind. Stephen wonders why the director makes mention of skirts, and it occurs to him that the priest may be testing Stephen's response to the mention of women. The director asks Stephen whether he has ever felt he has a vocation, and urges him to consider a life in the church. The director says that the priesthood is the greatest honor bestowed on a man, but adds that it is a very serious decision to make.

At first, Stephen is intrigued by the thought of the priesthood, and pictures himself in the admired, respected role of the silent and serious priest carrying out his duties. As he imagines the bland and ordered life awaiting him in the church, however, he begins to feel a deep unrest burning inside him. He walks back home from school and passes a shrine to the Virgin Mary, but feels surprisingly cold toward it.

When Stephen sees his disorderly house, he knows that his fate is to learn wisdom not in the refuge of the church, but "among the snares of the world." Arriving home, he asks his brothers and sisters where their parents are. He learns that his parents are looking for yet another house because the family is about to be thrown out of its current one. Stephen reflects on how weary his siblings seem even before they have started on life's journey.

Chapter 4, Section 3

Stephen impatiently waits for his father and tutor to return with news about the possibility of his admission into the university. Stephen's mother is hostile to the idea, but Stephen feels that a great fate is in store for him. He sets off walking toward the sea, encountering a group of teacher friars on the way. He considers greeting them, but concludes that it is impossible to imagine them being generous toward him. He recites snatches of poetry and regards the light on the water. Stephen comes upon several of his schoolmates who are swimming, and they jokingly greet him as they say his name in Greek.

Reflecting on the myth of Daedalus that his name evokes, Stephen ponders his similarity to that "fabulous artificer" who constructed wings with which he flew out of imprisonment. Stephen is suddenly enraptured by this thought, and feels that he will soon begin building a new soul that will allow him to rise above current miseries. At that moment, he sees a beautiful girl wading in the water, her skirts hiked up high. He and the girl make eye contact for a moment. Stephen perceives her as an angel of youth and beauty, and he swoons inwardly. In the evening, he climbs a hill and watches the moon.

Analysis

Although Stephen's path through life continues to be guided by females, the kinds of women who influence him change as he grows older. The Virgin Mary has been Stephen's main object of devotion, but now she seems to have lost her power over him. When he passes by a shrine to the Virgin on his way home from school, he glances at it "coldly," no longer stirred by her presence. The school director's odd emphasis on the word "jupe," meaning "skirt," implies that some other woman may have replaced Mary in Stephen's heart. Stephen's turn away from the church and toward the world is emphasized when he turns from the Virgin to the beautiful girl he sees bathing. Importantly, this shift occurs directly after Stephen contemplates Daedalus's use of art to achieve freedom—a suggestion that Stephen will do the same. The bathing girl is a secular version of the Virgin Mary, an emblem of a means to rise to heaven, but without the church.

Joyce's novels are notable for their allusions to classic works of literature, as seemingly insignificant comments or phrases are often references to other novels, plays, or poems. One of the primary sources on which Joyce draws in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is Greek myth. The mythic aspect of the novel emerges clearly in this section with the reference to Daedalus. In Greek mythology, Daedalus was a renowned craftsman who built a pair of wings for himself and a pair for his son, in an attempt to escape imprisonment on the island of Crete. In this novel, Stephen's view of himself changes when his friends address him with a Greek version of his name. He suddenly begins to reflect on certain affinities between himself and that mythical "fabulous artificer," no longer defining himself through Christian doctrine by relating himself to Christ and Mary. Rather, Stephen turns to pagan sources and inspirations in his quest for self-definition. His name is significant. His first name alludes to the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen. His surname, however, alludes to a pagan character whose skill allows him to rise high above the world. In this section, Stephen begins to shift his emphasis from his first name to his last name. He dwells on the idea of Daedalus's flight-giving wings, a piece of artisan handicraft that symbolizes the individual's ability to create art and the possibility of transcending worldly woes. Much as Daedalus escaped prison, Stephen dreams of escaping the misery of his impoverished family and narrow, sad life.

To Stephen, the vision of his mythical namesake is not just a hint of his own fate, but a prophecy of it, a prediction that cannot be avoided. Stephen's mental image of "a hawklike man flying sunward above the sea" strikes him as a "prophecy of the end he had been born to serve and had been following through the mists of childhood and boyhood." Daedalus is a "symbol of the artist forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being." This vision is not simply an image of his future, but of his childhood and boyhood as well. His vision reveals a hidden thread that connects Stephen's past, present, and future into one whole. Most important, perhaps, Stephen realizes that the art that he will forge is not merely a beautiful object, but an entire eternal existence. Through his art, Stephen creates an "imperishable being" very much like a soul—he will not just create literature, but will create himself.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us