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Stephen sits in the chapel as Father Arnall, appearing as a guest lecturer in Stephen's new school, reads a verse from the book of Ecclesiastes. The sight of his teacher reawakens Stephen's childhood memories of Clongowes, especially the time he was thrown into the cesspool and his subsequent recuperation in the infirmary. Father Arnall announces to the students that he is there to announce a retreat marking the day of St. Francis Xavier, patron saint of the college. The retreat, he explains, will not be simply a holiday from classes, but a withdrawal into inner contemplation of the soul, and of the soul's need to heed the four "last things": death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Father Arnall urges the boys to put aside all worldly thoughts and win the blessing of the soul's salvation.
Walking home in silence with his classmates, Stephen is aggrieved by the thought of the rich meal he has just eaten, and thinks it has made him into a bestial and greasy creature. The next day he falls even deeper into despair over the degraded state of his soul, suffering in agony and feeling a "deathchill." He imagines his weak and rotting body on its deathbed, unable to find the salvation it needs. Even worse, he pictures the Day of Judgment, when God will punish sinners with no hope of appeal or mercy.
Crossing the square, Stephen hears the laugh of a young girl. He thinks of Emma, pained by the thought that his filthy sexual escapades with prostitutes have soiled Emma's innocence. With feverish regret, he recalls all the whores with whom he has committed sins of the flesh. When this fit of shame passes, Stephen feels unable to raise his soul from its abject powerlessness. God and the Holy Virgin seem too far from him to help, until he imagines the Virgin reaching down to join his hands with Emma's in loving union. Stephen listens to the rain falling on the chapel and imagines another biblical flood coming.
When the service resumes, Father Arnall delivers a sermon about hell, recounting the original sin of Lucifer and his fellow angels who fell from heaven at God's command. Father Arnall describes the torments of hell in terrifying detail, beginning with the physical horrors. He graphically depicts the pestilential air of the place, spoiled by the stench of rotting bodies, and the fires of hell that rage intensely and eternally. The blood and the brains of the sinner boil with no hope of relief as he lies in hell's lake of fire. Even worse, warns Father Arnall, is the horrid company that must be endured by the hell-dweller: devils as well as other sinners.
The sermon leaves Stephen paralyzed with fear, recognizing that hell is his destination. After chapel, he numbly listens to the trivial talk of the other students, who are not as affected by the sermon as he is. In English class, Stephen can think only of his soul. When a messenger arrives with news that confessions are being heard, Stephen tries to imagine himself confessing, and is terrified. Back in chapel, Father Arnall continues his tour of hell by focusing on its spiritual torments, which horrify Stephen no less than the physical ones have earlier. Together with Father Arnall, all the boys pray for God's forgiveness.
In this section, we see Joyce borrowing from classic works of literature in innovative ways. Father Arnall's vision of hell, which leads to a turning point in young Stephen's life, draws heavily from Dante Alighieri's poem Inferno, which tells the story of Dante's descent into hell. Inferno is a landmark in the genre of spiritual autobiography—the recounting of a soul's progression through righteous and sinful states. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man offers another such spiritual autobiography, as Joyce explores his own spiritual history through the character of Stephen Dedalus. Joyce places Stephen's glimpse of hell at the exact center of his novel, giving it a structure similar to that of Dante's Divine Comedy, of which Inferno is the first part. Inferno places the devil at the center of the Earth, so that the pilgrim seeking God must go downward before he ascends upward toward salvation. Similarly, Stephen's path has been a decline into sin and immorality that brings him to this fearful central view of hell. Just as Dante's despair is eased by the appearance of the Virgin Mary beckoning him upward to heavenly union with his beloved Beatrice, Stephen receives a vision of Mary placing his hand in his beloved Emma's. The visit to the inferno reveals unspeakable torments, but nonetheless offers a way out, a path toward ultimate holy love.
In this chapter, Stephen undergoes more than a mere vision or tour of hell—the agonies he suffers during the sermon seem closer to the experience of hell itself. He does not simply picture hell's flames in his mind's eye, but actually feels the flames on his body: "His flesh shrank together as if it felt the approach of the ravenous tongues of flames." In addition, he does not just imagine the boiling brains described by the preacher, but actually senses that "[h]is brain was simmering and bubbling within the cracking tenement of the skull." Stephen's close identification with the subject of the sermon sets him apart from his fellow students, who later chat casually about it. This dissimilar reaction reiterates the fact that Stephen is a social outsider. He experiences spiritual yearnings more immediately and intensely than others, even feeling them physically.
Stephen's experience as he contemplates the religious sermon binds his perceptions of past and future. Stephen's horror of hell is largely a horror of sufferings to come in the future, which he experiences as if they are in the present. He lives through his own future death: "He, he himself, his body to which he had yielded was dying. Into the grave with it! Nail it down into a wooden box, the corpse." Stephen's imagination carries him still farther into the future, all the way to the equally terrifying Judgment Day. However, while religion forces Stephen to face the future, it also forces him to confront the past. Father Arnall visits the school like a figure out of Stephen's memory, a ghost from years gone by. Stephen responds to the visit with a return to infancy: "His soul, as these memories came back to him, became again a child's soul." Stephen's encounter with the past is more than just memory—it is a momentary change in his very soul. Thus, Arnall's sermon prompts Stephen both back toward childhood and forward toward death, reaching out to both extremes of his life. The novel suggests that the aims of autobiography and the aims of religion are similar, as both lead individuals to integrate their present, past, and future lives in an attempt to make sense of the whole.
Ace your assignments with our guide to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man!