A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

James Joyce

Chapter 3, Section 2

Summary Chapter 3, Section 2

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.