A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man | Study Guide

James Joyce

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man | Chapter 3 | Summary

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Summary

Obsession with Prostitutes

Stephen now must go through a time of great self-reckoning. What had previously been mere temptation toward indulgence with prostitutes has come to fruition, and Stephen has begun a fairly regular program of visits to Dublin's red-light district. Once again readers see his self-consciousness at work. While he cannot resist the temptation to sleep with prostitutes, he also knows that, as a Catholic, he is condemning himself each time he does it. And yet this predicament doesn't necessarily bother him; he feels a "cold lucid indifference" toward his own satisfaction of his desires. His betrayal of the faith does not even trouble him when he is teaching scriptures to younger students.

A Reckoning

The rector begins to give a lecture pertaining both to an upcoming retreat and to the life of St. Xavier. The prospect of listening to the speech causes Stephen to shrink with fear, either because he dreads facing his own sin or because he dreads leaving Dublin and its pleasures for too long, or both.

Stephen endures two lengthy descriptions of the torments and misery that await sinners in hell, delivered by Father Arnall, the priest from Clongowes who was kind enough to let him off from working when his glasses were broken. At the conclusion of these vivid sermons, meant to terrify the young men who are listening, Stephen can barely walk. As soon as he regains his composure, but not before he has a nightmarish vision of what hell might be like—a vast, barren plain populated by half-goat, half-human figures—he confesses. He seeks out a church more anonymous than his school to make this confession and then completes his penance. The next morning the world seems reborn and clean and pure.

Analysis

This chapter shows what happens when Stephen's two warring impulses—earthly pleasure and religious devotion—clash directly, and the fact that Stephen is not more concerned about this clash is significant. He views the disparity between the way he spends his days and the way he spends his nights with indifference, which suggests both that he is not destined for life as a priest and also that he is capable of removing himself from his circumstance in the manner of an artist, mining experience for details which may serve a purpose later.

When the rector is reeling off questions in the catechism, Stephen considers them merely as "curious," as if he viewed them more as novelties, in and of themselves, than as points for study. Stephen is beginning to view his world aesthetically, in terms of beauty and art, rather than in the more sin and redemption fashion of his early years in Jesuit schools, and what this means is that moral concerns that might have arisen in the past no longer apply with the same force.

Stephen is wrestling with options for himself. Throughout the process his imagination remains vibrant, as when he imagines hell or when he imagines marrying one of his ever-distant amours. The artistic part of his personality is intact, but it struggles against his more intellectual impulses toward the safety of the priesthood. He grapples with the enormity of the commitment involved and the challenges of conscience one might face as a member of the clergy.

The word conscience comes up repeatedly in the chapter, foreshadowing the moment at the book's end when Stephen will deem himself the maker of his race's "conscience." While the pangs of conscience he suffers here have to do with his salacious behavior, they also show how easily Stephen's capacity to feel can be awoken, as he imagines all aspects of the spiritual realm as described by Father Arnall.

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