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Course Hero, "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Study Guide," February 27, 2017, accessed February 19, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Portrait-of-the-Artist-as-a-Young-Man/.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man | Chapter 4 | Summary

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Summary

The Priesthood—or Not?

Stephen is in the midst of training for the priesthood, having fully adopted it as his life's calling. He finds some solace in the restricted life he's living by imagining the vast relief he is generating for those in Purgatory. He has banished all thoughts of physical desire from his mind, setting aside the degree to which his past desires make repentance necessary on his part.

The most difficult task for Stephen is joining in with common life. He has become so perceptive that he feels guilty about his inability to overcome the barriers between himself and others. As the chapter progresses, Stephen deals more directly with his past temptations, trying to scourge each sense, and finally viewing temptations as signs that "the citadel of the soul had not fallen and that the devil raged to make it fall." If he is aware he is being tempted, that means he is aware of the need to control his temptation, and he will do so.

Regardless of whatever Stephen's confidence in his faith might be, he is still wavering here as he asks, "I have amended my life, have I not?" The "have I not" is highly significant; while Stephen is striving to eliminate temptation from his life, he doubts himself and his actions. Clearly Stephen has come to an important decision about his efficacy.

Rejecting the Priesthood

This section marks a crucial revelation for Stephen: he will never join the priesthood. The revelation comes as a result of a conversation with one of his teachers, in which the teacher admires the work that he's doing and indicates that he would have a fine future in the clergy. Upon actually pondering that future, Stephen realizes he has no real desire for it. He returns home to visit his family, who once again are facing eviction, only to rush out in the afternoon. He paces while he waits for his father to return from discussing Stephen's acceptance into university.

Each thought, each encounter serves to launch Stephen into fully embracing his artistic nature. Impatient, he heads for the beach, passing a group of Christian brothers, who elicit from Stephen a somewhat painful reminder of all the reasons why he chose not to join the clergy. He shifts from pangs of guilt to his personal fulfillment through his artistry with words. He encounters classmates horsing around in the sea, and notes his differences from them, and is somewhat flattered by their nicknames. A chance meeting of a young girl wading in a stream lifts his soul into rapture at all the world still holds for him. He walks far out to the edge of the tide, enfolding into his being all that the earth provides and completing his departure from the cold spirituality of the priesthood. At sunset he falls asleep.

Analysis

The chapter shows the passion and imagination with which Stephen throws himself into any endeavor, even if that endeavor may not turn out to be successful—as in his striving for the priesthood. Stephen is aware of his imagination, a skill that will serve him well as an artist. He punishes himself for being as aware as he is by taking action to dull, restrict, or brutalize his senses.

Stephen tests what guilt can do for his learning, craftsmanship, and perspective. As in the previous chapter, he can reach heights with his religious inquiry that go beyond what even the Jesuits who teach him can understand. Therefore, after confessing his sins, he has a new perspective from which to see the world.

Beginning with the sordid tragedy of his home life, and ending with Stephen's acceptance of his artistic calling, the last part of the chapter is the turning point of the novel. Stephen's acceptance into university life means the world to him. He can continue his development in an environment more supportive of his temperament, even though his father seems to be making a mess of things, once again.

He quickly leaves behind the clergy walking back from the sea, and easily distances himself from his peers. Stephen's encounter with the girl at the ocean would seem to be a brief moment. However, it serves as a marker for Stephen. No more will he find mother, home, nor clerical life to hold any power over him. Transported by the realization he makes this afternoon, he has been remade into the artist he now knows himself to be.

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