Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Summary and Analysis of Chapter 4


Stephen becomes almost fanatically pious, devoting himself daily to prayer and contemplation of Catholic doctrines. He sweeps away any doubts or misgivings he has with the idea that at a later stage of his spiritual development, all will be clear. He forces different forms of unpleasantness on himself to punish each of his five senses. He prays fervently, and attends mass every day. At times, he is gripped by a great, spiritual love for God and His Creation.

But before long, Stephen's old independence begins to reassert itself. He finds it difficult to maintain a state of saintly serenity. If anything, his various methods of self-discipline make him more irritable. He does not grow more charitable or kind to his family or his peers. He thinks of the various clergymen he knows, and how they seem just as subject to human pettiness and irritability as everyone else; he also has some doubts about the rather rigid Catholic compartmentalization of different virtues and wisdoms.

The director of the school asks Stephen to his office. Having noticed Stephen's piety and his academic talent, the director wants Stephen to consider the priesthood. The director tries to draw Stephen to the calling by describing the incredible responsibility and power of a priest. The idea is not without its appeal for Stephen. But after he leaves the rector's office, he continues to reflect on the life of a priest. He thinks about a long life of pondering obscure questions of Catholic doctrine. Even more vividly, he imagines the stale odour in halls of Clongowes, and of spending his life wandering through corridors such as these; in the end, he realizes that such a life repulses him. The life of a priest would be contrary to Stephen's desire for freedom and independence. On the way home, he sees a tidy shrine to the Virgin; walking in a lane that leads to his home, he notices the faint smell of rotting cabbages coming from the kitchen gardens down by the river. He realizes that his soul belongs to this kind of disorder rather than to the tidiness of the shrine to Mary: he prefers the simple smells and sensations of life and living.

Back home, he looks at his brothers and sisters, reflecting on how everything that has been denied to them has been given freely to him. Yet they do not hate him for it. We learn that the Dedalus family will be moving again, no doubt because of another blunder of Stephen's father. The children begin to sing, and behind the hope and innocence of their voices Stephen feels a weariness and a deep sorrow.

Later, Stephen waits for his father and a school tutor, who have gone into a building in the city on Stephen' behalf to get some information regarding university. Stephen grows impatient and takes off for a walk. The idea of going to university thrills him, although he is not sure yet what his calling is. He encounters some school chums, who are swimming in the sea; the sight of their spindly teenage bodies makes him somewhat anxious, reminding him of his discomfort with his own half-grown body. They call out to him, inviting him to swim, but he does not come. As they call his name, he thinks of Greek myth's great artificer, Dedalus, who fashioned a pair of wings that enabled him to escape from his island prison. He has a sort of vision of the flight, imagining himself as the one who soars through the air.

He continues to walk along the beach. He comes across a beautiful girl, near his own age, wading in the water. The vision of her makes him feel something akin to divine revelation. He continues on his week, and settles down to take a long nap on the beach. When he wakes up, it is night.


Almost as soon as Stephen begins his new regimen of spiritual self-discipline, his nature begins to rebel. The movement from Catholic piety to an acceptance of the physical as part of beauty is central to this chapter. The central themes of entrapment by Ireland and escape are key. Stephen, having given in to carnal pleasure, is made to fear for his soul. He returns, feverishly, to the Church. He tries to stifle the very impulses that distinguish him as an individual: sensitivity to sensation, interest in beauty. But the sensual world of real living wins: ironically, it is the suggestion of the priest that Stephen consider the clergy which sets Stephen back on the path to his destiny.

And when Stephen imagines the life of a priest, his repulsion is grounded in the physical senses: it is the stale odour of Clongowes that strikes him as he considers the rector's suggestion. Stephen prefers another odour: the sour smell of overripe cabbages in the path leading home. It is the world of life and living, with it's mess and shear physicality, that interests Stephen. He realizes that he will "sin" again; he accepts that he was not made to live a spotless life. Rather, he will live life to the fullest and accept that part of his growth will include making great mistakes. The shrine of the Blessed Virgin is too tidy, too sterile. Stephen prefers mess, and he will live his life accordingly.

But it should be noted that Stephen is not without his anxieties regarding the world of the body. The sight of the other boys reminds him of how embarrassed he is by his own half-grown body. This moment reminds us that Stephen's growth is incomplete, both physically and spiritually. Though drawn to the sensual and the physical, shame still manages to stick to him at unexpected times.

Joyce calls our attention to the symbolism of Stephen's name. Stephen, in a vision that he does not completely comprehend, envisions himself as the winged Dedalus. Stephen's destiny is foreshadowed: as Dedalus escaped from his island prison, Stephen will escape from the island prison of Ireland.

The girl wading in the ocean water gives Stephen a revelation of great strength. In looking at her beauty, he feels "an outburst of profane joy" (195). "Profane," because in the Catholicism of Stephen's upbringing, his spiritual reaction to a girl's physical beauty is alien. He realizes that his fate is to "live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to create life out of life" (196). In allowing himself to enjoy the beauty of the girl, to believe in her beauty, Stephen accepts his own nature. Here is the theme of growing up as accepting one's own character and destiny.

This acceptance will allow Stephen to escape. He comes to look at the priest's suggestion as a kind of trap, a way for the Jesuits to take Stephen from his own fate and make him serve their ends. Escape becomes a powerful motif towards the end of the chapter. Joyce uses Dedalus, Stephen's mythical namesake, as a symbol for what Stephen was born to do. He must escape Ireland, which constricts his freedom.