Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4813

New Characters: Ennis: a classmate of Stephen’s at Belvedere

Old Woman: in the street, who directs Stephen to the chapel

Priest: at the Church Street chapel where Stephen confesses

Summary Stephen has now made a habit of visiting brothels. In school, he is bored and uninspired, and the narrative details...

(The entire section contains 4813 words.)

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New Characters:
Ennis: a classmate of Stephen’s at Belvedere

Old Woman: in the street, who directs Stephen to the chapel

Priest: at the Church Street chapel where Stephen confesses

Stephen has now made a habit of visiting brothels. In school, he is bored and uninspired, and the narrative details the wanderings of his mind while he sits in class. He is not plagued by guilt for his sins, but rather feels a “cold lucid indifference.” He feels that he is beyond salvation, and can do nothing to control his lust. He has begun to despise his fellow students, in part because of what he sees as an empty and hypocritical piety on their part. He serves as prefecture of the sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary—a highly esteemed religious organization at Belvedere—but feels no guilt at the “falsehood of his position.” He sometimes considers confessing to the members of the sodality, but feels such contempt for them that he does not.

After the math class is over, the other students urge Stephen to try and stall the teacher of the next class by asking difficult questions about the catechism. Before the religion class, Stephen enjoys contemplating the theological dilemmas. When the rector comes in, he announces that a religious retreat in honor of St. Francis Xavier will begin on Wednesday afternoon. He tells the class about Francis Xavier’s life—he was one of the first followers of Ignatius, the Founder of the Jesuit order. He spends his career converting pagans in the Indies, Africa and Asia, and is known for the great number of converts he amassed. Stephen anticipates the coming retreat with anxiety and fear.

In the next section, Stephen is at the retreat. Father Arnall is giving an introductory sermon, which causes Stephen to remember his days at Clongowes. Father Arnall welcomes the boys, and speaks of the tradition of this retreat. He talks of the boys who have done it in years past, and wonders where they are now. He explains the significance and importance of a periodic retreat from ordinary life, and says that during the retreat they will be taught about the “four last things”: death, judgment, hell, and heaven. He encourages them to clear their minds of worldly thoughts, and to attend to their souls. Father Arnall claims that this retreat will have a profound impact on their lives.

After dinner, it is clear that the promise of the next four days has already had an effect on Stephen—he perceives himself as a “beast,” and begins to feel fear.

This fear becomes “a terror of spirit” as the sermon makes Stephen think of his own death and judgment in morbid detail. This leads him to consider Doomsday, the final judgment. The sermon affects Stephen deeply and personally, and he feels how his “soul was festering in sin.”

Walking home, he hears a girl laughing, which causes him intense shame. He thinks of Emma, and is ashamed as he imagines how she would react to his lifestyle. He imagines repenting, and her forgiving him, and he imagines the Virgin Mary simultaneously marrying and forgiving the both of them. It is raining, and Stephen thinks of the biblical flood.

Next, we hear a sermon which solidifies Stephen’s conviction that he must repent. Beginning with Creation and Original Sin, the sermon reaches the story of Jesus and the importance of repentance and God’s forgiveness. Then follows a lengthy and detailed description of the torments of hell and damnation—it is a physical and geographical account of hell, and a graphic depiction of the bodily and psychological torments hell inflicts on the damned.

As he leaves the chapel, Stephen is greatly upset by the sermon. He fears hell and death, and decides that there is still time to change his life. In class, Stephen’s thoughts are saturated with the language of the sermon. When confessions are being heard, Stephen feels that he must confess, but wonders if he can. He decides that he cannot confess in the college chapel, but must go elsewhere.

That night, the sermon focuses upon the spiritual torments of hell. It details how the damned have a full awareness of what they have lost, and that their conscience will continue to plague them with guilt. He reminds the boys of the eternity of hell, and describes how the awareness of this would torment the damned. He describes sin as a personal affront to Jesus, and the sermon ends with a prayer of repentance, which Stephen takes to heart.

After dinner, Stephen goes up to his room to pray, still feeling the effects of the sermon. He thinks about his sins, and feels surprised that God has allowed him to live this long. With his eyes closed, he has a vision of hell—Stephen’s hell is a land of dry thistle and weed, solid excrement, dim light, and goat-like, half-human creatures who mumble and circle around him. His vision of hell sickens and frightens him. He almost faints, then vomits, and, weakened, he prays.

In the evening, he leaves the house, looking to confess his sins, but is scared that he won’t be able to. Seeing some poor girls sitting on the side of the street, Stephen is ashamed at the thought that their souls are dearer to God than his. He asks an old woman where the nearest chapel is, and she directs him.

Inside the Church St. Chapel, he kneels at the last bench. Once the priest arrives and the other people in the chapel begin going in for confession, Stephen has second thoughts. When his turn comes, however, he goes in almost automatically. Inside the confessional, he recites the Confiteor, and tells the priest that it has been eight months since his last confession. First he confesses more minor sins—masses he missed, prayers not said—then gradually reaches his “sins of impurity.” He tells the priest all the details. When the priest asks how old he is, Stephen answers, “sixteen.” The priest implores Stephen to repent and to change his lifestyle, suggesting that he pray to the Virgin Mary when he is tempted. The priest blesses him, and Stephen prays fervently.

On his way home, Stephen is ecstatic, feeling an inner peace in his life. In the morning, he takes communion with his classmates. The ritual affects Stephen deeply, and he feels that a new life has begun for him.

Once again, the chapter begins with a sense of dull routine. The excitement of his transgression, which had ended Chapter Two is here deflated—there is no indication of any sense of thrill or danger in Stephen’s now frequent visits to the brothels. Instead, they have become as dull and ordinary for him as the rest of the Dublin society from which he seeks to distance himself. Stephen’s attempts to set himself apart from his surroundings seem frustrated—the narrator is showing us, at the start of this chapter, that perhaps Stephen’s experience with the prostitute was not the significant transformative experience that he had thought.

The verb tense throughout the opening paragraphs, as Stephen is in class thinking of the night to come, suggests just how much of a habit this has become for him:

It would be a gloomy secret night. After early nightfall the yellow lamps would light up, here and there, the squalid quarter of the brothels. He would follow a devious course up and down the streets….

Clearly, this “gloomy secret night” will not differ greatly from any other night of the week for Stephen. Visiting the brothels seems to have become as much a part of his daily routine as school.

However, the fact that this habit has lost its charge of excitement for Stephen is made clear by the narrator’s use of light imagery, which characterizes Stephen’s present life as dull, dusky, and dim:

The swift December dusk had come tumbling clownishly after its dull day and, as he started through the dull square window of the schoolroom, he felt his belly crave for its food.

The repetition of “dull” and “dusk” throughout the opening pages of the chapter suggests both habit and stasis, while the metaphorical language of dusk and dullness suggests just how plain and unappealing Stephen’s lifestyle has become for him.

In a sense, this first paragraph represents Stephen’s moral state at the start of this chapter. Chapter Three is thematically concerned with Stephen’s moral and religious state, which undergoes a major transformation over the course of the five days covered by the chapter. As the chapter opens, he is in class daydreaming about dinner:

He hoped there would be stew for dinner, turnips and carrots and bruised potatoes and fat mutton pieces to be ladled out in thick peppered flourfattened sauce. Stuff it into you, his belly counselled him.

His intellect, or spirit, is subsumed in favor of his bodily appetites, a clear echo of the lustful nature of his sin. That this sin has become dull and unappealing in itself is suggested by the quality of food Stephen expects: bruised, fat, thick, and flourfattened. He does not indicate that there is something about the food itself which appeals to him. Rather, its chief quality that is that it will satisfy a bodily need, evidenced by the crudity of the phrase, “stuff it into you.” Stephen is now motivated by the physical and worldly—his “belly” is personified as an entity separate from and dominant over his mind. His lust for food is clearly associated with his sexual lust, as his mind seems to progress naturally from thinking about dinner to thinking about wandering the brothel district. Both cravings are equally devoid of feeling.

As the novel’s central chapter, Chapter Three is the most temporally and thematically focused and concentrated. Whereas the other chapters in the novel cover anywhere from a few months to a few years in Stephen’s life, Chapter Three intensely focuses on five crucial days. Even within these five days, the narrative excludes everything except what specifically concerns Stephen’s spiritual and religious status. We have the impression that this retreat consists only of Stephen hearing sermons, then cowering in his room, and eventually walking across town for confession. While he surely did many other things during these days, this narrator is interested only in presenting the details essential to the development of Stephen’s soul. Therefore, the focus of the narrative in this chapter is intensely concentrated.

John Blades describes it as a “chapter of excesses.” Father Arnall’s sermons are excessive in their scope, and in their morbid and explicit attention to detail. The narrative is excessive in its unrelenting and comprehensive presentation of these sermons. It shifts from direct quotation of the priest to the style of paraphrase that seems to present Stephen’s reactions to the sermon at the same time, but our overall impression of this section of the chapter is like sitting through these entire sermons. There is very little narrative presence interrupting the relentless flow of the priest’s words. Stephen’s response is also somewhat excessive, feeling that “every word was for him,” and fearing an immediate death at the hand of God on his way back to his room.

One important change in Stephen’s character in this chapter is in his attitude toward his peers. What we recognize in Chapter Two as a pose of detachment has now become a more explicit “contempt” for his peers. He perceives their acts of piety and religious devotion as hypocritical, easy and shallow, and feels no shame about his “double life” around them. The pose of exile and detachment here takes on a distinctly sinful quality—pride. This is an extreme manifestation of his feelings of uniqueness and exile in Chapter Two, and one which suggests the sinful state of his soul. The restlessness and impatience with the world of his family and his classmates, and the pervasive hope that some great calling awaits him, has now become a “cold lucid indifference” toward his own soul, and toward the extent to which he continues to live in sin.

While Stephen tries to convince himself that he is indifferent to his sin, and feels no regret or discomfort with “the falsehood of his position” as prefect of the sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary, it is clear that he has been not able to escape the influence of the Catholic church. First of all, his sinful lifestyle does to constitute a rejection of or loss of belief in God:

What did it avail to pray when he knew that his soul lusted after its own destruction? A certain pride, a certain awe, withheld him from offering to God even one prayer at night though he knew it was in God’s power to take away his life while he slept and hurl his soul hellward ere he could beg for mercy.

Stephen seems to fashion himself here after Milton’s Satan; we can sense a romantic pleasure in his defiance of God’s power. For Stephen never expresses disbelief of or lack of faith in God, and he is still intimately familiar with the tenents of the Catholic faith (evidenced by his role as resident expert in his class on obscure questions about the catechism). Stephen seems to take both pride and morbid and masochistic pleasure in his deep theological knowledge:

It was strange too that he found an arid pleasure in following up to the end of rigid lines of the doctrines of the church and penetrating into obscure silences only to hear and feel the more deeply his own condemnation.

His interest in the details of Catholic doctrine has a certain detached quality—as if religion were a series of puzzling intellectual questions and obscure knowledge. At the same time, however, Stephen seems to find a certain thrill in applying the consequences of these doctrines to his own sinful life. He is deeply aware of the “letter of the law,” but this awareness never translates into a reaction to the “spirit of the law” until after the retreat. His interest in theological questions bears a very limited connection to his daily life. Up to this point, Stephen’s relationship to the church is both an idle intellectual game, and a useful romantic trope for his imaginative construction of his own life.

Though he manages to remain detached to this degree, he is never outside of the structures of the church. He always refers to his “sin” and to his “condemnation,” terms that have no application outside of the framework of religious doctrine and belief. By identifying his behavior as a “sin,” and by dwelling on it to this degree, we can see how much the language and beliefs of the Catholic church continue to have a hold on him. We can see, from the start of the chapter, just how ripe Stephen is to be swayed by the sermon.

The centerpiece of this chapter is the pair of sermons Father Arnall gives concerning hell and damnation. He quite literally puts “the fear of God” into Stephen, who, at the end of the chapter, repents, confesses, and begins a new life in the service of God. The narrator, as a recognizable presence, all but drops out of the picture in this section. Stephen speaks very little in this chapter, but listens and reacts internally to the sermon. The narrator is able to illustrate this by recreating Stephen’s experience for the reader—we are made to listen to the sermon almost word-for-word, which recreates Stephen’s experience in the congregation, continuing to align us exclusively with his perspective.

Although the narrative starts by quoting large portions of the sermon, we soon are able to recognize many characteristics of Father Arnall’s language in the narrator’s “own” narration, paraphrasing to the extent that the narrator’s voice sounds like the priest’s:

At the last moment of consciousness the whole earthly life passed before the vision of the soul and, ere it had time to reflect, the body had died and the soul stood terrified before the judgement seat. God, who had long been merciful, would then be just….

Eventually, the narration starts to present the sermon directly, but without quoting, and without the marks of paraphrase in its syntax. The two voices seem to have merged completely:

And this day will come, shall come, must come; the day of death and the day of judgment. It is appointed unto man to die and after death the judgment. Death is certain. The time and manner are uncertain…

The narrator no longer seems to be telling us what the priest said, so much as saying it directly. Our close alignment with Stephen’s perspective allows us to “experience” this sermon more or less from his position as an audience member in the congregation.

The priest’s rhetoric becomes the “action” of this chapter. Since Stephen is convinced that “every word was for him,” when we read the narrator’s paraphrase of the sermon, we are able to gauge Stephen’s reaction at the same time. Father Arnall, who presumably gives the sermon (since he is running the retreat), is named initially before being reduced to “the priest.” He eventually recedes as a direct presence in the narrative altogether. His language becomes, then, much less personalized, underscoring just how much Stephen is tending to take this as God’s direct word, and as an unadulterated voice of absolute authority.

Stephen’s reaction to the sermon, then, represents a kind of regression. Throughout Chapter Two, as we recognized, Stephen was becoming increasingly suspicious of authority figures. In the early section of Chapter Three, as his classmates are encouraging him to stall the teacher with a series of obscure and difficult theological questions, we are reminded of his lack of deep regard for authority. However, throughout Chapter Three, he becomes less critical and more accepting of the authority of the clergy, represented by Father Arnall at the retreat, and the old priest at the chapel to whom Stephen confesses. His relationship to religion here is more emotional and simplistic. He does not question the authorities on the finer points of Catholic doctrine, but fears and respects them, and takes their words and their power directly to heart.

This is one of several ways in which Stephen’s repentance represents a return to innocence. The reappearance of Father Arnall in the novel, whom we last saw in Chapter One, at Clongowes, recalls us to the time when Stephen was younger:

The figure of his old master, so strangely rearisen, brought back to Stephen’s mind his life at Clongowes: the wide playgrounds, swarming with boys, the square ditch, the little cemetery off the main avenue of limes where he had dreamed of being buried, the firelight on the wall of the infirmary where he lay sick, the sorrowful face of Brother Michael. His soul, as these memories came back to him, became again a child’s soul.

Whereas in Chapter Two, Stephen was eager to distance himself from those days, when “the memory of his childhood [was] dim” and he could not “call forth…vivid moments” but “only names,” seeing Father Arnall calls up vivid and detailed memories for Stephen. In a sense, these are “memories” for the reader, too, as they cause us to recall how Stephen was then. The very appearance of Father Arnall symbolizes how this retreat will be a return to a state of innocence for Stephen, who assumes a childlike openness as he listens to the sermon. The narrator’s language at the end of the chapter, after Stephen has repented and confessed, recalls the more childlike rhythms of Chapter One:

He had confessed and God had pardoned him. His soul was made fair and holy once more, holy and happy. It would be beautiful to die if God so willed. It was beautiful to live if God so willed, to live in grace a life of peace and virtue and forbearance with others.

The convention of the priest calling him “my child” takes on special significance, as Stephen’s confession represents a revision to his more childlike submission to voices of authority.

If the effect of Stephen’s repentance is a seeming return to a state of lost innocence, then the priest’s sermon certainly contributes to this. Stephen’s repentance and change of heart are motivated by fear more than anything else. The sermon focuses solely on the threat of the tortures of hell; the method is to intimidate the young boys into behaving according to the law of God. His reason for living a pious life never move beyond intimidation. He spends a large portion of his sermon describing hell’s geographical and physical characteristics with quasi-scientific exactness, comparing hell’s heat and fire to heat and fire on earth, trying to impress upon the boys in earthly terms the inconceivable and unearthly extremity and eternity of hell’s torments. The priest never offers a positive reason to believe in and follow God, but rests his argument solely on the consequences of a sinful life.

His very poetic and imaginative reconstruction of hell appeals to Stephen’s artistic sensibility rather than to his intellect. Stephen’s remorse, then, is not moral or intellectual in character—it is motivated primarily by fear of hell, God’s wrath, and eternal damnation. Like the omnipresent threat of pandying or flogging at Clongowes, hell functions as an intimidation tactic, divorced from any moral choice. In Chapter Three, Joyce seems to be making his most explicit critique of the Catholic church. Although the church functions throughout the novel as one of the primary fetters which Stephen Dedalus tries to free himself from, in this chapter its mechanisms are portrayed most explicitly as coercive, simplistic, and reductive.

Stephen’s repentance and spiritual rebirth has an immediate effect on his attitude toward his peers. Walking home from confession, he is pleased “to live in grace a life of peace and virtue and forbearance with others.” At communion the next day, he partakes humbly of the communal spirit of the ritual:

The boys were all there, kneeling in their places. He knelt among them, happy and shy….
He knelt before the altar with his classmates, holding the altar cloth with them over a living rail of hands.

Stephen seems to feel a connection with his peers for the first time in the novel. His alienation and insecurity, which he felt as a child, and his proud exile, which developed as an adolescent, all seem to be abandoned in favor of this feeling of brotherhood and connectedness.

Before his confession, however, Stephen’s sense of detachment and singularity is still present. His reaction to the sermon is intensely personal—he interprets it as a personal message from God, and the narrator illustrates how Stephen’s extreme reaction is unique among his classmates. After the first sermon, while Stephen is vividly imagining his own death and damnation, the other students’ voices serve to undercut and deflate his personal drama:

His flesh shrank together as it felt the approach of the ravenous tongues of flames, dried up as it felt about it the swirl of stifling air. He had died. Yes. He was judged. A wave of fire swept through his body: the first. Again a wave. His brain began to glow. Another. His brain was simmering and bubbling within the cracking tenement of the skull. Flames burst forth from his skull like a corolla, shrieking like voices:

—Hell! Hell! Hell! Hell! Hell!
Voices spoke near him:
—On hell.
—I suppose he rubbed it into you well.
—You bet he did. He put us all into a blue funk.
—That’s what you fellows want: and plenty of it to make you work.

The sound, like voices, in Stephen’s imagination is juxtaposed with the actual voices of Mr. Tate and Vincent Heron. The colloquial chattiness of their reaction—“he rubbed it into you,” “you bet he did”—presents a plainer reality next to Stephen’s imaginative life, suggesting that Stephen’s egotism results in an overreaction on his part. Mr. Tate jokingly reduces the voice of God which has quaked Stephen’s soul to a mere scare tactic to keep the students working. The narrator presents Stephen’s experience of these things literally, physically, which furthers this sense of two separate realities here. Stephen’s skull is melting, flames are shooting from his head, while Mr. Tate and Heron joke about the students being put into a “blue funk.”

We might sense a tone of elitism or superiority in Stephen’s reaction, if we keep in mind his attitude of contempt toward the other students’ shows of piety earlier. It is easy to see how his reaction would seem, to him, as the “real” or “righteous” one, while theirs is shallow and trivial. The same kind of operative distinction between Stephen’s imaginative reality and ordinary life, which characterized Chapter Two, is at work here. We can see, in this scene, Stephen’s poetic and dramatic imagination coloring his experience as unique and incommunicable, participating in and contributing to his feeling of alienation.

His feelings of contempt and disdain for his peers might still be somewhat active as he decides that he must confess his sins, “but not there among his school companions.” Ostensibly, his motive here is “shame” and “abjection of spirit”—he feels he is not worthy to confess in the college chapel among their “boyish hearts.” Implicit in this humility, however, is the same kind of feeling of exile, detachment, and superiority which motivated his “contempt” for them earlier in the chapter. Stephen does not feel that he is a part of this community. Before, he had seen their “boyishness” as a limiting and infuriating immaturity. Now, however, he sees it as an innocence which he has lost.

As he is wandering the streets looking for a chapel, he sees “frowsy girls” along the side of the road. His “humiliation” that their souls may be dearer to God than his has its root in an implicit feeling of superiority or egotism. The implication, we suppose, is that he feels his soul should be dearer to God. Stephen’s confession and repentance is motivated, in part, by a desire to change all this—while waiting his turn in the chapel, he is inspired by thinking about Jesus, and his love for the “poor and simple people.” Before confession, Stephen’s motivation is expressed thus:

He would be at one with others and with God. He would love his neighbor. He would love God Who had made and loved him. He would kneel and pray with others and be happy. God would look down on him and on them and would love them all.

This communally oriented spirit is uncharacteristic of the Stephen we know. He seeks to identify himself with the group, to have his individual identity—which until now has been most important to him—subsumed under a group identity, and under God.

This represents another important reversion of the tendencies we recognized in Chapter Two. Stephen is trying to relinquish the role of exile he began to assume then. His confession and repentance is motivated by and seems to result in a feeling of brotherhood and communion with humanity. His religious rebirth “sets back the clock” in various ways. It represents a return to a state of innocence, reconciling his sins with God; it represents a new, less critical attitude toward authority, and a less hostile attitude toward his peers. Up to this point, Stephen’s individual identity was most important, and he sought only to find some means of escape from ordinary Dublin life, but he now seems reconciled to his peers and to his environment. The image of Stephen wandering the dark streets to find a chapel near the end of Chapter Three is a clear echo of the end of Chapter Two, when he wanders the streets looking for a woman. Do we understand this as a kind of revision of this earlier scene, an attempt at starting over, this time on the “right foot”? Or do we hear an ironic echo of the earlier Stephen even here, suggesting that perhaps his change of heart is neither permanent nor desirable? He seems to have changed profoundly as Chapter Three closes—he seems happy to be a part of a “living rail of hands,” to have conformed to the authority of God and the church. However, we should be suspicious, by now, of this novel’s climaxes, and wonder, as we begin Chapter Four, whether this transformation is really for the better.

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