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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

by James Joyce

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Chapter 4 Summary

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Last Updated February 9, 2023.

Bolstered by his newfound spirit of religiosity, Stephen devotes himself to a life of studious piety. He begins carrying rosary beads with him everywhere he goes, attending mass each morning, avoiding eye contact with women, and scheduling his life in accordance with theological virtues. He even forces himself to endure unpleasant sensations—such as bad smells and harsh morning winds—to improve his self-discipline and better resist temptation.

However, despite Stephen’s best efforts, he finds himself occasionally falling into old patterns of thought, such as getting angry with his mother over trivial matters. He wonders if his previously sinful actions have already damned his soul. 

Having taken notice of Stephen’s apparent devotion to his faith, the director of Belvedere College calls Stephen into a meeting. He asks Stephen if he has considered joining the priesthood. Stephen is initially intrigued by the idea, contemplating the power and knowledge taking on a religious vocation would grant him. Stephen promises the director that he will consider the matter very seriously.

While walking home from the meeting, Stephen reflects on what life as a priest would entail. He finds himself repulsed by the idea of living a restricted life within a confined community. He fears that his nature would inevitably cause him to fall from grace. As he passes by a state of the Virgin Mary, he finds himself feeling coldly detached from it, having realized that a life of religious devotion is not for him.

Stephen turns his attention towards the idea of attending university. He hopes that an education might help him be “free” of both his religious misgivings and his family’s persistent poverty. He takes inspiration from the mythical Greek inventor Daedalus, with whom he shares a name, vowing to transform his own soul and find a place where he can rise above the circumstances of his current life.

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