Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5486

New Characters: The Director: at Belvedere College, asks Stephen to consider joining the priesthood

Dan Crosby: a tutor, who goes with Stephen’s father to find out about the university for Stephen

Dwyer, Towser, Shuley, Ennis, Connolly: acquaintances of Stephen’s; he sees them swimming near the strand

Summary Stephen has now...

(The entire section contains 5486 words.)

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New Characters:
The Director: at Belvedere College, asks Stephen to consider joining the priesthood

Dan Crosby: a tutor, who goes with Stephen’s father to find out about the university for Stephen

Dwyer, Towser, Shuley, Ennis, Connolly: acquaintances of Stephen’s; he sees them swimming near the strand

Stephen has now dedicated his life to the service of God—each day is structured around prayer, ritual, and religious devotions. He attends mass each morning, and offers ejaculations and prayers each day for the souls in purgatory. He sees his daily life now in terms of eternity, and senses an immediate connection between his acts on earth and their repercussions in heaven. Each of his three daily chaplets is dedicated to one of the “three theological virtues,” Father, Son and Holy Ghost; each day of the week is devoted toward gaining one of the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, and toward driving out each of the seven deadly sins.

Stephen views every aspect of his life as a gift from God; the world now exists for him “as a theorem of divine power and love and universality.” He tries to mortify and discipline each of his senses. He keeps his eyes to the ground, doesn’t try to avoid loud or unpleasant noises, intentionally subjects himself to unpleasant smells, and is strict about his diet, making sure he does not enjoy his food. He goes to great efforts to remain physically uncomfortable, both while sleeping and awake.

He is discouraged that, despite his efforts, he continues to get angry or impatient with others for trivial reasons. However, he takes great pleasure in being able to avoid temptation, though he periodically doubts how completely he has changed his life. In confession, he sometimes has to repeat an earlier sin because he sins so infrequently now. Stephen is frustrated, because it seems that he will never be able to fully escape the sins which he had struggled to confess at the end of Chapter Three.

In the next section, Stephen is speaking with the director of Belvedere College. He has been summoned to the director’s office, and, while making friendly and respectful small-talk, Stephen wonders why he has really been sent there. They begin talking about the Dominican and Franciscan orders, and of their respective styles of dress.

Stephen begins to think about his experiences with the Jesuits at school. He continues to hold them in high regard, although they sometimes seem “a little childish” in their judgments.

The director soon comes to the point, however, asking if Stephen has ever felt a vocation to join the priesthood. Stephen starts to answer “yes,” but remains silent. He tells the priest that he has “sometimes thought of it.” The priest tells him that only one or two boys from the college will be the sort who will be called by God, and suggests that Stephen, with his intelligence, devotion, and leadership qualities, might be one. The priest begins to talk of the power and authority a priest has, which reminds Stephen of “his own proud musings” on the subject, when he had imagined himself as a priest. The idea seems to appeal to him—he is attracted to the secret knowledge and power the priesthood could give him.

The priest tells him that his mass the next morning will be specially dedicated so that God may reveal His will to Stephen. He cautions Stephen to be certain of his decision, because it is a final one, on which the salvation of his soul may depend.

As he leaves the director’s office, Stephen and the director shake hands. Stephen notes the gravity of the expression on the priest’s face. Walking home, he tries to imagine himself as a priest.
Remembering the “troubling odour” of Clongowes, he begins to feel restless and confused. He begins to imagine how restless and unhappy he would be, and quickly decides that he could not become a priest, that “he would fall,” and that “his destiny was to be elusive of social or religious orders.”

Stephen arrives at home, where his brothers and sisters are having tea. He learns that his parents have gone to look at another home. The family is moving again, under pressure from the landlord. The children start to sing, and soon Stephen joins them. It pains him to hear the “overture of weariness” in their young voices, and he thinks sadly of the “weariness and pain” of all generations of children.

In the next section, Stephen is pacing anxiously as his father and Dan Crosby, his tutor, have gone to find out about the university for him. After an hour of waiting, he leaves for the Bull, a sandy island near the mouth of the Liffey.

While walking, he thinks of the university. He knows his mother is hostile to the idea, which Stephen takes as an indication of how their lives are drifting apart. He still feels that he has been born for some special purpose, and he senses that the university will lead to new adventures.

As he crosses the bridge on the way to the Bull, he passes a squad of Christian Brothers, walking two by two. He has a moment of shame or regret for refusing to join the priesthood, but reassures himself that their life is not for him.

He thinks of a phrase he has read, “A day of dappled seaborne clouds,” and marvels at how the words seem to capture the moment so perfectly. He muses about what it is that fascinates him about words.

Having crossed the bridge, he heads toward the sea. Looking at the clouds coming in from the sea, he thinks of Europe, where they have come from. His reverie is interrupted, however, by a group of his classmates who are bathing in the sea. They call to him, and he stops briefly to chat, impatient with their immaturity, and repulsed by their adolescent nakedness. They call his name in Latinate and Greek forms, “Stephenos Dedalos” and “Stephanoumenos,” which makes him think of his name as a prophecy. He understands Daedalus, the mythical artificer, as a “symbol of the artist forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being,” and wonders if this is an indication of his calling in life. He feels excited, and knows he must dedicate his life and soul to art.

He walks away from the boys, heading down the strand, along the sea. He sees a girl alone, wading in the sea, with her skirts pinned up around her waist. She seems to him like a bird, and he takes her as a sign of his newly chosen destiny. Their eyes meet, but they do not speak. Stephen wanders off, delirious with excitement. He has lost track of time and, realizing it is late and he has wandered far out of his way, he runs back toward the land. He lays down before long, and sleeps. When he awakes, it is evening, and the new moon has risen.

In this crucial, climactic chapter, Stephen’s awareness of his artistic vision begins to crystallize. Over the course of the chapter, he frees himself from the “nets” of the church, and from his family, embracing the role of the exile figure more explicitly than before. As the chapter ends, Stephen is alone on the seashore, facing away from Ireland, toward Europe. He has literally left his father behind, who had gone to see about the university for him. And he has left the church behind, as he decides he cannot become a priest, and must instead discover his destiny on his own, apart from the trappings of religion, family, or nation. Just as, over the course of Chapter Three, Stephen had undergone an almost total religious transformation, over the course of this chapter his outlook changes greatly. There is a progression in Chapter Four from the rigid order of Stephen’s religious devotion and the promise of an even more rigid order in the priesthood, to uncertainty and loss of faith, disorder and confusion, and back to a certainty in a different kind of calling, that of creative art.

Stephen’s religious devotion, at the start of this chapter, has none of the passion of his conversion. Stephen’s piety is rigidly structured, almost monkish—the narrator’s language in this first section is prosaic, dry and businesslike, cataloging Stephen’s tight and orderly schedule of religious devotion. Again, we see how what had seemed a passionate and climactic epiphany—Stephen’s repentance and religious awakening at the end of Chapter Three—seems to become, at the start of the next chapter, a dull and habitual routine.

Stephen’s religious devotion has a particularly mathematical and economical character, which tends to undercut our sense of his seriousness. The weeks and even the days of his life are broken down into numbered segments. His prayers for the souls in purgatory are described as a kind of transaction with God; Stephen is anxious that he “could never know how much temporal punishment he had remitted by way of suffrage for the agonizing souls.” He constantly frets that he has not been able to amass enough to make an appreciable difference. The economic metaphors are made more explicit further on, as Stephen imagines the immediate repercussions in heaven of his acts of devotion on earth:

At times his sense of such immediate repercussion was so lively that he seemed to feel his soul in devotion pressing like fingers the keyboard of a great cash register and to see the amount of his purchase start forth immediately in heaven.

Though Stephen is certainly adamant in his dedication to the religious life, the narrator seems to be subtly parodying his piety in passages like this. When Stephen views his prayers in terms of “the amount of his purchase,” imagining a “great cash register” in heaven, his religious dedication seems simplistic and reductive.

While on the one hand this portrayal of Stephen’s faith seems rather ridiculous and simplistic, on the other hand, it represents a vividly imaginative kind of belief. In a manner which is typical of Stephen, his religious life colors his daily life in every aspect—he now understands his life in terms of eternity, and imagines heaven’s response to his every action. His imagination is typically poetic and metaphorical in character. For example, when he recites the rosary prayers while walking down the street, he imagines the beads “transformed…into coronals of flowers of such vague unearthly texture that they seemed to him as hueless and odorless as they were nameless.” His daily rituals, although certainly routine and habitualized to an extreme degree, represent for Stephen an active and vivid imaginative life.

Religion, for Stephen, serves to keep him detached from ordinary Dublin life—its effect on his imagination can be accurately compared to the effect of the Count of Monte Cristo in Chapter Two. Although it is imaginative, however, his devotion becomes less and less passionate. He can comprehend minute theological details, but cannot conceive of the notion of God’s eternal love:

The imagery through which the nature and kinship of the Three Persons of the Trinity were darkly shadowed forth in the books of devotion which he read…were easier of acceptance by his mind by reason of their august incomprehensibility that was the simple fact that God had loved his soul from all eternity, for ages before he had been born into the world, for ages before the world itself had existed.

It is not just God’s love which Stephen finds difficult to understand or to feel:

He had heard the names of the passions of love and hate pronounced solemnly on the stage and in the pulpit, had found them set forth solemnly in books, and had wondered why his soul was unable to harbour them for any time or to force his lips to utter their names with conviction.

Books do not connect to life for Stephen, and his faith is more intellectual than emotional. Once the lust from which he suffered has been effectively banished, his mind is left “lucid and indifferent.” The same kind of indifference that had characterized Stephen’s spiritual life before his conversion is used to characterize him now—the narrator suggests that in some sense maybe Stephen’s life has not charged as completely as it may seem.

He is still cut off from other people, for example. There is a detached, intellectual quality to his religious faith. He looks at the world as evidence of divine power, but in a way that does not necessarily reveal any appreciation or love for the beauty in the world:

The world for all its solid substance and complexity no longer existed for his soul save as a theorem of divine power and love and universality.

Stephen is certainly “otherworldly” in his religious devotion. It is as if his life is only a brief preparation for eternity, part of some “divine purpose” that he “dared not question.” It is difficult for him to “understand why it was in any way necessary that he should continue to live.”

The absurdities of his efforts to mortify his senses illustrate how his religious faith is cutting him off from the world around him. This contrasts strongly with the extremely physical language which characterized Stephen at the start of Chapter Three, and represents one way that he has changed in Chapter Four. One way he has not changed, however, is how detached he is from life around him. In Chapter Three, it was as a result of this physicality, and the nature of his sin, that he felt no sense of community with those around him. In this chapter, after the communion scene with Stephen kneeling among his classmates, we might assume that he is now on some common ground with them, and is a part of their community. Instead, however, he finds that “To merge his life in the common tide of other lives was harder for him than any fasting or prayer.” Despite his efforts, he is still isolated from his peers. Religion for Stephen is an intensely private, almost solipsistic experience, and becomes only one more way that he feels alienated from those around him.

In some ways, we might suspect that Stephen’s religious transformation is incomplete. But his dedication is so extreme that when the director of Belvedere asks him if he has considered joining the priesthood, we may very well assume that he will accept the offer. His devotion is already very priestlike in its rigid self-discipline, and in its effect of keeping him cut off from the flow of ordinary life. He indeed seems, as the priest suggests, an ideal candidate.

At the same time, however, many aspects of the language used to describe this scene prefigure Stephen’s rejection of the offer, and ultimately of the church and religious life altogether. The priest himself is described in the language of death and stagnation:

The priest’s face was in total shadow but the waning daylight from behind him touched the deeply grooved temples and the curves of the skull.

His face, which we would associate with a living individual, is not visible in the dim light. Only his skull, which we associate with anonymity and death, can be perceived. His voice is described more than once as “grave and cordial,” and the double meaning of “grave” resonates strongly. The hour of dusk suggests a fading and waning life.

When they begin talking about the styles of dress of different orders of the priesthood, and how they are often impractical and ridiculous, the extent to which a priest must remain detached from normal life is emphasized. This, of course, should appeal to Stephen, as he has seen himself as detached from normal life for some time now. But the wandering of Stephen’s mind as the priest is slowly leading up to his point suggests that perhaps he is not ready for this kind of commitment:

The names of articles of dress worn by women or of certain soft and delicate stuffs used in their making brought always to his mind a delicate and sinful perfume…. It had shocked him too when he had felt for the first time beneath his tremulous fingers the brittle texture of a woman’s stocking….

It is not an encouraging sign that Stephen is thinking, with no sign of guilt or regret, of his experiences with the prostitutes while the priest is building up toward asking him to consider joining the priesthood.

Stephen’s attitude toward the priest is similarly suggestive of his eventual refusal. He is respectful, but also somewhat impatient and indulgent as he waits for the priest to stop beating around the bush. This reflects his overall attitude toward the Jesuits these days. He is respectful of the order, and all they have done for him, but he is also subtly dissatisfied with them. He thinks fondly and without resentment of the way they ran the schools he has attended—he has even forgiven the pandying incident from Chapter One. However, he associates the Jesuits with a younger phase of his life, and it does not seem that he will continue among them:

Lately some of their judgments had sounded a little childish in his ears and had made him feel a regret and pity as though he were slowly passing out of an accustomed world and were hearing its language for the last time.

He remembers an incident where a priest was condemning Victor Hugo for turning against the church, which incites an “unresting doubt” in Stephen’s mind. He associates Jesuit authority with his childhood, and it is apparent that he has matured since then, and is beginning to feel superior to them in some ways.

Despite these numerous suggestions to the contrary, the idea of the priesthood does appeal to Stephen initially. He has indeed thought of it before this, and the priest speaks directly to the aspects of the priesthood that appeal most to Stephen: the privilege, power, and prestige of the office. His initial response is positive:

A flame began to flutter again on Stephen’s cheek as he heard in this proud address an echo of his own proud musings. How often he had seen himself as a priest wielding calmly and humbly the awful power of which angels and saints stood in reverence! His soul loved to muse in secret on this desire. He had seen himself, a young and silent mannered priest, entering a confession swiftly, incensing, genuflecting, accomplishing the vague acts of the priesthood which pleased him by reason of their semblance of reality and of their distance from it.

Both the priest’s description and Stephen’s response recall one of his earlier vices: pride. The appeal of the priesthood for Stephen involves power, secrecy, and access to privileged knowledge. He pictures himself a priest, in a highly dramatic and literary fashion. It represents for him a “secret desire,” a fantasy. There is an unhealthy degree of sexual voyeurism and self-satisfied pride in his hope to “know the sins, the sinful longings and sinful thoughts and sinful acts, of others, hearing them murmured into his ears in the confessional under the shame of a darkened chapel by the lips of women and girls.”

Stephen imagines taking pleasure in hearing other people’s sins, and in the pride he would feel at being above and beyond such a sinful existence: “no touch of sin would linger upon the hands with which he would elevate and break the host.” It is almost as if the priesthood would afford an opportunity to vent the desires he apparently is not free from, but in a “safe,” sinless environment.

His reasons for being attracted to the priesthood are all self-indulgent and proud. He has no thoughts of helping others, of the benefits of his works on the world around him. The priest’s description of the power and privilege, and Stephen’s fantasies, all glorify the priesthood for the wrong reasons. This suggests again that Stephen is perhaps not as changed as it would seem.

Stephen’s picture of a priestly life is one of isolation, which is consistent with the role of exile which has appealed to him in different forms throughout the novel. As he comes out of the director’s office, this isolation from his peers is emphasized:

Towards Findlater’s church a quartet of young men were striding along with linked arms, swaying their heads and stepping to the agile melody of their leader’s concertina.

Stephen stands apart, alone; we could never picture him strolling across campus in this manner. The students’ “linked arms” recall the “living rail of hands” of which Stephen is a part in the communion scene at the end of Chapter Three. His aspiration to become a part of his community has been abandoned, and indeed his imaginative visualization of himself as a priest emphasizes his singularity and detachment.

In fact, it is the thought of the community of the priesthood which changes his mind. He realizes that life as a priest would cost him the individuality he has cultivated for so long:

The chill and order of the life repelled him. He saw himself rising in the cold of the morning and filing down with the others to early mass and trying vainly to struggle with his prayers against the fainting sickness of his stomach. He saw himself sitting at dinner with the community of a college. What, then, had become of that deeprooted shyness of his which had made him loth to eat or drink under a strange roof? What had come of the pride of his spirit which had always made him conceive of himself as a being apart in every order?

Again, he imagines himself, pictures himself a priest, but this time in a more negative light. The idea of being part of a community of priests, one among many, does not appeal to Stephen’s sense of pride or individuality. He remembers that his sense of a special purpose for his life had always been rooted in the keen sense that he is special, that he is unlike other people, a “being apart in every order”:

He would never swing the thurible before the tabernacle as a priest. His destiny was to be elusive of social or religious orders…. He was destined to learn his own wisdom apart from others or to learn the wisdom of others himself wandering among the snares of the world.

The commitment involved in joining the community of the priesthood threatens to stifle Stephen’s individual ego. When he rejects the priesthood, he affirms the “snares of the world,” and accepts the idea that to fulfill his destiny, he may have to sin in the eyes of the church:

The snares of the world were its ways of sin. He would fall. He had not yet fallen but he would fall silently, in an instant. Not to fall was too hard, too hard….

Stephen accepts the idea that to sin is human, and that the rigid constraints of his religious faith will continue to threaten his freedom to develop.

As he returns, the disorder of the Dedalus household symbolically contrasts with the “order” of the priesthood. While earlier in the novel, the declining status of the family’s wealth had caused Stephen despair and shame, he now embraces it. This represents his new perspective on his life: Stephen affirms disorder, fluidity and change over the rigidity and commitment of the priesthood. As he joins his younger brothers and sisters in song—probably the most notable example of familial love in the novel—he seems to feel more at home with them than he would ever feel in the company of priests. As this section ends, Stephen is thinking of the privileges he has had, which his younger siblings will not have. “All that had been denied them had been freely given to him, the eldest: but the quiet glow of evening showed him in their faces no sign of rancour.” In a rare selfless moment, Stephen seems to appreciate the opportunities he had despite his family’s decline.

In the final section of the chapter, we have what is considered by most readers to be the major climax of the novel. Stephen has gone off alone, along the seashore. Seeing a girl bathing alone, he has an intense vision of his life as an artist. However, the narrative leaves open the possibility that this climax may be somewhat ironic, and that Stephen might be under a delusion. After all, Chapter Three had ended with a spiritualclimax of comparable energy—by now we are perhaps more suspicious.

Stephen’s artistic awakening is spawned initially by a poetic phrase, “A day of dappled seaborne clouds,” which came to mind as he walked alone. Stephen has been fascinated by language since he was a young boy, only here his enthusiasm is given a more complete expression, and more directly affects his conception of his life. He turns this phrase over and over in his mind, fascinated by the sound and rhythm of the words themselves.

His reverie is interrupted, however, as he comes across a group of his classmates bathing. Once again, Stephen’s imaginative “voices,” in this case the European voices “from beyond the world” of Dublin, are interrupted by literal, earthbound voices, those of the boys calling his name. This is similar to the moment when, in his religious trance, Stephen heard the voices of hell and the narrator juxtaposed those against the voices of Mr. Tate and Vincent Heron speaking in ordinary, casual voices. Here, the narrator creates a stark contrast between the world of Stephen’s imagination and the reality that surrounds him. He is repulsed by the sight and sound of these boys, and sets himself apart from them:

He stood still in deference to their calls and parried their banter with easy words. How characterless they looked: Shuley without his deep unbuttoned collar, Ennis without his scarlet belt with the snaky clasp, and Connolly with out his Norfolk coat with the flapless sidepockets! It was a pain to see them and a swordlike pain to see the signs of adolescence that made repellent their pitiable nakedness…. But he, apart from them and in silence, remembered in what dread he stood of the mystery of his own body.

There is an interesting combination of identification and distance in this passage. Stephen is still clearly trying to separate himself from the other boys his age—he stands apart, silent, and only engages with them in a superficial and detached manner. He is pained by what he has in common with them, but in this pain he recognizes a kind of common bond with his peers, a limit to his pose of detachment. The narrator shows us both how distinct Stephen is from others his age, while at the same time suggesting that his dreams and fantasies are primarily imaginative. He is perhaps not as different from other boys as he thinks.

When Stephen sees the girl bathing in the sea, he interprets every aspect of their wordless encounter in symbolic terms—she seems to him like a bird, representing Ireland, sexuality, femininity and creation all at once. The image of a bird suggests Stephen’s new desire for flight from Ireland, to be free of the “nets” of religion, nation, and family. He interprets this encounter as an otherworldly visitation, a profound spiritual experience that validates and christens his new conception of himself as an artist.

When he encounters the girl, we already know that Stephen is especially ripe to interpret things symbolically. This new capacity is one manifestation of his artistic and poetic awakening, and stems directly from his meditation on language and its mysterious appeal. When the boys interrupt his thoughts about language and poetry, they call his name in pseudo-Greek and Latinate constructions. Stephen then recognizes an aspect of his name that he had not considered before—he thinks of the mythological figure of Daedalus, the great artificer, and Icarus his son, who escaped from Crete using wings which Daedalus created out of feathers and beeswax. He takes this as a kind of “prophecy,” a sign that the role of creator is the special purpose he has sensed since childhood. The figure of Daedalus also suggests the escape Stephen imagines his art will be able to provide—an escape both from dull, ordinary life, and from Dublin and Ireland:

Now, at the name of the fabulous artificer, he seemed to hear the noise of dim waves and to see a winged form flying above the waves and slowly climbing the air. What did it mean? Was it a quaint device opening a page of some medieval book of prophecies and symbols, a hawklike man flying sunward above the sea, a prophecy of the end he had been born to serve and had been following through the mists of childhood and boyhood, a symbol of the artist forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being?

The reference to a “hawklike man flying sunward” suggests Icarus rather than Daedalus, who disregarded his father’s advice and flew too close to the sun, fatally melting his wings. This suggests the amount of risk involved in Stephen’s imaginative bid for freedom, and how the pride that has been his vice in the past might ultimately lead to his destruction.

Thinking about his name and the vision it inspires, Stephen immediately asks himself, “what did it mean?” He now assumes that things around him can have symbolic import, and so when he encounters the girl in the water, his immediate perception reveals a complex process of interpretation:

A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh.

This scene, like any in the novel, is mediated by Stephen’s consciousness. We observe him interpreting her as a symbol, rather than reading her as one ourselves. Stephen is transforming everything about her as he perceives it, and we are always aware that this is only a representation of how she “seemed” to him. And his interpretive process is complex and multi-leveled: she is as a seabird, and both the sea and the potential for flight suggest Stephen’s turn of attention away from Ireland and toward Europe. The “emerald” trail of seaweed clearly suggests Ireland (the “emerald isle), and he interprets this immediately and without hesitation “as a sign.”

This scene is richly suggestive in its symbolism in its own right, and can indeed inform and influence our interpretation of the novel and Stephen’s artistic awakening. This double-leveled structure, by which we are experiencing the symbol at a remove, seeing him make a symbol out of her, allows us a distinct distance from the scene. We might feel that this is not “really” a symbol at all, but merely an example of the narrator showing us the temper of Stephen’s mind at the time, which causes him to see his life in a symbolic light. We might feel that the narrator is creating another “false climax,” as he has in every chapter so far, and that Stephen is really deluded in his enthusiasm and certainty. By now we are certainly suspicious of Stephen’s revelations; we might not be as sure as Stephen that his name is a “prophecy.”

The narrative artfully leaves all its options alive. The tone of these closing pages is genuinely triumphant, and these symbols, which Stephen recognizes, are indeed richly suggestive and multivalent in their own right, and really do offer some useful interpretive perspectives on the meaning of the novel as a whole. At the same time, the pace of this narrative has fostered in us a suspicious and subtly ironic attitude toward Stephen. We are not easily convinced, by this point in the novel, that Stephen’s epiphanies are genuine. Our experience of this profound moment of significance in Stephen’s life remains contingent on the developments of the next chapter. Either Stephen has had a spiritual awakening and will dedicate his life to artistic creation, and will continue to distance himself from his religion and nation in an effort to serve this end, or, like his religious awaking, this will prove to be another instructive delusion.

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