A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Novel Summary: Chapter 4
Stephen now becomes extremely pious, praying zealously and follows all the devotional rituals of the Church. He reads many devotional books, and feels his soul being enriched with spiritual knowledge. He sees divine meaning in everything. Also, he rigorously disciplines his senses, lest he sin again. He walks with his eyes downcast, and he avoids looking at women. He does not sing or whistle; he even seeks out disagreeable odors in order to mortify his sense of smell. He observes all the fasts of the church, and tries to divert his mind from the tastes of foods. He also deliberately sits in uncomfortable positions, and stays on his knees through most of the mass, as well as performing other actions that mortify the sense of touch. Under this regime, he feels no desire to commit a mortal sin, but he still feels moments of anger at trivial things.
But in spite of all his efforts, he starts to feel a sense of spiritual dryness, and he has lustful thoughts again. He resists temptation, however, and begins to understand how the saints had to struggle to maintain their state of grace. He believes he has successfully amended his life.
The director calls Stephen to his office and asks him whether he has ever felt that he has a vocation to join the Jesuit order. He has noted Stephen's great piety and the example he sets to others. Stephen replies that he has sometimes thought of it. The director responds that to be called to the order is the greatest honor that God can bestow upon a man. Stephen admits to himself that he has often thought of himself in the role of priest, and now he feels attracted by the lure of secret knowledge and secret power. He would know things that were hidden from others, and would know the sins of others, whispered to him in the confessional.
The director tells him he must be quite sure that becoming a priest is his vocation. It would be terrible to make a wrong choice. As he leaves the director's office, Stephen has doubts as he considers the grave, ordered and passionless life that would await him as a priest. Something in him resists the idea, and as he walks home he realizes that he will never be a priest. He must learn his own wisdom through making his own way in the world.
When he gets home it is early evening. His parents are out and his brothers and sisters say they have gone to look at a house, since they will be moving again. Stephens reflects on how weary his siblings seem, even as they gather around the fireplace and sing many songs. They seem weary of life even before they have set out on their life's journey.
In the next incident, as his father inquires about a place for him at University College, Dublin, Stephen restlessly walks the streets. His faith has faded, he has turned down an opportunity to become a priest, but he still does not know what his destiny is to be. He heads for the mouth of the river and the sea, and comes across some of his friends playing and diving. They hail him, but he takes little notice of them. He feels that he is on the brink of some kind of revelation that may reveal his life's purpose to him. His soul soars and he feels a sense of ecstasy, and in that moment he knows that his destiny is to be an artist, creating something new out of the power and freedom of his soul. He knows he has left his boyhood behind. He wades into the river and sees a girl standing ahead of him, alone and still, gazing out to sea. He contemplates her, in a state of silent joy. Then he turns away, striding out to the sea, singing wildly. He knows he has found his vocation. He walks for a long time and then heads back to the shore to rest. His soul still throbs in ecstasy. A new world has been opened up to him.
This is the crucial chapter in which Stephen's vocation is revealed to him. In the early part of the chapter, his excessive devotion and religious zeal is almost painful to read. It is obvious that he will be unable to maintain it, and it seems to suppress life rather than enhance it. Stephen is a boy of such intense nature that he does not undertake anything lightly. It is quite in keeping with his temperament that following his confession and the transcendent peace it produced for him, he should pursue his religious duties to excess. But in doing so he merely stifles his inner instincts, the yearning for independence and creativity that will surge up in him again later in the chapter.
In this chapter Stephen not only rejects a life in the Church, he also moves away from his family, in particular his mother. She is a pious woman and does not support the idea of Stephen attending the University College. Stephen resents her opposition, and even when his anger fades, he "was made aware dimly and without regret of a first noiseless sundering of their lives."
Stephen now regards family and church as part of the network of social forces that had tried throughout his boyhood to shape him and make him serve their own ends. He realizes for the first time the significance of his last name, Dedalus. In Greek mythology, Daedalus was the father of Icarus, and he made wings for him and his son to escape from the Cretean labyrinth that he had created to house the Minotaur, a half-man and half-bull creature. In Greek, the name "Daedalus" means "cunning artificer." This is what Stephen is to become, an artist and creator who is able to escape the labyrinth made up of family, church and country (Ireland), in which he has been wandering. He must reject everything to forge his own destiny.