Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

It would be a gloomy secret night.


This line opens the second paragraph of Part III of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I have always wanted it to be the first line. The actual first line is just fine by itself, but this line seems to more perfectly capture what Part III will be about – sin and sorrow and fear, failure and shame.


I live in Switzerland so I’ll use the mountains to illustrate my point. Let’s imagine that Catholicism and its brand of spiritual health are the Alps. Stephen was born somewhere in the pre-Alps, not at the valley floor, mind you, but somewhere halfway up with a clear and breathtaking view of those formidable peaks. The mountains are so strong a presence in these kinds of villages that they define everything about your life – your work, your relationships, and even, sometimes, your health. As a child, Stephen spent a lot of his time wondering what it would be like to experience the world from that high up.


Slowly, as he grows olders and begins to learn, he begins to climb. Small forays to lower Alpine meadows with his classmates followed later by longer walks on his own along the more interesting trails. The mountains are still frightening, but beginning to feel a bit more comfortable.


I think for anyone born into this kind of landscape, the view up is just as impressive and awe-inspiring as the view down. And as you get higher, as you get closer to the top, the sheer power of the downward slopes starts to take on more significance than the summit.


So quite naturally, in Book III, Stephen starts exploring downward. He stops looking up and starts concentrating on the slippery, rocky slopes and the more rickety trails heading toward the valley floor. Stephen is a strong young man and he takes these paths with long strides and his eyes half-closed. Heading this direction changes everything – you hold yourself differently to keep your balance, the wind comes at your from an another angle, the scenery starts to change. The experience is thrilling in its novelty.


It was his own soul going forth to experience, unfolding itself sin by sin, spreading abroad the balefire of its burning stars and folding back upon itself, fading slowly, quenching its own lights and fires.


Stephens heads down this mountain so fast, there are times he’s nearly in free fall. Things start to feel unfamiliar again and pretty soon, he’s gone further in a direction he didn’t even realize existed. People live quite differently on the valley floor of Stephen’s Catholic mountain and he’s suddenly alone, afraid and ashamed. At this point the mountains rise so high above him they block the sun and clouds have taken away his view of the peak.


The rest of Book III is about Stephen finding the courage to start walking up again. In many ways it is a dreary chapter, filled with long sermons and lengthy fire-and-brimstone reflections as Stephen works toward making a confession. One aspect of his thinking that I enjoyed seeing was his emphasis on human absolution before spiritual. He imagines a scene between himself and Emma, a young girl he has been smitten with for quite some time, which involves him asking her to forgive him for seeing her as a sexual object. Only after he’s worked this out in his mind and listened to a horribly graphic lecture on hell does he feel ready to head toward a priest and confess his time spent with several Dublin prostitutes.


If you’ll excuse the silliness of this extended metaphor, Stephen’s confession acts a bit like a chair-lift. Instead of walking back up the mountain he’s pulled quickly toward the summit on a theological mechanism.


The muddy streets were gay. He strode homeward, conscious of an invisible grace pervading and making light his limbs. In spite of all he had done it. He had confessed and God had pardoned him. His soul was made fair and holy once more, holy and happy.


I cannot imagine what turn-of-the century Irish Catholicism must have been like to experience as a creative, sensitive child, except that it must have been terribly frightening. Stephen takes everything a step beyond imagination. His body reacts physically to his thoughts as well as to the images in the sermons. This is something that makes the ending of Chapter III very interesting in that Stephen’s movement away from sin only becomes permanent when he takes communion. This physical act – just as sensual as his sin – is finally what transforms him completely.




9 Responses to “re-reading Joyce – chapter three”

  1. Cliff Burns

    Joyce is magic. I have to stay away from people like him, Beckett, Borges…they intimidate me with their brilliance so that I want to chuck my keyboard out the window and break all my pens. Take up flipping burgers for a living. These guys just set the bar so freakin’ high, all the rest of us poor scribblers can do is stand there and gape like blowfish…

  2. chartroose

    It sounds wonderful. I’ve always avoided “Portrait…” because I had some problems getting through “Ulysses.” Maybe I should try this.

  3. verbivore

    Cliff – I do agree, they are intimidating. But I enjoy reading them so much at the same time, they are the writers I go back to again and again.

    Chartroose – Ulysses is next on my list, and I am expecting to have trouble. I think you might enjoy Portrait, it is a lot less stream of consciousness than his other work (except Dubliners) and its focus is quite narrow. But it still has all that wonderful thick language. I’d be interested to see what you think if you do read it.

  4. Ann Darnton (Table Talk)

    I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve read very little Joyce, just some of the stories from ‘The Dubliners’. I must think about making room for ‘Portrait’ in this Autumn’s schedule. I can thoroughly relate to the question of mountains dictating health, though. I can’t handle mountains unless I am at least halfway up them or underneath them. Put me in a valley and I’m terrified they’re going to fall on me. Saltzberg I can handle – they are suitable far away, but I know that I can never again set foot in Innsbruck; I have never felt so oppressed.

  5. Litlove

    I wonder what has happened to the Catholic novel? It was such a Thing in the early twentieth century, and now it seems to have completely disappeared. I have never really contemplated reading later Joyce, but I thought of listening to Ulysses on audio book. It seems more manageable that way.

  6. verbivore

    Ann – my reading of Joyce is not extensive by any means, Dubliers and Portrait with extracts of Ulysses. I’ve never had the courage to attempt Finnegan’s Wake. It would be interesting to read him in full at some point but that’s a project I can’t even begin to consider right now.

    Litlove – What an interesting question…I think Alice McDermott does a lot of work in that direction but I’m not sure you could call her works a Catholic novel. Listening to Ulysses…that’s a great idea.

  7. Cliff Burns

    Litlove–isn’t Joseph O’Connor being touted as “the new Joyce”? Maybe he’s got the Great Catholic Novel in him.

    I always wondered where Jimmy Joyce would go after FINNEGAN’S WAKE. Make the complete circuit back to naturalistic offerings like THE DUBLINERS or disappear “into the mystic”…

  8. Trish

    Strangely I think this might have been my favorite chapter of Portrait. Stephen finally seems as though he’s making important discoveries about himself and the religious and carnal make a wonderful juxtaposition. Ha ha…still doesn’t make me like the book any more. 🙂

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