Stephen's earliest memories — intensely vivid and fragmented — are proof that from the first, he always viewed his world from an artist's perspective. Later, as a young man, Stephen retains his childlike curiosity about people and things. He continues to make keen observations and displays an acute sensitivity which eventually causes him to realize that his destiny is to create — to become an artist and to define his artistic soul. Thus, he leaves for the Continent, severing himself from his family, his faith, and his country.
Stephen's journey through life, prior to his leaving for the Continent, is not easy. He is a troubled little boy, and it is little wonder. From his mother, Mary Joyce, while he is learning about piety, he takes on her deeply guilt-ridden sense of duty. In contrast, Stephen's father, Simon, teaches him only the most superficial code of social conduct, advocating irresponsibility as a means of finding personal freedom. Thus, Stephen's earliest morality consists of a combination of his mother's admonition, "Apologise," and his father's advice, "Never . . . peach on a fellow." One parent tells him to confess and feel guilty; the other tells him to lie and feel no guilt. This paradoxical legacy is indeed heavy emotional baggage for Stephen, who, at six years old, is sent out to face the world at Clongowes Wood College.
At this Jesuit boarding school, Stephen is quickly initiated into a life of cruelty, isolation, and injustice; he learns that escape is possible only through short-lived personal victories. Understandably, Stephen is overcome by homesickness, feelings of inadequacy, and actual physical illness, all of which alienate him from his fellow students. Most of Stephen's efforts to adapt to Clongowes result in humiliation; for example, he is mocked when he confesses that Yes, his mother kisses him. Floundering in guilt and confusion, his soul cries out: "Yes, his mother kisses him. Was that right?" If so, why is he teased?
Other things also confuse Stephen: should he spy on his fellow classmates and report their sacrilegious behavior? He could do so easily and with good conscience, and he could certainly "peach" on the boy who pushed him in the "square ditch." These and other confusing issues cause Stephen to constantly be on the defensive and to yearn for the comfortable security of home. Ironically, when Stephen is able to return home for the Christmas holidays, he realizes that home is not the harmonious haven that it once seemed to be.
After the Christmas Day battle royal, Stephen views his family differently. He sees the tyranny of religious zeal (embodied in Dante, his governess), and he also sees the cost of anti-clerical, political activism (embodied in Mr. Casey, his father's friend). The argument between Dante and Mr. Casey proves to Stephen that the adult world is as flawed and as cruel as his own small world. He is further disillusioned when he learns that the clerical community contains its own form of hypocritical cruelty. He realizes that if he is to obtain justice at Clongowes (regarding the pandying incident), he must relinquish personal weakness, fly in the face of both custom and tradition, and be willing to stand alone and confront the dark, unknown forces of the world.
Stephen's later experiences at Belvedere College initiate him into the turbulent world of adolescence. At Belvedere, Stephen feels confused and ashamed of his family's poverty, yet he overcompensates for his feelings of inadequacy by excelling in both drama and writing. Furthermore, he finds an artistic outlet for his adolescent moodiness in his love for Romantic literature.
In spite of his attempts to adjust to the school and to the Church, Stephen exhibits the restlessness and unpredictable mood swings of the typical adolescent, compounded by feelings of inferiority and, most of all, by persistent feelings of sexual urgency. Eventually, these longings for sex are satisfied in the arms of a Dublin prostitute. This experience marks the end of Stephen's innocence and the beginning of his search for life's deeper meanings.
At this point, Stephen's struggles with his sex drive seem all the more painful because he serves as prefect of the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin, and, therefore, he has an obligation to provide a good example for the younger boys at the school. Stephen's period of lust and frustration, however, is short-lived. After listening to Father Arnall's Judgment Day sermons, delivered during a three-day religious retreat, Stephen is so consumed with guilt and fear that he seeks out a kindly Capuchin monk to hear his confession. Afterward, he vows to purify his life.
Accordingly, he becomes a model saint of a young lad; but this phase is also short-lived. Stephen finally acknowledges his feelings of sexuality, and he also acknowledges his own moral imperfections, as well as the moral imperfections of people around him. He becomes cynical about those who profess to have a flawless faith and begins to use his intellect and logic in order to dissect spiritual matters.
The question of whether or not Stephen should pursue a life of spirituality is resolved once and for all after his meeting with the Jesuit director, who unwittingly reveals that a religious life would deny Stephen all pleasures of the natural world — a fate Stephen cannot imagine. His decision to turn from a religious vocation makes him realize that he is now free — free to pursue the pleasures of life through art.
To Stephen, artistic expression involves more than a casual appreciation of style or form; it involves a complete communion of body, mind, and spirit. Stephen experiences this "esthetic harmony" as he gazes at a girl wading in the sea; she epitomizes his expectations of life in the form of art, freedom, and sexuality. From this moment, Stephen dedicates himself to the pursuit of such a life.
Stephen chooses to forge his future by first testing his new philosophy against the established customs, mores, and restrictions of Dublin society. Almost systematically, he interacts with his family and his friends, and one by one, he dissociates himself from them, as well as from the values that they represent.
Although we might not agree that it is necessary for Stephen to break free of all the bonds which tie him to his disappointing and unfulfilled past, we acknowledge that he alone must make the decision about leaving Ireland. Note that as Stephen departs from his homeland, in search of himself, he seems to possess the confidence, the egocentrism, and a tentative hope for the future common to everyone who leaves home for the first time. Although it is clear that his life's lessons have only begun, we wish him well and hope that his future will hold him "forever in good stead."