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Stephenís portrait is drawn with both the distance of an older self looking back slightly embarrassed at the excesses of his younger self and compassion of an older self who recognizes the nobility of spirit and the uncompromising search for truth in his younger self. Therefore the portrait is very ambivalent.
On the one hand, Stephen is a loner, a boy who scorns priests for being too cold, but who can only feel, but seldom show spontaneous emotion to his fellow humanity. Hs friend Davin calls him a born "sneerer." Stephen stands back and watches, never participating, but longing to. He often feels himself above his fellow students, his teachers, and his elders, morally and intellectually--and he often is above them in these ways. He is full of contradictions about his religious faith. While falling away from the faith, he maintains a belief its veracity and power. He is almost completely inept in relation to women. He even displays a phobia about them and compensates for it by making them over into goddesses or whores, always symbols, rarely real people. He wants to embrace the life of the mind and he also wants to embrace the life of the folk. He is always torn between the two. Only the novel we are reading attains a balance between the two. The hero it represents has yet to achieve that balance.
On the other hand, Stephen is a boy who stands up for what he feels and believes even in the face of the threats of overwhelming authority or social ostracism. His clear-sighted childís vision tells him that the punishment he received was unjust and that he must address the injustice immediately. He did so alone, a small boy facing the head of a school. That same determination is seen when he refuses to renounce Byron when his classmates tell him Bryon is an immoral and bad poet. He is beaten for his loyalty to his idol, but refuses to relent. Again, at the end of the novel, Stephen faces the decision to leave the Roman Catholic church despite the fact that he still feels enormous respect for its tradition of thought and despite the fact that he will be causing his already beleagured mother further pain and worry. He seems constitutionally unable to act against his conscience.
The same characteristic of being a loner which makes him sadly detached from his fellows, makes him able to see the emptiness of the social conventions of his time. The heated debate between his father and Mr. Casey and Mrs. Riordan seems farcical when seen through the eyes of the child Stephen. The reduction of the argument to its final moment when Mr. Casey bans God and Mrs. Riordan bans the world is filtered through the consciousness of a child who has been taught to respect his elders, the church, and Parnell, but who is seeing that these sacred cows are not respected by those who taught him the rules. When MacCann wants Stephen to sign a petition for universal peace and Stephen refuses, MacCann tries unsuccessfully to push Stephen into a category-- reactionary. Stephen recognizes the maneuver and refuses it, but tries to make peace anyway.
Despite his rejection of the church at the end, Stephen is shaped by it and part of it, just as Cranly says. His artistic theory is based on the Church doctrine of transubstantiation, the bread and wine being literally transformed during mass into the body and blood of Christ. For Stephen, he will live inside the contradictions. He will live between the earthly and the heavenly. His art will be the bridge between them. He finally finds a way to embrace the world that he has held off from with such a troubled stance. However, he must do this away from home, away from the pulls of conventionality.
Stephen is really the only major character in the novel. However, his parents are such strong influences on his thinking that it is useful to give them some analysis here. Mrs. Dedalus begins the novel as the loving and sweet mother who sings to the infant Stephen. Next we see her at the Christmas dinner, taking no sides and ineffectually appealing to everyone to be at peace. It is in this pose that she will remain throughout the novel. She is an ineffectual complainer as she is depicted in the novel. Stephen feels the pull of guilt in relation to her, but little else. Her latter devotion to the church seems to be a retreat from all moral responsibility of her own. In the face of her failure of a husband and her fallen fortunes, she turns to the church for comfort and tries to pull her son along with her. She seems incapable of understanding Stephen. However, at the end, Joyce does give her an insight. She wishes that Stephen would find out about the heart in his journey.
Stephen describes his fatherís list of accomplishments ironically his father has been "A medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician, a small landlord, a small investor, a drinker, a good fellow, a storyteller, somebodyís secretary, something in a distillery, a taxgatherer, a bankrupt and at present a praiser of his own past." Simon Dedalus is about as different from his son Stephen as it is possible to get. Whereas Stephen is a loner, Simon is always the garrulous center of attention. Whereas Stephen is an intellectual, his father is a man of the people, who hasnít a deep thought in his head. Whereas Stephen is cynical or, at least, ironic, Simon sinks into maudlin sentimentality at the slightest thought. Whereas Stephen lives his life deliberately, thinking through every act with great circumspection, Simon seems to wander through life confused that it doesnít suit his needs better.
From the first, Stephen is aware of his fatherís failure at being a provider, the chief role men held at the time. Living in a class- conscious society, Stephen always dreads hearing questions about what his father does. When asked as a young boy what his father "is," Stephen replies that his father is a gentleman. He wonders at length about other boysí fathers being magistrates while his father has no respectable job he can hold up as proof of his right to be in the same social class as other boys in his school. By the end of the novel, Stephen has devised a new way of dealing with the question of what his father does. He makes it a joke to amuse his friend. However, it is clear that Stephen has never thought it funny. He is painfully self-conscious when his father meets his friends, embarrassed perhaps at his fatherís loud talk or at the possibility that his father will mention one of his many less than respectable jobs.
Stephen ends the novel with another name for a father figure. He writes in his last journal entry "Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead." Since the term artificer was used earlier in the novel to describe Lucifer, who sinned an intellectual sin of rebelling against God, it is not likely that Stephen is addressing his father Simon here. In this sense, Stephen has abandoned his biological father and is now pledging allegiance to father of a different sort.