Wells had said that they had drunk some of the altar wine out of the press in the sacristy and that it had been found out who had done it by the smell. […] That must have been a terrible sin, to go in there quietly at night, to open the dark press and steal the flashing gold thing into which God was put on the altar in the middle of flowers and candles at benediction while the incense went up in clouds at both sides as the fellow swung the censer and Dominic Kelly sang the first part by himself in the choir. But God was not in it of course when they stole it. But still it was a strange and a great sin even to touch it. He thought of it with deep awe; a terrible and strange sin: it thrilled him to think of it in the silence when the pens scraped lightly. But to drink the altar wine out of the press and be found out by the smell was a sin too: but it was not terrible and strange. (1.4.34)
Now Stephen’s thoughts get more complicated; he understands that some sins are worse than others, but he can’t come up with precise reasons why this should be so.
The fellows all were silent. Stephen stood among them, afraid to speak, listening. A faint sickness of awe made him feel weak. How could they have done that? He thought of the dark silent sacristy. There were dark wooden presses there where the crimped surplices lay quietly folded. It was not the chapel but still you had to speak under your breath. It was a holy place. (1.4.8)
Stephen and the other boys are discussing a mysterious crime some older students committed. After Wells suggests that they stole the altar wine and drank it, Stephen is horrified. This is his first encounter with sin, and it is inconceivable to him.
Was that a sin for Father Arnall to be in a wax or was he allowed to get into a wax when the boys were idle because that made them study better or was he only letting on to be in a wax? It was because he was allowed, because a priest would know what a sin was and would not do it. But if he did it one time by mistake what would he do to go to confession? Perhaps he would go to confession to the minister. And if the minister did it he would go to the rector: and the rector to the provincial: and the provincial to the general of the Jesuits. (1.4.38)
This is an interesting and provocative thought for someone of any age: what do priests do when they sin? Who do they confess to? And ultimately, who decides what is a sin and what is not?
He turned to appease the fierce longings of his heart before which everything else was idle and alien. He cared little that he was in mortal sin, that his life had grown to be a tissue of subterfuge and falsehood. Beside the savage desire within him to realize the enormities which he brooded on nothing was sacred. (2.5.8)
Stephen gives into his physical desires and impure thoughts – the guilt we saw earlier is absent here. What has changed inside him?
The letters cut in the stained wood of the desk stared upon him, mocking his bodily weakness and futile enthusiasms and making him loathe himself for his own mad and filthy orgies. The spittle in his throat grew bitter and foul to swallow and the faint sickness climbed to his brain so that for a moment he closed his eyes and walked on in darkness. (2.4.13)
After seeing the eerie "Foetus" graffiti in the anatomy theatre, Stephen can’t block it out of his mind; it reminds him of his own dirty thoughts and acts. This is the first time (of many to come) that we see Stephen overwhelmed by guilt at his own sins, which indicates his rapidly evolving sense of individual responsibility.
His blood was in revolt. He wandered up and down the dark slimy streets peering into the gloom of lanes and doorways, listening eagerly for any sound. He moaned to himself like some baffled prowling beast. He wanted to sin with another of his kind, to force another being to sin with him and to exult with her in sin. (2.5.10)
This is heavy-duty drama. We have to wonder- is this just a typical moment of sordid teenage lust, raised through Joyce’s extravagant prose into a moment of existential rebellion?
In the silence their dark fire kindled the dusk into a tawny glow. Stephen's heart had withered up like a flower of the desert that feels the simoom coming from afar. (3.1.20)
That "later" we just mentioned in the last thought? Turns out to be now. At the news of the religious retreat, Stephen knows that some kind of reckoning is coming. This confirms our suspicion that his guilty conscience has been around all along – it was just hiding for a while.
Every word of it was for him. Against his sin, foul and secret, the whole wrath of God was aimed. The preacher's knife had probed deeply into his disclosed conscience and he felt now that his soul was festering in sin. Yes, the preacher was right. God's turn had come. Like a beast in its lair his soul had lain down in its own filth but the blasts of the angel's trumpet had driven him forth from the darkness of sin into the light. The words of doom cried by the angel shattered in an instant his presumptuous peace. (3.2.13)
This is the definite end of Stephen’s uneasy period of debauchery. He says that it’s the preacher’s knife that stabs him, but it’s actually his own intense guilt, honed sharp after being left to its own devices for some months, that really kicks into action.
He would follow a devious course up and down the streets, circling always nearer and nearer in a tremor of fear and joy, until his feet led him suddenly round a dark corner. The whores would be just coming out of their houses making ready for the night, yawning lazily after their sleep and settling the hairpins in their clusters of hair. He would pass by them calmly waiting for a sudden movement of his own will or a sudden call to his sin-loving soul from their soft perfumed flesh. (3.1.2)
Stephen has gone from guilty schoolboy to "sin-loving" man unbelievably fast. One wonders if he’s actually an unrepentant sinner, or if he is subconsciously putting his guilt out of his mind and saving it for later.
His soul was fattening and congealing into a gross grease, plunging ever deeper in its dull fear into a sombre threatening dusk while the body that was his stood, listless and dishonoured, gazing out of darkened eyes, helpless, perturbed, and human for a bovine god to stare upon. (3.2.8)
The awareness of Stephen’s sins and his "dishonoured" body cause this moment of dull horror. He begins to realize that it may be too late for his soul to ever recover.