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Stephen doesn’t have too many real friends at university, but the ones he does have are carefully chosen. They are all his intellectual equals (or at least close to it). Though Cranly often is interpreted as the most important of Stephen’s friends, we think Davin stands out in this group of three; he and Stephen are opposites in many ways, drawn to each other by a mutual sense of fascination. They share a highly developed sense of idealism, which takes different forms in each of them. While Stephen’s idealism is centered on his somewhat cold aesthetic theory and belief in the redemptive power of art, Davin, who comes from the countryside, is a nationalist and possibly a Fenian (Irish revolutionary). He has an optimistic belief in the future of Ireland, and he tries to convince Stephen that the country comes before anything else, including art. Davin also possesses a certain innate goodness and innocence that separates him from the other characters we meet – perhaps this stems from his rural roots. He is out of place in the squalid, sinful city.
Cranly and Lynch are quite a pair. They are similar in many ways; both use language in a fascinating and often comical manner (they each have a trademark expletive; Cranly’s is "flaming" and Lynch, for whatever reason, likes the word "yellow"). Both are described as having mask-like, sometimes sinister faces; Cranly’s face is a priest-like death mask, while Lynch’s resembles a smiling devil’s mask. They serve similar functions for Stephen, as well. He bounces his ideas on aesthetic theory off of both of them, and they question him shrewdly. Ultimately, Stephen has a falling out with Cranly, who goes slightly too far in his line of questioning, on the topic of Stephen’s break with religion and family.
All three of these friends serve a central purpose, which is to allow us to see Stephen interacting with them. From their conversations, we take away a more thorough understanding of Stephen’s theories, and what he’s really like at this turbulent time in his life.