After the end of the winter vacation, Stephen is called to meet with the director of the Jesuit college. The priest begins by discussing the inconvenience of the long capuchin robes worn by a sect of the Franciscan order. He compares the robes to skirts, which makes Stephen blush inwardly and think of women. Stephen has always admired and respected the Jesuit priests of the college for their intelligence and good humor, but lately he has been feeling something akin to disillusionment.
As Stephen grows older, he begins (like most teenagers) to doubt the authority figures that surround him at school. Stephen’s slightly skeptical and even condescending attitude toward the director of the college signals his diminishing religious piety and growing confidence and individualism.
After he finishes with the preliminaries, the priest suggests to Stephen that he might be well-suited for a career in the clergy. Stephen listens to this praise with pride, imagining himself wielding the great power of a priest. He thinks that the many religious rituals he would perform would connect him more closely with reality and would allow him to express his emotions freely. As the priest explains his invitation, Stephen feels as though he is being offered a great deal of knowledge and power. He would know the dark sinful secrets of women, because they would come to confess to him, but he himself would be immune to sin.
Stephen’s response to the priest’s suggestion is wonderfully illustrative of his state of mind. It shows, for one thing, that he longs to regain his sense of reality and his freedom of emotion. It also shows that he lusts after women, despite his careful abstention. Moreover, he has been so muddled by his experiment in piety that he does not recognize the situation’s irony. He interprets the rector’s suggestion as though it were the serpent’s offer to Eve: a tantalizing but corrupting gift of knowledge and power.
When Stephen gets up to leave, the priest urges him to consider the matter very carefully. As they shake hands, Stephen hears a lovely snatch of melody from outside; suddenly, the priest’s face looks lifeless and bleak. After he has left, he imagines the “ordered and passionless life” of a priest, its familiar schoolboy smells and sounds. Suddenly, he feels restless and rebellious: some wild instinct tells him that he does not want this life. He sees himself middle-aged, red-faced, and dull, and the vision appalls him.
The music causes Stephen to have an epiphany, a sudden and striking insight. The liveliness and beauty of the music turns Stephen to his animal soul, as it were—it restores his intuitive, sensory, multifaceted experience of the world. Suddenly, he sees the life of a priest not as a lofty, orderly abstraction but as a series of ugly sensory experiences.
Stephen wonders at how little his life of religious devotion has affected him, in the end. He decides that he will never become a part of any kind of institution or order, that he will not receive his wisdom secondhand but gather it himself. And he knows that he will sin again, many times over, as part of his search for wisdom.
Stephen realizes that though his religious education was aimed at his soul, it has left his soul basically unaffected and unchanged. To act on his soul, he must take a more circuitous route. He was taught that sin would harm or destroy his soul, but he realizes it will only enrich it. For him, body and soul are no longer at odds.
Stephen then thinks lovingly of his father’s messy, lively house. He comes home a little while later to find his siblings sitting together after tea, among crumbs and spills. His sister tells him that their parents are out looking at a house, because they will soon be evicted from their current home. They all begin singing a song together, as they often do, and Stephen joins them. He notes how the children’s voices sound prematurely tired.
As soon as Stephen renounces the attractive but stifling order of religion, he turns affectionately to various kinds of disorder: he begins to accept disorder as a part of the life he loves. Similarly, he incorporates the sadness and vague disappointment of his siblings into his worldview – sadness he had not seemed to notice before.