Another life! A life of grace and virtue and happiness! It was true. It was not a dream from which he would wake. The past was past.
Stephen goes up to his room after dinner in order to "be alone with his soul." He feels fear and despair as he pauses at the threshold, worrying that evil creatures are in the room waiting for him. Going in, he is relieved to find that it is just his ordinary room. Stephen feels weak and numb. He admits to himself the horror of all the sins he has committed, and is amazed that God has not stricken him dead yet. Lying down, Stephen closes his eyes and has a fearful vision of a field covered in weeds and excrement, occupied by six ghoulish goatlike creatures with gray skin. Swishing their tails menacingly, the creatures trace ever-smaller circles around Stephen, uttering incomprehensible words.
Springing awake from this nightmare, Stephen rushes frantically to open the window for some fresh air. He finds that the rain has stopped and the skies are full of promise. He prays to Jesus, weeping for his lost innocence. Walking through the streets that evening, Stephen knows he must confess. He asks an old woman where the nearest chapel is, and goes to it immediately. He anxiously waits for his turn to enter the confessional. When it is finally Stephen's turn, the priest asks how long it has been since his last confession, and Stephen replies that it has been eight months. He confesses that he has had sexual relations with a woman and that he is only sixteen. The priest offers forgiveness and Stephen heads home feeling filled with grace. He goes to sleep. The next day he finds himself at the altar with his classmates and receives the Sacrament.
Stephen imposes a new system of religious discipline upon himself that transforms his life. He prays every morning before a holy image, yet his sense of triumph is lessened by his uncertainty whether his prayers are sufficient to counteract the ill effects of all his sins. He divides his daily schedule into parts that correspond to particular spiritual functions. Stephen keeps rosary beads in his trouser pockets so that he can touch them as he walks, and he divides each rosary into three parts devoted to the three theological virtues. Reading books of devotional literature, Stephen learns about the three aspects of the Holy Trinity. Though he cannot understand the solemn mystery of the Trinity, he finds the mystery easier to accept than God's love for his soul.
Gradually, however, Stephen comes to accept the fact that God loves him, and he begins to see the whole world as one vast expression of divine love. He is careful not to get carried away by his spiritual triumphs, and he pursues even the lowliest devotion carefully. Stephen avoids making eye contact with women, and sniffs the most objectionable odors he can find, in order to "mortify" his sense of smell. He never consciously changes positions in bed. Despite his attempts at self-discipline, he is periodically tempted by sin and bothered by sudden fits of impatience, as when his mother sneezes. Stephen comforts himself, however, with the knowledge that strong temptations prove that his fortress is holding tight against the devil's attacks. He asks himself whether he has corrected his life.
Stephen begins fervently to apply spiritual discipline to his own actions, in contrast to his passive status as a member of the audience listening to Father Arnall's sermon and attempting to understand it academically. Long passages during the sermon make no mention of Stephen at all, as the focus is on hell itself. Here, however, we focus on Stephen's reaction, which is no longer passive. His withdrawal into himself is not only described in psychological terms, but in physical ones as well, as when he goes to his room "to be alone with his soul." In applying the knowledge from the sermon, Stephen becomes the master of his spiritual fate. Even his dream of hell indicates a more active relationship with the torments he undergoes, as the goatlike devils come from his own mind as his own creations. Since they are products of Stephen's own mind, he can disown them if he wishes. Therefore, as scary as the goat nightmare is, it is something of a release and a relief for Stephen, who runs to the window to be soothed by the fresh air. His decision to confess his sins is the next step in his gradual process of taking control of his spiritual state.
Stephen's rigorous program of spiritual self-discipline is impressive, and demonstrates his extraordinary earnestness. The unbelievable asceticism that he willingly adopts demonstrates his strength of will and suggests his heroism. Like some of the early ascetics and hermits of the Christian Church, who lived in the desert and ate locusts, Stephen displays an astonishing ability to overcome his bodily longings and to affirm the superiority of the soul. In doing so, he proves his similarity to martyrs and saints.
However, Joyce suggests that a saint's life may not be desirable for Stephen. Joyce's style, which is richly detailed and concretely sensual in earlier sections of the novel, now becomes extremely dry, abstract, and academic. This style corresponds with Stephen's psychological state: as Stephen becomes more ascetic and self-depriving, Joyce's language loses its colorful adjectives and complex syntax. The very difficulty of reading such dry language suggests the difficulty of the life that Stephen is leading. Stephen's question at the end of Chapter 4, Section 1—"I have amended my life, have I not?"—emphasizes the fact that Joyce himself has amended his prose. Importantly, though Stephen explicitly acknowledges that his life has been changed, he does not say that it has necessarily improved. His heroic efforts to deprive himself are impressive, but do not necessarily make him a better person.