I guess if you’re going to read a “young man begins to question the institutions that have built up his understanding of the world” you could go with one of the best. Although the sub-genre obviously predates this book by quite a wide margin with The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe being more of the OG version — well aside from Hamlet, and The Confusions of Young Torless by Robert Musil being a contemporary of Joyce’s. The difference here is the way in which the insitutions of the world that Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus inhabits speak to the many of the crises of the twentieth century. By looking at the church and actually pondering how it might make sense with modernity, this novel really charts the breakdowns of early modernism. I tend to think of the pre-WWI period of literature as a time of searching. There’s plenty of good literature to be found in British and Irish literature at the time, but there’s also some huge cultural lacunae at play. Whether it’s the huge scientific discoveries of evolution, dinosaurs, and early forays into plate tectonics, the rise of psychology as a way to understand the human brain, as opposed to religion’s purview of the human soul, or what’s about the happen in France/Belgium/Germany, we’re at a turning point.
This book predates the war like I said, so the church and the school become the primary focus. This is not a novel primarily about the nature of sin, but it does consider that question for a long time. And a gap between the ideology of the church and what Stephen feels about his own view of the world is widening. The church no long seems able to understand the world. So taking that into college, there is a further splintering. This is about as bildungsroman as it gets, and it’s of the sort that I think I enjoy more as an adult than I would have as a kid. I don’t think there’s specific lessons for me then, like there are now.