A key symbol of the novel is that of binaries, seemingly irresolvable oppositions between two things: hot and cold, sacred and profane, etc. Heat is generally associated with sin and passion, while cold is associated with purity and spirituality. These dualities acquire a great symbolic significance in the novel, becoming as it were Stephen’s personal mythology, a broad web of associations and memories that permeate the entire novel.
Women play an ambivalent but highly symbolic role in Stephen's life, likely inspired by the polarized depictions of women in Roman Catholicism (e.g. the pure Virgin Mary as opposed to sinful Eve). They are simultaneously objects of worship and revulsion. Only Stephen's muse, the girl on the beach, appears to transcend this mixture of love and hate.
The symbols and imagery of Roman Catholicism, such as the Latin language and the Eucharist, as well as its literary and philosophical influence, appear frequently. For example, Stephen bases his own aesthetic philosophy on that of Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. References to the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, the supreme medieval Catholic poet and author of The Divine Comedy, are numerous, such as the mention of Guido Cavalcanti in Chapter 5, as well as Stephen’s epiphany in Chapter 4.