At the start of the book, it is a description of Stephen Dedalus as a baby boy. It starts off with a nursery rhyme he used to hear all the time, and this is the beginning of his artistic mind. The world to him is full of sounds and sensations such as "rose blossoms,” “little green place,” and descriptive words such as “cold,” “pale,” and “chilly.” These words represent his feelings of insecurity and his aloneness in the world. He feels emotional detached from most people, and feels like he can only find comfort from his mother and his evening prayers. The prayers don’t help that much either because he feels a strong sense of fear when thinking about ending up on the wrong side, ending up in other world. The prayers only help him when he reminds himself that it won’t happen to him. The reason he likes his prayers so much is because it is just a repetitive memorization of words. Stephen finds comfort and solace of this repetition, and in a way, he’s afraid of change.
When Stephen is in school at Clongowes, he feels even more emotionally detached. He is terribly homesick, and finds comfort when thinking about the upcoming Christmas visit home, when he can be with his loved ones. At school, he’s treated differently; the other students make fun of him for several reasons. They make fun of him because he is smaller built, he is weaker, he is not as athletic, his eyesight is terrible, and he has a strange name. Stephen was the name of the first Christian martyr. A classmate Nasty Roche questions him, “What kind of name is that?” Stephen of course does not know what to say, so just keeps quite, which in turn will bring upon more ridicule.
A bullying classmate named Wells later pushes Stephen into a cesspool, which was a shock to him. He then realizes how cruel the world really is. He describes the feelings as being “a cold slimy water.” He definitely does not associate this with the warmth he feels either at home or when working with repetitive words in class.
During the Christmas dinner at home, Stephen gets his first taste into manhood. He is allowed to sit with the adults at their table, and he is allowed to say grace. He felt competent for probably the first time and loves this new experience. The adults: his mother, father, a friend of the father’s, his uncle, and his governess, Dante, starts discussing the death of Parnell, and then gets into an argument about the role of the Catholic Church in politics and religion alike. This debate ends with the men storming out, leaving Stephen confused, and once again not knowing what to do. He felt lost again, and felt no comfort.
Upon the return to school, his Latin teacher, for breaking his glasses whacks Stephen. He gets humiliated in front of the entire class, and once again feels incompetent. The class then starts to say that Stephen should go to the school’s rector and clear his name from misdoing. So he goes, and finally redeems himself because the rector believes him and starts to feel sorry for him. This victory for the moment put Stephen in the best mood, and the classmates became friends with him. That was also momentary because Joyce hints at the “evening coming,” meaning that all will end especially this victory and the feeling of pride.
Once Stephen learns that his father is in a financial pit, he starts getting gloomier and sadder. They move to a poor neighborhood, and Stephen hates it there, because he doesn’t think he can succeed there. He feels once again, smaller or lower than the rest of the world. The only way he can alleviate his feelings of pain was by reading and writing, and fantasizing about things that would never come true. He reads The Count of Monte Cristo and immediately falls in love the Mercedes, the girl in the story. He thinks about her, and doesn’t even realize that she is a fictional character. Stephen starts going to another school called Belvedere, when he gets a little older. There, he is still being ridiculed but not as badly because all his teachers love him. He is seen as the model student, and does well in poetry writing, essay writing, and as an actor. There, he enters the school play, and falls in love once again, with a real girl this time. This girl showed interest in the play, so immediately he likes her. The other boys tease him about being in the play and they tease him about this girl. He becomes lonelier and more alone. He doesn’t know how else to get rid of all his tensions, so in the end, he decides to sleep with a prostitute. Stephen has a lot to learn about his life, and how life is going to treat him. First he needs to realize that he only has one life to live, so he better make worth of it. He tries to work hard, and to redeem himself, but he only succeeds academically.