Years have passed. Stephen is at university. It is morning; he is in the kitchen with his mother, who worries that he has been changed by university. He looks at the pawn tickets that have been necessary for his family's subsistence. He is also late for class; from upstairs, he hears his father ask one of his sisters if her "lazy bitch of a brother" has gone out yet. Stephen sets out for class, unhurt by his father's comment. In other ways, he is deeply fatigued by his family's increasingly desperate financial situation.
We see a day in the life of a university student: Stephen goes to lectures, usually bored by them, and interacts with peers one by one. We meet a large number of his friends: Cranly, one of his best friends; Lynch, a good natured boy who listens to Stephen's theory of aesthetics; Davin, a simple boy from the country with a great love for Ireland; Temple, a somewhat pretentious boy who admires Stephen; and McCann, a friend of Stephen's who tells Stephen he is antisocial and antidemocratic and who tries to get Stephen to sign a petition for universal peace. The university is a natural place for boys to agitate themselves over politics and Irish nationalism; Stephen wants no part of it. He refuses to sign MacCann's petition, and he will not be cowed by anyone. He is increasingly absorbed in his ideas about aesthetics, ideas influenced by Aristotle's Poetics and the works of Thomas Aquinas. From his morning classes, we see that he has grown somewhat frustrated by the routine of college life. During lecture, attention wanders back to his ideas about art.
Later, during a hurling match, his friend Davin tries to get Stephen to be more sociable. He also tries to get Stephen to be a more patriotic Irishmen. Stephen has a deep scepticism of Irish politics: he points out that the Irish have never had a hero whom they didn't betray or leave for another. Davin continues to implore Stephen to be one of them. Stephen finds Davin's limitations frustrating, but something about Davin touches him. Later on in the match, Stephen explains his theories of aesthetics to an obliging Lynch. Although too complicated and lengthy to summarize in a satisfactory way here, this passage (pages 232-45) merits a close look for readers who want a deeper understanding of Joyce. Highlights include Stephen's definitions of pity and terror; his delineation between static art (the sublime art that invites contemplation without spurring the viewer to action) and kinetic art (art that moves the viewer to do something); his definitions of lyrical, epic, and dramatic form. He hails the dramatic form as superior because the artist refines his personality out of the work, leaving just the object for the contemplation of the audience. As the head toward the library, he sees Emma. Stephen is speechless as always. He feels somewhat cross towards her because he thinks she flirted with a priest and mocked him behind his back. Even his anger feels like a kind of homage.
But he dreams about her that night, and is inspired to write another poem to her. It is ten years since he failed in the writing of his first poem to Emma. This time he succeeds, but he does not send it.
Later, Stephen sits on the library steps. He dreamily watches birds flying through the air. Some nearby boys begin to argue about politics. Stephen goes to look for Cranley; he finds him in the library, puzzling over chess problems with a medical student named Dixon. Stephen makes clear that he wants to speak to Cranley, but Cranley seems in no hurry.
On the porch, a long conversation between the boys takes place. The boys gathered include Temple, O'Keefe, Goggins, Dixon, Cranly, and a few others. Stephen says nothing throughout the whole talk. The boys trade insults and bluster; Stephen becomes distracted from their talk when Emma walks by. Once again, he is torn between worshipping her and damning her. In her wake, she leaves Stephen thoughts of poetry and beauty. Meanwhile, Temple and Cranly are getting involved in a war of insults, culminating in Cranly chasing Temple with a stick. Stephen asks Cranly to come away with him on a walk, so that they can talk. This time, Cranly obliges him.
Stephen asks Cranly's advice. He is involved in a fight with his mother, who wants him to participate in the Easter rituals. Stephen no longer considers himself a Catholic. Cranly advices him to go ahead with, belief or no belief. He should do it to because it costs him nothing and will please his mother; but for Stephen, Cranly's suggestion seems like a compromise of his integrity. Stephen and Cranly have a long conversation about religion, politics, family, and Ireland. Stephen admits, under Cranly's intelligent questioning, that sometimes he fears that the Catholic Church is right and he'll be damned and sent to hell. But he still must choose as he will choose. He realizes with sadness that after he leaves Ireland his friendship with Cranly will come to an end; he accepts that he may be alone. He must be independent. He is not afraid to be alone. He is not afraid of making a mistake, even if that mistake sends him to hell.
The novel closes with a series of diary entries chronicling Stephen's last days in Ireland. He describes a meeting with Emma, in which they actually talk; he is surprised that he likes her that evening, which is a new feeling. Stephen is thrilled by the idea of leaving Ireland. His journal entries include small experiments in writing. Before he leaves, his mother tells him she hopes he'll learn something of the human heart; it is his wish as well. He resolves "to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race" (288). He invokes Dedalus, the mythical artificer, as he makes his way into the world.
The theme of entrapment and escape develops in this final chapter, and Stephen becomes aware that Ireland is a trap. In his discussion with Davin, he calls Ireland the sow that devours its own offspring. Ireland is a trap, restricting Stephen's independence from two many directions.
We open looking at his family, and, as always, they are more destitute than when we left them. Stephen can do little to help them. Sacrifices have been made for his education, but there is nothing he can really do to alleviate the poverty of his parents and his siblings. He feels removed from them, and through his mother continues to be loving, his father seems to have developed a certain amount of animosity against Stephen (as seen when he refers to Stephen as a "lazy bitch of a brother").
University has provided crucial intellectual material for Stephen's growth. His aesthetic theory, very sophisticated for a college student, is deeply indebted to Aristotle and Aquinas. Stephen's methods and manner of reasoning also shows the influence of the Jesuits and the education he received from them. The kinds of questions he poses about beauty have a similar character as questions he posed about theology in early chapters; Lynch tells him that his methods have "the scholastic stink" (244) which refers to the Catholic philosophy, first developed in the Middle Ages, that synthesizes Greek philosophy with Christian teaching.
At the same time, Stephen has gotten everything that he can out of university. We see him bored in lectures; he also has a very unsatisfactory conversation about beauty with his Dean of Studies. We see Stephen as a very isolated young man, too individualistic and critical to remain happily in Ireland, even in an intellectual community. He feels trapped. In the long conversation between the boys on the steps of the library, he says nothing. And even with Cranly, an intelligent and challenging friend, Stephen realizes that their days of friendship or coming to an end.
His new ideas about beauty are his obsession. This chapter shows the growth that Stephen has undergone; he has moved from sensitivity and unfocused love of beauty to an obsessive and methodical contemplation of aesthetics. His obsession with Emma is more aesthetic and abstract; he has admired her from afar for ten years, but in truth he does not know her that well. His contemplation of her is based on a very abstract idea of woman. He can only damn her or worship. His ideas about woman are actually very shallow. Emma exists more as Stephen's muse than as a flesh and blood woman. In his diary entry, we finally see a conversation between the two of them: Stephen warms up and feels "like" for her, which is new. It hints at the growth that he still has to undergo, which is reiterated in his mother's wish that Stephen learn something of the human heart.
Worth noting is that Stephen is still concerned with questioned of Irish identity. He does not seek to involve himself in politics, but his goal is to forge the conscience of his race. He will help Ireland as an artist, and he can only be an artist if he is independent. Paradoxically, he must leave Ireland to gain his independence. He will do his nation a great service by leaving her. But his need to leave should not be mistaken for a desire to become foreign: he is insulted when Cranly asks him if he is going to become a Protestant.
Escape as a theme is powerfully woven through the chapter, and the idea of escape is most often symbolized by flight. On the library steps, Stephen watches dreamily as the birds fly above him. Stephen's name refers to the flight of Dedalus, and it is on Dedalus that he calls when he leaves Ireland. He has become a self-assured and courageous young man, willing even to risk hell for his convictions.