Stephen spends his summer at his family home in Blackrock, a town near Dublin. His old Uncle Charles is his constant companion. Uncle Charles smokes reeking tobacco and takes Stephen on long walks. Stephen also spends a part of each day with Uncle Charles and Mike Flynn, an old friend of Stephen's father's. Mike Flynn has trained famous runners, and Stephen is being put through a bit of training himself. Stephen also goes with Uncle Charles to Church every day, where his Uncle prays fervently. Stephen is respectful of his uncle's piety, but he has no idea what need or wish could make Uncle Charles pray so intently. Stephen also takes a constitutional every week with his father and grandfather; together, they walk many miles.
He is enraptured by The Count of Monte Cristo, and he imagines himself living through the adventures of the protagonist, culminating in his rejection of his old love, Mercedes. As another outlet for Stephen's longing for adventure, Stephen and a neighbouring boy named Aubrey Mills head up a pack of boys and go on adventures together. In the fall, Stephen is happy because he does not have to return to Clongowes; but he also knows that this change is because of some financial trouble of his father's. Although the neighbourhood gang of boys breaks up, he and Aubrey still play together. Stephen still feels himself different from other children. At times, their play annoys him. He has a vague conception of a world of images that he longs to meet; he also awaits some kind of transformation, although he is not exactly sure what it will entail.
That autumn, the family moves to a shabby home in Dublin. Stephen understands his father is in some kind of trouble, but there is little Stephen can do to help. Uncle Charles is growing more senile. The move is depressing, and Dublin is a world of new urban experiences. We see Stephen at a Christmas party: he has developed a crush on a neighbouring girl. But he cannot muster the courage to kiss her; the next day, he tries to write love poetry for her.
Soon, Stephen leans he will be going to Belvedere, a Jesuit Schoolhis father ran into Stephen's old rector and chatted him up. The rector will arrange for Stephen to come back to school with the Jesuits. His younger brother, Maurice, is also old enough to go.
We jump forward in time; Stephen is now a teenager, a reluctant leader in his own way, and a successful essayist and actor at his school. It is the night of the Whitsuntide play, and Stephen is taking a moment for himself as he prepares to go onstage and act his part. Outside, he runs into Wallis and Heron, two other boys at Belvedere; Heron is both his rival and his friend, as Stephen and Heron are the two brightest boys in their class. Heron and Wallis tease Stephen about a girl in the audience. Their chiding makes sets off a new train of through for Stephen, as he remembers an incident that took place during his first term at Belvedere. A teacher found heresy in one of Stephen's essays, but Stephen simply explained that he meant something different; still, the idea of heresy gave him a strange feeling of joy. Some time later, Heron, Nash, and Boland caught up with Stephen outside and pulled him into a conversation about writers. Stephen refuses to say that Tennyson was a better poet then Byron, even though Byron was a heretic, and the boys physically attacked him, trying to get him to say that Tennyson was better. He managed to escape. We are brought back to the evening of the Whitsuntide play, as Stephen, Heron, and Wallis continue to make light talk. Stephen looks at Heron now, remembering the past incident and Heron's cowardice, but he realizes that he feels no anger. He thinks about the girl sitting in the audience, remembering their shy contact and his unfulfilled desire to kiss her. A boy comes to tell Stephen to get dressed and ready for his part. As the curtain is about to go up, Stephen thinks about the silliness of his part and feels humiliation. After the play is over, he does not socialize but instead goes for a walk, restlessly searching for something. The crisp night air, occasionally heavy with the odours of the city, calms him, and he goes back.
Some time later, Stephen is taking a voyage by train with his father. They are going to Cork to sell property at an auction. The trip is marked by Simon's attempts to bond with Stephen, but Stephen feels embarrassed by his father's intense nostalgia and trite advice. Images of the dead are unreal to Stephen, save that of his dead Uncle Charles (this is the first time we hear of Charles' death). In Cork, his father chats up everybody about old times and how things were; only when Stephen goes with his father to Queen's College do his father's stories come to life. There, in an old anatomy theatre, Stephen sees the word Foetus carved into a desktop. Suddenly, he sees the world of the students come to life: he can imagine the boy carving the letters, the students of the past sitting and studying, all of them now aged or dead. The word also reminds Stephen of his increasing preoccupation with sex. He tries to remember his own childhood but the memories seem faded and unreal; he is a different person now. He suffers through the rest of the trip with his father, meeting with Simon's old friends and sitting through sessions of wet-eyed nostalgia and avuncular advice.
We are back in Dublin. Stephen has won a hefty sum in an essay contest. Rather than save the money, he begins a prolonged spending binge, buying useless gifts for everyone and indulging himself. When the money is gone, he feels ashamed. He had tried to use the money to create a feeling of elegance and affluence, but in reality they are as poor as ever. He also wanted to use the gifts to bring himself closer to his mother and his many younger siblings; however, he feels as isolated from them as ever. He wanders the streets of Dublin, lonely and suffering from intense sexual longing. He accepts the proposition of a prostitute; his time with her is his first sexual experience.
Chapter Two contains the transition from Stephen's late childhood to his teenage years. We begin in the world that Stephen will later be unable to remember clearly: his Uncle Charles, adventures with the boys in the neighbourhood. There is also a strong contrast between Stephen's fantasies about romance at the beginning of the chapter to his encounter with the prostitute at chapter's end. We move from vague ideas of romance, influenced by The Count of Monte Cristo, to a much more visceral sexual experience.
Adolescence is a conflicted time for Stephen, and an extremely important one. We see him finding success as an actor and an essayist, somewhat popular among his peers, a "leader afraid of his own authority" (103). But again and again, the narrative emphasizes Stephen's isolation from others. He is full of thoughts and feelings that he cannot articulate to others. The world strikes him in a way that he is not yet ready to share.
The voices of his elders and peers often sound hollow to him, but he does not yet have a means of rebellion. Nor is rebellion necessarily how he wants to react. His isolation des not mean he despises his family and peers; he simply feels disconnected from them. The child in Chapter 1 is often frightened, ashamed of the difference between himself and others; the adolescent Stephen is more independent. His rejection of the Church is foreshadowed here: he defends Byron, despite the poet's heresies, and he himself writes an essay that contains a small bit of heresy on a philosophical point. Stephen's independence and sensitivity are at odds with the dogmatism and limited perspective of Christian philosophy.
The gap between his childhood and his adolescence is paralleled by a series of moves and deaths: we see the move to Dublin and the move to Belvedere, as well as the death of Uncle Charles, who is portrayed in the early part of the chapter as an inextricable part of Stephen's childhood. During the trip to Cork, Stephen realizes that he has changed so completely that his childhood seems like a dim memory. In some way, the fate of the child Stephen is similar to death; he has not died, but he has faded away.
His intelligence is often a source of discomfort. He is too smart to bear his father's nostalgia and advice easily. Stephen is regaled with his father's pat wisdom, but he has become increasingly aware of his father's many failures. Stephen is also torn by the intensity of his sexual longing. He is honest enough with himself to know that his feelings are a far cry from romance or love as it is taught in the Church. His decision to go with the prostitute is a major turning point in his life.