We meet Stephen as a very small child, barely capable of putting together a coherent stream of thought. Chapter One is mostly disjointed and somewhat difficult to really follow; it’s Joyce’s way of introducing us to character, setting, and premise without ever overtly doing anything. AND IT’S GENIUS. Seriously – very, very little happens in this entire chapter, yet when it’s over, we feel entirely integrated into Stephen’s little world. Furthermore, we feel like we’re already on board with Joyce’s artistic mission of submerging his readers in Stephen’s life, not with a simple show-and-tell exposition, but as a complete, multi-sensory experience. This is the 3-D IMAX version of most opening chapters.
Stephen’s early period of discontent reaches its peak here. His embarrassment about his father, the frustration over the family’s financial situation, and his increasing feeling of alienation all combust. The pathetically nostalgic tone of his father’s reminiscing strikes a note of discord in Stephen, and throughout this section, he feels increasingly alienated and hopeless, as though "he could respond to no earthly or human appeal."
In his current hopeless state, Stephen feels as though he has nothing to lose. He gives in to his physical lusts and goes to the red light district. The awkward scene with the prostitute demonstrates both willingness and reluctance (he doesn’t want to kiss her). This shows us Stephen at his most confused and aimless, where his romantic visions and poetic aspirations are nowhere in sight.
Chapter Three is like one giant pot of "yuck" that simmers and simmers until it finally explodes at the end. Father Arnall’s sermon prepares us for the emotional climax of Stephen’s religious renewal by constantly building upon his (and our) anxieties. Stephen’s confession of his sins is both a moment of catharsis and a kind of breaking point – he divorces himself from his old life, and we are filled with a profound anxiety about what his new life will be like.
So, this doesn’t exactly line up with the common conception of "Suspense," but it at least approximates it. Chapter Four, in which we witness the aforementioned new life that Stephen finds in the church, is just a long period of a kind of uncomfortable limbo. If Stephen’s goal is, as we think it is, to become an artist, this period of self-denial and mortification is not helping him get there. If anything, it appears to have totally derailed his plans. We are uncertain as to whether or not Stephen will return to his old self, or if he’s just going to be ridiculously, alarmingly, and somewhat comically pious for the rest of his lonely life.
The moment of Stephen’s epiphany is also the moment in which we know that things will come out right. If one were to take the name of this stage literally, one might say that the tangled knot of Stephen’s religious anxieties unravels, but we think that ties things up a little too neatly (oh, aren’t we so punny). No, we aren’t sure that absolutely everything in Stephen’s life will be resolved by his special moment at the seaside; after all, it’s just a first step in the process of heading out and discovering his own individual beliefs and goals. However, that being said, it’s a pretty huge step. If this were a Shakespeare play, people would be getting married left and right. Actually, that’s an interesting way to think of it – you could stay that Stephen decides to marry his soul to art and dedicate his life to it.
Finally, we see Stephen himself take over the narration – and thus take control of his life. Sure, he’s still immature and retains some of his earlier pomposity, but at least we can see that he’s trying to deal with his emotions in more of an honest, less manipulative way. His decision to leave Ireland, his family, and his past signals the true beginning of his life as an artist. We don’t know what’s going to happen to him (well, actually, if we just follow through with the Joyce parallel, we sort of do – he’ll move to Paris, write some awesome books, including this one, and become one of the all-powerful rulers of the literary world. MWAH HAH HAH HAH!). Anyway, we don’t know for sure what’s going to happen to him, but we are caught up in his excitement. By the time he gets to those last few lines – sigh, this ending gets us every time – we’re almost as excited for Stephen’s departure as he is. Here, we see him at his most optimistic, and perhaps even most youthful, freed from the anxieties of his childhood, looking towards the future with wide, hopeful eyes.