Stephen, as a child, has a vague understanding of himself and the world around him. He free-styles about physical sensations, his family, and his home. Apparently he’s a happy kid.
Things go downhill when Stephen is sent to boarding school at Clongowes Wood College (a Jesuit school).
He suffers from bullying and crippling shyness, as well as from actual physical illness. He doesn’t seem to have many friends, except maybe a nice kid named Fleming.
Stephen tries (for the first time of many) to figure out his place in the world. He fails.
At Christmas, Stephen gets to go home; there’s an argument over Christmas dinner about Irish nationalism and Charles Parnell.
Stephen gets beaten ("pandied") by one of the Jesuits at school. He complains to the rector, and is a schoolyard hero.
Stephen’s family moves to a place called Blackrock for the summer. He spends his days with Uncle Charles and a deadbeat track coach named Mike Flynn.
Under the influence of The Count of Monte Cristo, Stephen has imaginary adventures with his friend Aubrey Mills and their gang of marauding schoolboys.
Stephen has his first romantic fantasies – they’re vague and very abstract.
The family has financial troubles and is forced to move to a "bare and cheerless" house in Dublin. There’s not enough money for him to continue at Clongowes, so he transfers to another Jesuit school called Belvedere College.
Stephen is horrified by the move to the city. His discontent develops into a force to be reckoned with.
Stephen is infatuated with a girl; he dedicates one of his first poems to her, but shows it to no one, not even us (the readers).
At the end of Stephen’s second year at Belvedere, he stars in a school play, which causes some mixed feelings, first of excitement, then of disappointment.
Stephen encounters a school friend, Heron. He remembers a fight they had once had over the poetry of Lord Byron during his first year at Belvedere.
Stephen and Mr. Dedalus go to Cork together to deal with the sale of some land. Financial matters are even worse for the family, and Mr. Dedalus is drinking heavily.
An oddly obscene piece of graffiti – the word "foetus" – sends Stephen into crisis mode – he is confused and tormented by his physical desires and lustful thoughts.
Stephen has won some prize money at school; he spends it all on his family, trying to make their lives better.
Once the money’s gone, things are even worse. Stephen falls into a hopeless slump.
In one of his aimless nocturnal wanderings, Stephen has his first sexual encounter with a prostitute.
Stephen continues to indulge his physical desires, but his life of sin is cut short by a religious retreat at school.
One of Stephen’s former teachers from Clongowes, Father Arnall, is the guest star of the retreat. He delivers a chapter-long, truly brutal series of sermons on death, hell, and eternal damnation.
Stephen is horrified. He’s sure he’s going to hell. The thought of his past sins torments him, and he has a grotesque vision of a personal hell he’s sure awaits him.
Stephen confesses his sins and vows to start a new life of religious observance.
After confessing, Stephen feels his burden disappear. He goes to chapel at school the next day and re-commits himself to God through Communion.
The new life Stephen enters into is incredibly intense; he’s on a meticulous schedule of prayer, study, and religious contemplation. Basically, Stephen thinks he’s on the fast track to heaven.
Stephen’s piety is fascinating but overwhelming. He takes every possible step to make sure he won’t sin, including the "mortification" (denial) of all of his physical senses.
Despite his desperate measures, Stephen still has doubts about the state of his soul.
Others, however, are impressed by his newfound sanctity. The director of the college has a heart to heart with him; the priest encourages him to join the holy orders.
When faced with this possibility, Stephen is first pleased, then increasingly concerned. He is unsettled by the passionless life that would await him in the priesthood.
Stephen decides not to join the Jesuits.
The Dedalus family is forced to move once again; we see an unusually tender moment at home with Stephen’s brothers and sisters.
Since he’s not joining the priesthood, Stephen hopes to continue his education at university.
Stephen’s parents are divided on this issue; his father is proud, but his mother thinks it’s a bad idea.
While waiting to find out if he can go to university or not, a restless Stephen wanders to the seaside. He sees some of his schoolmates there.
They call out to him, using his last name. Stephen thinks of the myth of Daedalus, which makes him realize that his true vocation is to become an artist (actually, a writer).
Stephen’s soul feels free of the boundaries of religion and of his childish insecurities. He rejoices in his newfound liberty and inspiration.
A beautiful girl is standing in the water – to Stephen, she looks like an exotic sea bird or a wild angel.
We encounter Stephen again as a university student. The Dedalus family is living in squalor; there are children and pawnshop tickets everywhere.
Stephen makes his way to school; he’s disgusted by his surroundings and comforts himself with the thought of his favorite writers.
Stephen has an awkward conversation with the dean of studies of the university. It’s clear that his intellectual curiosity far surpasses that of the older man.
We witness encounters between Stephen and his college friends, Davin, Lynch, and Cranly. He expounds his theory of aesthetics to them.
Davin, a fervent young nationalist, challenges Stephen’s lack of patriotism toward Ireland. Stephen longs for escape and feels no obligation to stay and participate in the Irish revolutionary cause.
Through these discussions, we observe Stephen’s disenchantment with nation, religion, and family. He makes a bold and idealistic statement to Cranly: he will not serve that which he does not believe in. Stephen and Cranly have a falling out over religion.
Stephen is still infatuated with the same girl, Emma, even after ten fruitless years of yearning. She reappears here, and Stephen writes a second poem about her. This time, we get to read Stephen’s writing.
In the final pages of the novel, Stephen takes over as the narrator. We read entries in his diary that describe his conversation with Cranly and a meeting with Emma.
Stephen’s departure from Ireland is imminent. His mother helps him pack his "new secondhand clothes." As he prepares to leave, he boldly welcomes life and experience, declaring that he will create the conscience of his race.
Finally, Stephen invokes Daedalus, his "old father," and asks him to look out for the young artist.