It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant and that he did not know where the universe ended. He felt small and weak. (1.2.45)
Stephen’s intellectual curiosity is always at work. He is frustrated by his lack of understanding, but his capability for abstract thought simply isn’t developed enough to comprehend these giant concepts.
– She too wants me to catch hold of her, he thought. That’s why she came with me to the tram. I could easily catch hold of her when she comes up to my step: nobody is looking. I could hold her and kiss her. But he did neither: and, when he was sitting alone in the deserted tram, he tore his ticket into shreds and stared gloomily at the corrugated footboard. (2.2.20-21)
Stephen’s inaction with Emma feeds into his discontent. Even though he knows she wants him to grab her, he cannot make himself do anything, and he’s troubled by his cowardice. His inability to actually communicate with her sets the tone for the rest of their "relationship," if you can even call it that.
But when he had sung his song and withdrawn into a snug corner of the room he began to taste the joy of his loneliness. The mirth, which in the beginning of the evening had seemed to him false and trivial, was like a soothing air to him, passing gaily by his senses, hiding from other eyes the feverish agitation of his blood while through the circling of the dancers and amid the music and laughter her glance travelled to his corner, flattering, taunting, searching, exciting his heart. (2.2.17)
Interestingly enough, Stephen finds a certain satisfaction in his dissatisfaction, if that makes any sense. It’s another marker of his difference, which allows him to observe rather than take part in the world. Instead of having to engage directly with the girl (Emma), he waits for her to find him.
He returned to Mercedes and, as he brooded upon her image, a strange unrest crept into his blood. Sometimes a fever gathered within him and led him to rove alone in the evening along the quiet avenue. The peace of the gardens and the kindly lights in the windows poured a tender influence into his restless heart. The noise of children at play annoyed him and their silly voices made him feel, even more keenly than he had felt at Clongowes, that he was different from others. (2.1.12)
Even at this young age, Stephen feels his difference acutely. This is the beginning of his nocturnal wanderings, though at this point, they’re still pretty innocent. What is it that makes him different from the other children?
His sensitive nature was still smarting under the lashes of an undivined and squalid way of life. His soul was still disquieted and cast down by the dull phenomenon of Dublin. He had emerged from a two years' spell of revery to find himself in the midst of a new scene, every event and figure of which affected him intimately, disheartened him or allured and, whether alluring or disheartening, filled him always with unrest and bitter thoughts. All the leisure which his school life left him was passed in the company of subversive writers whose jibes and violence of speech set up a ferment in his brain before they passed out of it into his crude writings. (2.3.19)
In this flashback, we see Stephen as a new student at Belvedere. Life in Dublin is confusing and full of new sensations, and the overload of new experience is almost too much for him to handle. We learn that his only outlet is his writing; already we see that his alienation is a motivation for his artistic endeavors.
A vague dissatisfaction grew up within him as he looked on the quays and on the river and on the lowering skies and yet he continued to wander up and down day after day as if he really sought someone that eluded him. (2.2.3)
Deprived of the fresh air and sunshine of the countryside, Stephen grows more discontented. His dissatisfaction feeds upon the squalor of Dublin, suggesting that the urban space in this novel is often one of darkness, malcontent, and corruption.
Stephen J. Dedalus
A restless feeling of guilt would always be present with him: he would confess and repent and be absolved, confess and repent again and be absolved again, fruitlessly. Perhaps that first hasty confession wrung from him by the fear of hell had not been good? Perhaps, concerned only for his imminent doom, he had not had sincere sorrow for his sin? But the surest sign that his confession had been good and that he had had sincere sorrow for his sin was, he knew, the amendment of his life. – I have amended my life, have I not? he asked himself (4.1.14)
Even at the peak of Stephen’s rigorous religious discipline, he still has doubts that he has done enough. This is typical and unsurprising – after all, even if God himself showed up and said "Hey, Stephen, enough already," he would probably still have doubts. This is the old Stephen we know and love, not the passive, unquestioning dude we’ve seen most of the time in this chapter. His nagging dissatisfaction is what lets us know that Stephen’s destiny doesn’t lie in the religious life.
There was a lust of wandering in his feet that burned to set out for the ends of the earth. On! On! his heart seemed to cry. Evening would deepen above the sea, night fall upon the plains, dawn glimmer before the wanderer and show him strange fields and hills and faces. Where? (4.3.21)
Ireland can no longer contain Stephen, and he’s ready to expand his horizons, literally and figuratively.
Disheartened, he raised his eyes towards the slow-drifting clouds, dappled and seaborne. They were voyaging across the deserts of the sky, a host of nomads on the march, voyaging high over Ireland, westward bound. The Europe they had come from lay out there beyond the Irish Sea, Europe of strange tongues and valleyed and woodbegirt and citadelled and of entrenched and marshalled races. (4.3.13)
Stephen’s wanderlust begins to kick in. The seduction of Europe calls to him even before he’s made up his mind to leave. The intimidating description of the continent appeals to Stephen’s combative feelings at this point.
His thinking was a dusk of doubt and self-mistrust, lit up at moments by the lightnings of intuition, but lightnings of so clear a splendour that in those moments the world perished about his feet as if it had been fire-consumed; and thereafter his tongue grew heavy and he met the eyes of others with unanswering eyes, for he felt that the spirit of beauty had folded him round like a mantle and that in revery at least he had been acquainted with nobility. But when this brief pride of silence upheld him no longer he was glad to find himself still in the midst of common lives, passing on his way amid the squalor and noise and sloth of the city fearlessly and with a light heart. (5.1.12)
Joyce describes the process of thinking and revelation in such beautiful detail here that it’s practically worth noting just for that. We see Stephen’s philosophical adventures as a series of intellectual transformations that impact him profoundly. Stephen is finally able to reconcile his interior world with the outside one a little better, and the everyday dissatisfaction of earlier chapters is gone.