The book starts with Stephen Dedalus as a very young child.
The storyline is fragmented and this passage is merely an exercise in
viewing the world through the eyes of a 3-year old, the emphasis being on the senses - seeing, smelling, hearing and touch.
Naturally Stephen’s introduction to the physical world is centered around the members of his family, in particular his mother. We learn from Stephen about his father’s hairy face, his mother’s homely sweet smell, and the discomfort of wetting the bed. His favorite nursery song concerns wild roses as opposed to cultivated varieties. We already sense that this child is different in that he appreciates the beauty of the world around him and yearns for freedom.
Three years elapse and we find Stephen attending a Jesuit Boarding School,
Clongowes Wood College. The uprooting of Stephen from his comfortable home world to the strict Jesuit school is traumatic for him, and he feels particularly vulnerable as he is small in stature and has poor
eyesight. He does not mix easily with his peers and all that keeps him going is the thought of his home and the long-awaited holidays.
He derives some comfort from his evening prayers and this makes him feel
closer to home and his mother.
Not surprisingly, Stephen becomes the target of the school bullies and one
in particular, a boy called Wells, pushes him into a cesspool. The sickly Stephen soon comes down with a fever and he is taken to the school infirmary. There he meets another loner, a boy called Athy,
and they have much in common including unusual names. Athy’s father is a racehorse owner.
In the infirmary he is cared for by Brother Michael who seems to be more
compassionate than the Priests who form the bulk of the staff at Clongowes. What interests Stephen about his stay in the infirmary is that Brother Michael reads to the patients daily from the newspapers.
During one of these sessions they learn of the death of Charles Stewart Parnell, a famous Irish political leader.
Stephen’s poor health concerns him and using his vivid imagination he
constructs in his head a drama depicting his own funeral.
It is now Christmas and Stephen returns home to be with his family - his
parents Mary and Simon and Simon’s friend John Casey. Also celebrating Christmas dinner is Stephen’s great uncle Charles and his old nurse Riordan.
The Christmas dinner represents Stephen’s inclusion with the adults, for he is invited to sit at the table with them. The happy occasion soon turns sour however, as the discussion over dinner turns to Charles Stewart Parnell. Some of the family defends Parnell’s position and others, the Catholic Church’s condemnation of the Nationalist leader. In particular Riordan and Casey engage in a heated debate that leads to the breaking up of the Christmas gathering. Riordan is delighted that the Church crushed Parnell and she storms out of the room.
The next scene deals with Stephen’s life at Clongowes and there is much
rumor concerning the theft of altar wine from the Sacristy.
Stephen again has an unfortunate episode with a fellow student and his
glasses are broken. He has been warned by his doctor not to read without the glasses, and so he is excused from taking part in some lessons. In his Latin class, which is conducted by Father Arnall,
Stephen is unable to take part. Father Dolan enters the class and mistakes Stephen for a ‘lazy idle little loafer’. Dolan delights in inflicting punishment on the schoolboys and he carries a
‘pandybat’. Although Stephen nervously explains that his glasses have been broken, Dolan thinks he has contrived the story in order to avoid participating in the lessons. Dolan administers corporal
punishment, humiliating Stephen in front of the whole class. Stephen is unnerved by this injustice and his classmates are in agreement that he should go and see the Rector about his treatment.
Stephen decides to take this bold action and he follows the winding corridors that lead to the Rector’s office. The Rector, Father Conmee is sympathetic and promises Stephen that he will resolve the matter with Father Dolan. This gives Stephen newfound confidence and although he crept through the maze of gloomy corridors to the Rector’s office, he makes the return journey speedily, exhilarated by the support given to him by the Rector. Instantly Stephen becomes a hero of his classmates and he relishes in this brief notoriety.