Stephen stands outside the library staring at a flock of birds. As he focuses on their shapes and noises, grasping for symbolic meaning, he gradually forgets a fight he’s just had with his mother. Everything around him reminds him of literature and philosophy; he thinks of Thoth, the god of writers, and feels some lingering anxiety about his decision to abandon religion for art. Then his anxiety is replaced by eagerness for departure, and lovely memories of birds flying over water at dusk mingle with the impressions of words and sounds flying and overlapping.
Once again, Stephen tries to avoid the unromantic problems of actual life by thinking abstractly of literature and philosophy. The birds he stares at aimlessly come to seem like symbols of his departure – both because they fly lightly from place to place and because they remind him of his vision of art as an ephemeral flying being.
He briefly remembers a night at the theatre at the opening of a W. B. Yeats play, The Countess Cathleen, which many people found offensive and unpatriotic. Then Stephen goes into the library to find Cranly, who is discussing a chess problem with another medical student. After a mysterious encounter with a “captain” who has some sort of physical deformity, they leave the library. Outside, a group of students are gathered around Temple, who is gossiping about a priest’s extramarital affair. When Stephen and Cranly approach Temple, he tries to impress them with apparently arbitrary genealogical facts. Cranly expresses his contempt for Temple by picking fig seeds from his teeth. The other boys joke crudely, but Temple doggedly tries to engage Stephen in an intellectual discussion about heredity and death.
Temple is quite a mysterious figure. He seems to be relatively well-informed about the political and philosophical issues he discusses, despite some factual inaccuracies here and there; in any case, it does not seem likely that the clownish boys who mock him for his naiveté are better informed than he. So why is he the scapegoat? Perhaps because he is awkward and over-eager. The book mentions the olive color of his skin, so it’s possible that the boys’ derision is an expression of the xenophobia that sometimes accompanies extreme nationalism.
Cranly greets E____ C____ as she walks out of the library, and Stephen suspects that Cranly likes her too, thinking nervously of his past “confessions” to him. He thinks of a line from a poem that nicely describes the approaching dusk – “Darkness falls from the air” – and feels a sudden burst of joy; is it the girl that caused it, he wonders, or the line? He walks away from the other students to be alone with his thoughts and contemplate Elizabethan poets. Most of his thoughts and impressions are colored by imperfect recollections from literature, but they don’t help him understand E____ C____. Suddenly, he feels as though he can smell her, and the feeling overwhelms him. He scratches a louse from his neck, and the thought of lice makes him change the line to “Brightness falls from the air,” which is the correct original.
When Stephen lets down his guard, when he is not lecturing on aesthetics, art and life mingle peacefully in his consciousness: the poem line and the girl exist side by side in his imagination, so that it is difficult to tell which of the two inspired his joy. When he walks away, he notices that literature fails to encompass his feeling for E____ C____ —but somehow the imagined smell of her describes her perfectly and very vividly. He wobbles back and forth between literature and the senses as means of understanding. It’s funny that a louse inspires Stephen to make such a high-flown, abstract change to his line (especially when earlier he stated that a louse cannot be art).
Stephen calls Cranly away to speak to him in private. Stephen looks at a ritzy hotel across the street and resents its air of complacent Irish-English wealth, wondering how he might sting its owners with his writing, how he might bring them closer to the bat-like imagination of his country.
Despite Stephen’s distaste for political causes, it’s clear that he does have strong feelings about Ireland and Irishness – but it’s something more mysterious, to him, than crowds and monuments.
Stephen tells Cranly that he has had a fight with his mother earlier that evening. His mother wants him to take his Easter duty – to receive the Eucharist – but Stephen refuses to participate in a ritual in which he no longer believes. At Cranly’s prompting, Stephen clarifies that he “neither believe[s] in it nor disbelieve[s] in it.” Cranly asks whether Stephen loves his mother, and Stephen responds that he does not understand love. He admits that he has failed to love god. Cranly wonders whether Stephen’s mother has had a happy life, and prompts Stephen to admit that she must have suffered a great deal. If he does not believe in the ritual, why not go through with it in order to spare her additional suffering? A mother’s love, Cranly says, is more real than any ideas.
From this conversation, we note that Cranly seems to be Stephen’s intellectual equal – only he does not display it as Stephen does. Cranly’s questioning is clever and logical, and succeeds in discrediting Stephen’s actions. He forces Stephen to admit that he has failed to understand love, and therefore to admit a basic flaw in both his personal and artistic makeup – what kind of artist doesn’t understand love? Stephen must come to terms with the fact that his overemphasis on ideas and his squeamish fear of emotion is detrimental to his art.
Stephen recalls several religious figures (including Christ himself) who would not touch their mothers or treated them badly, but Cranly rudely dismisses these points. Cranly suggests that Christ was perhaps a “hypocrite” and a “blackguard.” If Stephen does not believe in religion, he asks, why should the idea shock him? Stephen admits to some uncertainty, but clarifies that he fears worship of false symbols more than the punishment of a vindictive god. Just then, the young men hear a servant woman singing an old Irish song, and Cranly says in Latin: “a woman sings.” The beauty of the words moves Stephen more than the music or the woman they describe, and the servant woman seems to him like the religious ideal of woman.
It seems that Joyce is once again having a little fun at Stephen’s expense (at his younger self’s expense). Just after Stephen expresses a fear of worshipping false symbols, he goes ahead and converts a servant woman into a highly abstract and dubious symbol. Why does he need to transform the woman into something so lofty in order to enjoy her singing? To put it somewhat crudely, Stephen can understand women either as prostitutes or as mothers (Virgin Marys), but not as real-life people. He relies on false symbols a great deal.
Stephen feels that his friendship with Cranly is coming to an end. He tells his friend that he will leave Ireland soon – not because he wishes to escape the constraints of moral law, but because he wants to be free to live and create as he chooses. He realizes that he has been confessing to Cranly all this time.
Stephen has been talking a great deal about freedom – from religion, from nationalist politics, etc. His conversation with Cranly has shown that he remains unfree in a significant way. He is trapped in overly abstract, antiquated notions of art and beauty.