Stephen waits anxiously in the street while his father speaks to a tutor about his admission to the university. His mother does not approve, fearing bad influences, but Stephen feels deeply elated at the prospect – he feels that it signals his entrance into independent adult life. He does, however, feel guilty for having refused the priesthood when he sees a line of clergymen pass him. For comfort, he thinks of a phrase he likes: “a day of dappled seaborne clouds.” He wonders whether he loves words for their rhythms or for their meanings, for their capacity to reflect the outer world or the inner.
Stephen has rapidly moved past his religious ambitions and has transferred his focus onto academia. He has become absorbed once again in the sounds and pleasures of words: he is beginning to experience aspects of life through poetic phrases like seaborne clouds. He has noticed that words can describe both his inner and outer world, and therefore serve as emissaries between the two.
As he walks, Stephen looks at Dublin in delight, and feels memories overwhelm him like lovely music. Suddenly, he hears his friends calling his name. They have been swimming in the chilly sea, and their nakedness saddens and embarrasses Stephen. His own name on their lips sounds immortal, and he feels himself somewhere beyond time and space. When the boys call his name he thinks of Daedalus, the craftsman of the famous labyrinth in Crete and the father of Icarus.
At this point, Stephen seems to veer between a sensory, detail-oriented, unbiased perspective and an abstract, overarching perspective. Though earlier he listened with pleasure to his siblings’ sad, strange singing, he shies away from his friends’ sad, strange nakedness and thinks instead of myth and abstraction.
He thinks he sees a flying shape over the city, and he thinks it represents the artist who creates “a new soaring impalpable imperishable being” out of his experience. He himself is soaring in spirit; he feels that his body has been purified and connected with his soul. He has felt “the call of life,” and he feels finally free from the tedium of life and the boredom of the clergy. He knows now that he will be an artist.
Stephen feels like Daedalus, the father of the boy who flew on man-made feathered wings, because he feels like the creator of art, which also soars on man-made wings. Identifying as an artist helps Stephen feel that soul and body are connected. But he is somewhat shortsighted in turning away from the "tedium of life," since it is his true material, the true essence of life.
He takes off his shoes and wades in the sea. He rejoices in his youth and loneliness and in the wild sensory variety of the world around him. He notices a birdlike girl standing in the water some distance away. In Stephen’s eyes, she is wonderfully beautiful. She feels his eyes on her and turns to look at him for a moment. Stephen yells out to the sky and walks away, full of joy. He falls asleep on the beach, feeling himself pass into a different world. When he wakes up in the evening, he is still overcome with joy.
Here is the great epiphany of the novel. The pretty girl, like the lovely music a few sections earlier, fills Stephen with irrepressible joy because she seems to symbolize all that he loves and seeks in the world: beauty, nature, instinct, chance – the sort of understanding that comes either before or after thought, that is not influenced by thought directly.