Stephen is now a student at University College. As the chapter begins, Stephen's parents are impatient with him because he is always going out late to his lectures. In turn, Stephen is impatient with them. He goes out and walks across the city to the college. At the college, Stephen is most interested in studying St. Thomas Aquinas, the medieval Christian theologian, and the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. He is particularly interested in the essence of beauty and is trying to create his own aesthetic philosophy. But he has little patience for sitting in lectures, and he also gets a reputation for being antisocial and self-absorbed. He is formal in his speech with others, as they are with him, but he does form a friendship with Davin, a student from a peasant family, who is steeped in the history and culture of Ireland. The other students regard Davin as a Fenian, that is, a member of a brotherhood dedicated to using physical force to remove the British from Ireland. Davin confides in Stephen, telling him that one night when he was walking home on a lonely road, having missed the last train, a woman tried to entice him into her house to stay the night, but he refused.
Stephen enters the physics lecture theatre, and talks to the dean of studies, an Englishman, who is lighting the fire. Stephen does not find the man attractive. He is old but has no air of wisdom or saintliness about him. For a few minutes they discuss the nature of beauty, with reference to Aquinas. But Stephen feels a kind of contempt for the dean, and is very aware that the man is English, a convert to the Jesuits. After this encounter, Stephen attends a physics lecture, during which some of the students make facetious remarks. When the lecture ends, Stephen finds himself involved in a political discussion. A student named MacCann wants Stephen to sign a petition calling for world peace. The idealistic MacCann has a range of progressive political views. He supports disarmament and a system of arbitration in cases of international disputes, and he believes in universal brotherhood, as does another student, Temple. Temple is a socialist and believes socialism was founded by an Irishman. Stephen professes a lack of interest in political matters and declines to sign the petition.
Temple, Stephen's friend Cranly and Stephen then go to watch a ball game. But Temple still wants to talk politics, and Cranly becomes impatient with him. Temple leaves, and Cranly and Stephen are joined by another student, Lynch. Davin, hearing that Stephen did not sign the petition, reproaches him, telling Stephen that he is always alone. For his part, Davin regards himself as an Irish nationalist, which Stephen sneers at, leading Davin to wonder whether Stephen is Irish at all. He asks him why he did not bother to learn the Irish language, and dropped out of the Irish class after one lesson. He wants Stephen to be Irish, to be one of them. But Stephen has a low opinion of Ireland. He says his ancestors abandoned their own language and adopted another (English), and allowed themselves to be dominated by foreigners. Ireland also has a history of turning against its own leaders, Stephen says. Davin walks away sadly.
Stephen then walks with Lynch and explains to him the aesthetic theory he has developed. He explains what he thinks Aristotle meant by pity and terror, the emotions that Aristotle claimed were aroused in the audience by tragic drama. Then he explains his definition of beauty and relates it to art, by the use of concepts drawn from Aristotle and Aquinas. Lynch is a bit out of his depth and keeps making facetious interjections. The two men are briefly joined by a fat student named Donovan, who tells them the results of the college exams. Then Stephen resumes his lecture to Lynch as the two continue to walk together. Stephen explains what Aquinas meant by the three things that are needed for beauty: wholeness, harmony and radiance. He also explains his theory that art progresses through three forms: the lyrical form, which is a simple gesture of emotion; the epic form, in which the narrative is no longer purely personal; and the dramatic form, in which the personality of the artist is no longer visible.
It starts to rain, and Stephen and Lynch join a group of students sheltering under the arcade of the library of the Irish academy. Emma is there, standing silently. Stephen does not speak to her, and as the rain stops and she walks away, he wonders whether he has been harsh in his thoughts about her. The last time he saw her he thought she was flirting with Father Moran.
The following morning he recalls times he has spent in the past with Emma and how they then moved apart from each other. His memories of her make him angry, and he writes a poem to her in the form of a villanelle, in which he presents her as a temptress. He considers sending the poem to her, but decides against it.
On a March evening, Stephen stands on the steps of the library watching a flock of birds. He wonders what kind of birds they are and decides they are swallows who have come back from the south. He makes a parallel between the migrating swallows and his own life, for he too must go away. Like them, he must always be ready to leave his home. He remembers a relevant snatch of poetry (it's a line from a play by W. B. Yeats), and this brings him joy. It also leads him to remember the night the play opened at the national theatre (this occurred in 1899). He was in the balcony, and the play was badly received by the audience.
Stephen then goes into the library, where he finds his friends, Cranly and Dixon. They decide to leave and walk in the park, after which they leave Cranly. Dixon and Stephen walk on and encounter a group of students, including Temple. They exchange banter for a while. Emma emerges from the library, and Cranly greets her, but she does not stop to speak. Stephen feels a little jealous, and wonders briefly whether there is anything between Emma and Cranly. Some minutes later he feels a kind of joy at seeing Emma, although he does not know the cause. He walks away, trying to dismiss her from his mind, and returns to the group of students, which is joined by a student named Glynn. They all argue about the fate of children who die unbaptized.
Cranly and Stephen then walk together. Stephen confides in Cranly that his mother wants him to attend Easter church services, but he has lost his faith in religion and does not want to go. He and his mother have quarreled about it. Cranly advises him to go to the service, because the love of a mother is more important, and more real, than anything else. Cranly probes his friend about his religious faith, discovering that Stephen has not lost it entirely. But Stephen has his thoughts on other matters. He tells Cranly that his calling as an artist will lead him away from the college. He can not serve anything that he no longer believes in, whether it is family, church or nation. He plans to express himself through art as freely as he can, and he knows he will have to go into exile to do it. Cranly warns him that his choice may lead to great loneliness, but Stephen says he will take the risk.
The last few pages of the novel switch to a first person narration, in the form of diary entries written by Stephen. Over a period of just over a month, Stephen records his thoughts and impressions of daily events, as well as two of his dreams. His diary reveals that he still has an interest in the mysterious Emma, and on one occasion he meets her and they talk for a few minutes. He tells her of his artistic plans, and decides afterwards that he likes her. He also writes of his desire to create new life through art, and the journal ends on this note, as he prays to Daedalus, the mythological father of Icarus, to stand him in good stead as he forges his own artistic path.
The final chapter gives a vivid portrait not only of Stephen's mind, but also of student life at University College, Dublin, at the turn of the century. As with the earlier chapters, much of the detail is autobiographical, since James Joyce himself attended the college and graduated in 1902.
This chapter inaugurates the third phase of Stephen's growth, corresponding to the third college he attends. He is now ready to become his own man and to forge his own path in life. In this chapter, Stephen inexorably moves away from the three elements that were integral to his early life: family, church, and country. His separation from his family is shown early in the chapter. The family has sunk into poverty, and survives only by pawning items. His father speaks insultingly of him as a "lazy bitch" and his mother complains that the University College has changed him for the worse. But Stephen is so alienated from them that he just laughs it off; he doesn't bother to argue. Later, when he meets his father in a cigar shop, it is clear that his father has no understanding of the man his son has become: he suggests that Stephen study law and join the rowing club. Thus does Stephen pass "beyond the sentries who had stood guard during his boyhood, and had sought to keep him among them that he might be subject to them and serve their ends" (p. 178).
It is significant that the novel ends in the first person, told through Stephen's diary entries. This is the first time he appears in the novel as "I"; up to that point he had always been presented in the third person, by a narrator. But now, Stephen is ready to tell his story himself, to be a creator of his own path, not a follower of the paths of others.