In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen was treated with both irony and sympathy. Joyce admired his young protagonist's battle against orthodoxy, but he also found Stephen's intolerant cynicism a bit pompous. In Book Five of A Portrait, Stephen became a mock Christ figure, preaching his gospel of aesthetics to bored and sometimes gibing apostles. In Ulysses, Stephen is a more human figure than he appeared to be at the end of the earlier novel. He has returned from Paris, his destination at the end of A Portrait, having been summoned home by word of his mother' s incipient death from cancer; now he finds himself emotionally drowning as surely as his mother literally drowned in her own green bile. In Ulysses, he sees himself as an Icarus-like figure, one who flew too high and burned his wings in the sun; as "Daedalus," he parallels himself with the archetypal flying ace.
In Ulysses, Stephen is beset with many problems, some of them stemming from his emotional distance from those around him, whom he cannot accept. Although he lives in the Martello Tower with Haines, the Oxonian, and with Buck Mulligan, a Dublin medical student, he knows that he cannot remain in this habitat: Haines has bizarre nightmares that keep Stephen awake, and Mulligan, with his coarse and brutal treatment of Stephen, has "usurped" Stephen's place in the Tower. At the end of "Telemachus," he meekly surrenders the Tower's key to Mulligan and begins to walk his own path. Compared to the physical Mulligan, Stephen feels himself to be inept and weak. Stephen is afraid of water (symbolically, baptism), while Mulligan plunges into life. In many ways, Stephen is physically withdrawn, fearing dogs and thunder, while Mulligan once saved a man from drowning. The facile Mulligan can handle the visiting milk woman in "Telemachus," although he looks down upon her, while Stephen sits brooding upon the lost past of Ireland. Stephen's estrangement is also seen in his teaching at Mr. Deasy's school, where he does not seem to care, really, that his students are inattentive and obstreperous.
Stephen's sense of abstraction, of distance, forces him to turn inward for answers, and, it is through Joyce's presentation of Stephen's vexed psyche and soul, especially in "Proteus," that we see his young man's bewilderment over the changing, "protean," nature of reality. Divested of his former stringent religious beliefs, wishing to become a famous writer though sometimes doubting his ability to do so, Stephen, in "Proteus," is searching for his origins. He imagines that the two old women that he sees on the beach are midwives; he projects an image of navel cords linking all humanity and ending with Eve, "belly without blemish." He wonders who his real father is: Simon, whose part in Stephen's conception was physiological; or God Himself, Who may have planned the event from all eternity.
Stephen's ruminations lead him to feel a great sense of guilt, which is augmented by his tender conscience, one that focuses upon blemishes and ignores virtues. Stephen feels guilty for many things: he refused to pray at his dying mother's bedside; he smokes Haines's tobacco, yet he treats him with disdain; he borrowed a pound from the theosophist George Russell (A. E.) and spent it on a prostitute; as the eldest Dedalus child, he abandoned his starving sisters to a poverty which was worsened by an alcoholic father who spends his time in bars while the family barely survives; he led a false existence when he was a youth, pretending so well that he was deeply pious that he was singled out for training in the priesthood, yet all the time, he was thinking of naked women.
Thus Stephen's portrait wins a great deal of sympathy from the reader. With eyeglasses that were broken on June 15, Stephen sees physical reality and the outer movements of life through a myopic opacity. His salary from Mr. Deasy is meager, and the tiresome headmaster uses his young instructor as a sounding board for his trite ideas. Stephen's concept of Shakespeare is treated with scorn in "Scylla and Charybdis," and he is not invited to the literary get-together to be held at the house of the writer George Moore on the evening of Bloomsday. He is patronized by George Russell (A. E.), who only reluctantly agrees to print Mr. Deasy's letter about foot and mouth disease (which Deasy had given Stephen) in his farmers' magazine. Stephen stumbles through Nighttown in an alcoholic daze, caused in part by his friends' giving him the disguised drinks; then, he meets his mother in a horrifying hallucination, is abandoned by his friend Lynch, and, when helpless, he is knocked down by the British soldier Carr. Even Bloom, despite all of his sympathy for Stephen, who he feels is wasting his talents among drifters and prostitutes, "uses" Stephen; Bloom thinks that perhaps Stephen can abet Bloom's imaginary concert tours — or teach Italian to Molly.
Yet, despite the pathos of his situation (which Joyce "controls" by undercutting it with many acerbic statements by Stephen), the ultimate picture of Stephen in Ulysses is heroic. Mulligan may be the sure doer, but Stephen is the sensitive thinker: Stephen dwells upon the implications of sin; Buck hides any possible guilt beneath blasphemies. Stephen did indeed suffer because of his mother's death: he "wept alone." Stephen is the complex Prince Hamlet; Mulligan is more a Rosencrantz than a true Horatio. Stephen, throughout Ulysses, is courageously pursuing the goal which he set for himself in A Portrait: to break free of society's nets — that is, to break free from all the forces which inhibit the growth of the soul and, by implication, the growth of the artist. For example, he refuses to join the national movement which was developing in Ireland in 1904: Political aspirations, as Stephen knows from the fall of Charles Stewart Parnell, lead only to dismal failure. Stephen feels that the Irish Renaissance is simply insular — a cultural suicide, through which Ireland will cut itself off from the wellsprings of European thought. Despite all of their posturings, Irishmen, to Stephen, are still bound to the double tyrants of Britain and Rome.
Stephen is going through a difficult period in Ulysses — but Joyce's tone is optimistic. We feel when we end the novel that Stephen will probably find solutions to his problems.