Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. . . .
Stephen's father, Simon Dedalus, tells his young son an old-fashioned children's story. Simon begins the story with the traditional "[o]nce upon a time" and uses babyish words like "moocow." With his childish yet vivid imagination, the young Stephen identifies with the story's character, "baby tuckoo." We see some of Stephen's impressions of early childhood: the cold bedsheets, the pleasant smell of his mother, the applause he receives from his governess Dante and his Uncle Charles when he dances to the hornpipe.
At one point, Stephen expresses his intention to marry the young girl, Eileen Vance, who lives next door. Eileen happens to be Protestant, however, and in response to his Catholic family's shock, Stephen crawls under the table. Stephen's mother assures the others that he will apologize, and Dante adds a threat that eagles will pull out Stephen's eyes if he does not apologize. Stephen turns these threatening words into a ditty in his mind.
The story shifts to Stephen's experience at Clongowes Wood College. Stephen watches other boys playing ball but does not participate himself. The other boys are mildly antagonistic toward Stephen, asking his name and questioning what kind of a name it is. They ask about Stephen's social rank and want to know whether his father is a magistrate. In class, Stephen is forced to compete in an academic contest in which the opposing teams wear badges with red or white roses—emblems of the noble York and Lancaster families from English history. Stephen does not perform well, and wonders whether green roses are possible.
Stephen tries to study, but instead meditates on himself, God, and the cosmos. He examines his own address written in his geography textbook, beginning with himself and listing his school, city, county, country, and so on in ascending order, ending in "The Universe." Stephen wonders whether the different names for God in different languages refer to the same being, and concludes that the names are in fact all the same being. When the bell rings for night prayers, Stephen addresses God directly. The chaplain's clear and formulaic prayer contrasts with Stephen's own quietly murmured prayer for his family's well-being. Dreading the cold sheets, Stephen climbs into bed and shivers. In a feverish vision, he thinks of a big black dog with bright eyes and of a castle long ago.
Later, various people ask whether Stephen is sick, and we find out that his sickness is probably the result of having been pushed into the "square ditch," or cesspool, the day before. Wells, the boy who pushed Stephen, is the ringleader of the school bullies. Wells again tormented Stephen by asking whether Stephen kisses his mother. Stephen was unsure whether to answer yes or no, and the boys laughed in both cases anyway.
Stephen's illness enables him to skip class as he recovers in the infirmary. The kind and humorous Brother Michael cares for Stephen, who wonders if he will die from his illness. Stephen tells himself that death indeed might be possible, and he imagines his own funeral. Another student patient in the infirmary, Athy, asks Stephen riddles that he cannot solve. Stephen daydreams about returning home to recover. At the end of the section, Brother Michael announces the death of Parnell, the Irish patriot.
Stephen is the hero of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and, in fact, Joyce titled an early version of the novel Stephen Hero. The narrative is limited to Stephen's consciousness, so his misperceptions become part of the story—there is no narrator who explains the difference between Stephen's reality and objective reality. Stephen is essentially Joyce's alter ego, and there are many factual similarities between Stephen's life and Joyce's. Clongowes, for example, had been Joyce's boarding school in real life. The novel is more than just an autobiography, however, as Joyce is not merely recounting elements of his own boyhood, but also meditating on what it means to be a young man growing up in a confusing modern world. Stephen's bewilderment about the world and its strange rules reflects the sensation of alienation and confusion that Joyce and a number of his literary peers felt at the beginning of the twentieth century. We see Stephen's alienation on the playground, where he watches other boys playing ball but does not participate himself. Stephen's feeling of being a dissatisfied outsider develops steadily throughout the novel.
The fact that the novel opens with a story emphasizes the importance of art—particularly literary art—in Joyce's world. The fact that the story deeply influences Stephen demonstrates that art is not mere empty entertainment, but has the power to form people's identities and shape their thoughts. Stephen's reaction to the story is to imagine that "[h]e was a baby tuckoo": he becomes conscious of his own existence at this young age by identifying with a character in a fictional story. Similarly, Joyce implies that art can defend against danger or cure wounds. When Stephen is scolded for expressing his wish to marry a Protestant girl, he uses art to soothe his soul, making a song out of his governess's gruesome threat: "Pull out his eyes, / Apologise. . . ." Art also has a political dimension: in the academic competition at Clongowes, the teams take their emblems from the Wars of the Roses. Stephen, however, meditates on the red rose and the white rose only in terms of the fact that "those were beautiful colours to think of." It may seem that Stephen is ignoring politics and history, focusing only on beauty. But this feeling for beauty actually brings Stephen back to history and politics, as he wonders whether a rose could possibly be green, the traditional color of Ireland. With this image of the green rose, Joyce may be slyly hinting at the possibility of an independent Irish state. A sense of beauty may in this regard be quite revolutionary.
One of the most notable features of Stephen's artistic development in this first section is his interest in the sounds of language. Stephen notices sounds even in the very first passages, when he is young enough to use baby words like "moocow" and "tuckoo." When he is a bit older, he ponders the intriguing sound of the word "wine," and imagines that the cricket bats are saying, "pick, pack, pock, puck." This interest in sounds and wordplay reveals much about Joyce himself, who was one of the twentieth century's most important innovators of language. Joyce was also a pioneer in psychological fiction and stream of consciousness technique, capturing the illogical associations made by the human mind and its odd jumps from topic to topic. The montage of perceptions in Stephen's first memories lack traditional realistic description, giving us mental impressions instead, as if thoughts are flowing directly onto the page. Joyce would later refine this stream of consciousness technique to great effect in his novel Ulysses.