Stephen spends the summer in his family's new house in Blackrock, a town near Dublin. He enjoys the company of his Uncle Charles, a lively old man who smokes horrible "black twists" of tobacco and allows the boy to take handfuls of fruit from a local vendor. Every morning, Stephen and Uncle Charles take a walk through the marketplace to the park, where Stephen meets Mike Flynn, a friend of his father's. Flynn tries to train Stephen to be a runner, but Stephen doubts whether he will ever be very successful. After training, Stephen goes to the chapel with Uncle Charles for morning prayers. Stephen respects his uncle's piety but does not share it.
Stephen takes weekend walks through the town with his father and uncle, listening to their political discussions and their stories about the past. Stephen does not understand many of their references. At home, Stephen reads Alexandre Dumas's novel The Count of Monte Cristo, and is deeply engrossed in its adventure and romance. Stephen imagines himself as the lover of Mercédès, the novel's heroine.Ashamed of his father's poor management of the family's finances, Stephen uses the imaginary adventures of Dumas's novel as an escape. He befriends a young boy named Aubrey Mills, who becomes his constant companion in reenacting the adventures of The Count of Monte Cristo. Stephen feels that he is different from the other children he knows, and that he is in touch with a higher world. He imagines a future moment in which he will be transfigured by some magic revelation.
The Dedalus family begins to feel its financial troubles more acutely, and the moving men arrive to dismantle the house for a move to Dublin. In Dublin, Stephen enjoys more freedom than before, as his father is busy and Uncle Charles has grown senile. Stephen explores the city and wanders along the docks, still imagining himself as the Count of Monte Cristo. He is taken on visits to see his aunt and to see another elderly female relative.
Stephen senses in himself a new mood of bitterness, as he criticizes his own foolish impulses but finds himself unable to control them. His interactions with his aunt are awkward and result in misunderstandings. At a birthday party for another child, Stephen feels no gaiety or fun, and merely watches the other guests silently. Though he sings a song with the others, he enjoys feeling separate from the other children. However, he is attracted to one of the girls, E. C., at the party. They leave the party together and take the same tram home, riding on different levels but conversing for the entire ride. Stephen is attracted to the black stockings she wears, and recalls Eileen Vance. He wonders whether E. C. wants him to touch her and kiss her, but he does nothing.
At home, Stephen writes a love poem in his notebook, titling it "To E— C—" in imitation of Byron. He finds himself confusingly overwhelmed by a longing for romance. As summer comes to an end, Stephen is told that he will be going to a new school because his father is no longer able to afford Clongowes.
These early sections of Chapter 2 are dominated by a sense of decline, which manifests itself in several different forms. Stephen sees the reliable constancy of boyhood give way to a new sense that people and places change, and very often get worse. Uncle Charles is a sympathetic, eccentric figure in the first section of the chapter, but by the second has become senile and can no longer go out with Stephen. Similarly, Mike Flynn had once been a great runner, but now looks laughable when he runs. Most important, the Dedalus family's financial situation falls from relative prosperity to near poverty. The moving men's dismantling of the family home mirrors the dismantling of Stephen's earlier naïve faith in the world. Indeed, witnessing this slow slide into mediocrity affects Stephen deeply and directly. He is unhappy even in the company of all his relatives at Christmastime. In part, Stephen is angry with himself, but he is also angry with his change of fortune and his own changing relationship with the world around him. Stephen still feels set apart from the world, but here we begin to see the development of his capacity for moral criticism.