Stephen's role in the Whitsuntide play foreshadows the role of hero he later aspires to fulfill. The fact that Stephen has been chosen to play a teacher is significant, but also ironic, as the role requires that Stephen play the teacher comically rather than seriously. This parody of a teacher figure hints at the novel's underlying doubt about the validity of leading or instructing others. Stephen performs the role successfully, and is amazed at how lifelike the play feels: the "disjointed lifeless thing had suddenly assumed a life of its own. It seemed now to play itself. . . ." The life Stephen discerns in the play makes him aware of the importance of acting as a metaphor for living. Stephen's awareness of life's drama becomes problematic, however, when the things he previously thinks real begin to appear false. He reflects on the moralizing voices of his early years that "had now come to be hollow-sounding in his ears." Art and life are, in a sense, switching places: while the artistic performance seems lifelike, life itself seems artificial.

Joyce's experimentation with the technique of stream of consciousness—capturing the processes and rhythms by which characters think—is especially evident in the sudden flashbacks of the play scene. Joyce narrates Heron's and Wallis's near violent teasing about Stephen's flirtation with the girl in the audience. Then suddenly, without any warning, Joyce takes us back to Stephen's first year at Belvedere, when he was accused of heresy because of a mistake he made in an essay. This memory segues into another memory from a few nights after the first, when Stephen was forced into a ridiculous schoolboy argument about the relative merits of Byron and Tennyson. When this argument is finished, the narration returns to the scene of the play in the present moment. Joyce wants us to feel unsettled and even a bit confused by these unannounced leaps from present to past. The time shifts represent the way Stephen's mind—and the human mind in general—impulsively makes constant connections between experiences from the present and memories from the past. We are never told why Stephen's mind links the girl, the literary dispute, and the heresy accusation, which leaves us with an impression of psychological complexity that we cannot fully unravel.