Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man enjoys the status of being a "prototypical" modernist novel (fragmented, episodic, concerned with consciousness less than with plot). However, the writing of Portrait had its start not in novelistic form. In 1904, Joyce wrote an essay called "A Portrait of the Artist" for the short-lived Irish magazine, Dana, which rejected it. The essay contains some of the themes of Portrait, but it wasn't classifiable as either fiction or prose philosophy--rather, it was a mixture of both. The subject matter was the artistic development of a young man.
Afterwards, Joyce then decided to present the ideas in this essay in an extended novel called Stephen Hero. Stephen Hero, whose title character was Stephen Daedalus (later shortened to "Dedalus" in Portrait), traced the development of an artist in a conventionally naturalistic mode, sequentially showing the different stages of the young artist. Joyce was to abort this project by June 1905, perhaps feeling that the focus on artistic stages felt a bit too rigid for his subject matter. Eventually, he came back to the novel and wrote the now-considered "modernist" Portrait.
Portrait was finally published from 1914-1915 serially in The Egoist, a London magazine known for its publication of seminar modernist texts from 1914-1919. The book form of Portrait first appeared in America through the publisher B.W. Huebsch in New York, and the first English edition did not appear until 1917.
The first chapter is primarily focalized through Stephen's perceptions as a child growing up at home and at his first school, Clongowes. His childlike perception is frequently marked by sensory comforts and discomforts: Stephen perceives the retreat of getting warm under the sheets, the sting of his hands being pandied by Father Dolan, a school authority. Another key feature of this section is Stephen's learning about language, its usages, and different levels of signification. For example, when older boys taunt him when he answers truthfully that he kisses his mom at night, Stephen switches his answer, and then cannot understand why the boys continue to laugh at him. This shows Stephen's understanding only of language at the literal level, and not at the level of the joke. Other situations are less threatening, as when he learns a riddle which puns "Athy" (the name of his friend) with "a thigh." As a child, Stephen also begins to have a rudimentary understanding of "politics" as having one side and an another side and a whole lot of talk--at Christmas dinner, he witnesses an explosive contest between his father and one Mr. Casey against Dante, the pious governess. The former believe in the separation of church and state and are deeply upset by the death of nationalist leader Parnell, and the latter believes in the role of the Catholic church in regulating politcal morality and hence its role in the condemnation of Parnell. The chapter ends with a memorable episode in which Stephen begins to learn about justice: in the classroom, Father Dolan comes in and pandies him unjustly, accusing Stephen of shirking from his lessons when in fact he needed new glasses. Stephen, borne up by his schoolfellows' agreement that such punishment was "unjust and cruel," goes timidly to the rector to tell on Father Dolan, after which he celebrates his triumph on the playground.
In the second chapter, the tone becomes markedly more bleak, as Stephen's father experiences financial burdens that will mean Stephen cannot return to Clongowes after the summer. The family moves to a suburb called Blackrock, returning later to Dublin, where Stephen luckily gets a scholarship to go to the Belvedere school. At Belvedere, Stephen becomes a model student and does very well. Meanwhile, he begins to experience his first pangs of love and lust; he feels tortured by an incident with a girl who rides the tram with him on a step below his, her apparent approach towards him, and his own refrain from making a move. Before his performance in the Whitsuntide play, a schoolfellow, Vincent Heron, makes fun of him because his girl is in the audience. Meanwhile, his father's financial situation worsens, and Stephen accompanies his father to Cork to sell their property there. As his father reminisces about old times spent in Cork with his old buddies, Stephen finds that he feels no sympathy for him and begins to view himself as more of an adult than his father. When Stephen wins an essay contest, he spends this money on his family and friends and finds that it doesn't really go that far. At the end of the chapter, Stephen gives in to his lust and has an encounter with a prostitute.
The third chapter tells of Stephen's continuing "state of sin"--once he has given into his lust, it seems easier and easier to do so again as well as to sin in other ways. However, sermons heard in school enter Stephen's consciousness, he feels fear and then shame. A preacher preaches on the nature of hell, and Stephen thinks about confessing (but doesn't want to do so at the college). The preacher also preaches on the spiritual torments of hell: the pain of loss, extension, and eternity. After hearing about hell, back in his own room before bed, Stephen sees his own vision of hell consisting of thistles, nettles, excrement, and goatish creatures. Unable to stand his "state of sin" any longer, Stephen goes out into the night to a chapel and confesses his sins. For the moment, he feels deeply absolved and unburdened.
In the fourth chapter, Stephen continues to subject himself to extreme religious devotion. This devotion borders on the comic at times, such as when Stephen goes out of his way to seek out unpleasant smells. His devotion seems to pay off, however, when the rector asks him if he feels his vocation is to be a priest. He has, meanwhile, some doubts about the authority of those such as the rector (and thinking back, his instructors at Clongowes). Stephen thus rejects the vocation of priesthood, feeling the office to be chill, cold, and lifeless. He decides instead to go to university. He reaches a new kind of understanding when he hears a group of peers call him "Dedalus"--he suddenly feels a kinship with Daedalus, the Greek artifice. Feeling his new calling to be art, he turns and sees a girl wading in the water, who through the "sufferance of his gaze" communicates the thrill of aesthetic appreciation without the shame of religious devotion.
At the university, Stephen has become rather arrogant; though seemingly well-liked, he generally wishes to stand apart from many of his classmates. He refuses to sign a petition on "universal peace" which his classmates circulate. When his friend of humble backgrounds, Davin, joins the nationalist cause, Stephen rejects this as well. The one thing which he holds on to is his developing aesthetic theory-didactically, he instructs his friend Lynch on aesthetics (via Aristotle and Aquinas) and the value of the "static" over "kinetic" in art because the static ideal eschews emotion. It is clear, nevertheless, that Stephen is not at ease: he continues to feel jealousy about his girl, Emma, whom he thinks is flirting with a priest. Plagued by conflicting feelings about Emma, Stephen finds refuge in writing a villanelle. The fifth chapter closes with a final rejection of belonging to the Catholic faith. His friend Cranly questions him about his faith and tries to win him back even if he has doubts, but even when Cranly tries to get Stephen to stay on behalf of his mother, Stephen says that he wants to be clear of nothing except his artistic vocation. The work ends with Stephen's fragmented diary entires citing dreams and snippets of encounters, and his hope to leave Ireland for Paris. Optimistically, Stephen says: "I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forget in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race."
Recent criticism on Joyce has veered away from the notion of Joyce as a disengaged aesthete and generally acknowledges his potential political engagements. As Mark Wollaeger writes, "over the last decade, criticism has accordingly provided new portraits of Joyce the Irishman, the anarchist, the subaltern, and the postcolonial." One of the concerns that Wollaeger presents, however, is the potential to go too far in the other direction, whereby exaggerating Joyce's political stances. Especially in Portrait, where Stephen's progress is marked by successive rejections (of home, school, nationality, and religion), everything seems leveled in the sense that all of the pillars that traditionally define an individual are done away with. Thus, it doesn't seem that any one of them, political or otherwise, ought to enjoy any more legitimacy than the others.
Given these successive rejections, I read Stephen's exuberant embrace of the artistic vocation at the end to be equally fraught. As critics have pointed out, Stephen's final "epiphany" in identifying Daedalus as his father identifies him in the position of Icarus, who flew too close to the heavens. It's hard, therefore, to positively identify Joyce as finally privileging the artist at the end of this work, just as it is difficult to identify him by his political commitments. Some middle ground in which Stephen's successive changes do not signify unproblematical advance seems the best. In particular, I think the scenes with Davin and Cranly poignantly signal the problems with Stephen's rejection of nation and faith while also pointing out the limits of committing oneself, as his classmates have, to these institutions. Stephen's consciousness patronizes the young peasant nationalist, yet he recognizes a sort of natural, Irish mystic reality beyond the political institution of the nation when he imagines the peasant woman in Davin's story as "a type of her race and his own, a batlike soul waking to the consciousness of itself in darkness and secrecy and loneliness." Despite Stephen's imagined position of intellectual superiority, he is made to feel that there is something substantial to Davin's life philosophy that he must ignore if he is to stick with this position of intellectual superiority. Similarly, with Cranly, we are made to feel the sting of Stephen's rejection of his offer for intimacy; in short, Stephen seems just plain mean here. Equally stinging is Stephen's hotheaded, "I will not serve" in response to keeping his faith for his mother's sake; interestingly, while he is "hot," Cranly speaks "calmly," telling Stephen that he's "an excitable bloody man." When Stephen allows himself to laugh with Cranly about himself ("I daresay I am"), for a moment, "Their minds...seemed suddenly to have been drawn closer" despite their recent "estrangement." This potential for intimacy is dashed, finally, by Stephen's arrogance when Cranly asks if Stephen could truly "not have any one person...who would be more than a friend, more even than the noblest and truest friend a man ever had." Stephen walks away by flippantly replying, "Of whom are you speaking?" but not before Cranly's words "seemed to have struck some deep chord in his own nature." Just as Stephen was struck by the realization of something shared with the dark, mystical Irishness of Davin's peasant woman, here he is struck by the realization of rejecting an intimacy through faith with Cranly, which he does in fact desire.