History: Published in book form in 1916, it depicts the formative years in the life of Stephen Dedalus, a fictional alter ego of Joyce and a pointed allusion to the consummate craftsman of Greek mythology, Daedalus. The myth of Daedalus and Icarus features prominently in the novel. In Greek mythology, Daedalus is an architect and inventor who becomes trapped in a labyrinth of his own construction. Later, he finds himself on an island and fashions wings of feathers and wax for his son (Icarus) and for himself, so that they can escape. As they fly away Icarus grows bolder and flies higher, until, finally, he flies too close to the sun, which causes the wax to melt. Icarus plummets to the sea.
Stephen's name is an allusion to Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Stephen Dedalus, like Saint Stephen, has conflicts with the established religion. The Divine Comedy is also echoed in the name Stephen gives his aunt - Dante. Dante is so-called because of the way 'The Auntie' sounds in her Cork accent. Ovid's Metamorphoses is referenced at the start with a quote saying, "Et ignotas animum dimittit in artes" Translation: "And he sets his mind to unknown arts"
Plot: A Portrait devotes the equivalent of only one page to Stephen's pre-school years. The passage contains simple, childlike sentences skipping from subject to subject like a child's attention diverted from object to object. In this short passage, Joyce alludes on one level to Stephen's cultural, political, and familial influences, on another to Stephen's primal joys and fears, and finally to figures of theme and image recurring throughout the book.
From here, the reader is catapulted several years into the future, to the time when Stephen is a young man away at Clongowes, a Jesuit boarding school. The bulk of this first chapter is devoted to Stephen's development from a fearful and confused boy — twice knocked down by other boys — into a brave, confident student successfully protesting to the rector that he, Stephen, has been unfairly beaten on his palms by a prefect.
The school year is only broken up by Stephen's visit home for Christmas. A sole event from the vacation is imparted: a religious dispute at the family's lavish Christmas dinner. All participants are Catholics who favor Ireland's independence from Britain. But while three men object to the Church's participation in politics, one woman, Dante, believes religious involvement is righteous and that the Church must be followed and respected in all matters. Stephen is an Irish-Catholic boy confused about language, politics, and religion. He stumbles and falls through childhood, then picks himself up and stands tall before authority, his peers, and himself.
After a party he walks with an unnamed girl wearing a shawl to the streetcar. The event passes by without even a kiss, yet the memory remains with Stephen throughout the book. In Stephen's second year at the Dublin Jesuit school Belvedere, he performs in a school production as the girl with the shawl watches. His post-performance euphoria is overwhelming and only after running into town and to the stables can the smell of urine and rotting hay bring him back to earth.
Later, Stephen rides with his father to Cork for an auction of his father's family property. Listening to his father's advice and recalling childhood memories and things old acquaintances say about his father, Stephen is struck dumb at the distance between himself and his father, between himself and his surroundings, and between his present self and his childhood. Stephen feels that he never had what his father did, neither a boyhood of "rude male health nor filial piety." He views himself as cold, detached from life, and lustful, drifting "like the barren shell of the moon."
Stephen wins money from an essay contest and tries — through gifts and loans — to reconnect himself with loved ones. The scheme fails, however, and Stephen feels even more morosely detached and lustful. One night, looking for connection, he wanders the more "hellish" and grimy streets of Dublin and has sex with a prostitute.
Stephen's whoring lies uncomfortably on his mind. At the beginning of Chapter Three, he feels guilty. While remaining convinced of his apartness from others, Stephen is not yet ready to detach himself from the Church, especially from the Virgin Mary, a figure he sees as compassionate. At a Catholic retreat for St. Francis Xavier, students are asked to dwell on "last things": death, judgment, heaven, and hell. After attending sermons on the physical and mental torments of hell, Stephen emerges physically shaken. That evening he awakens from a nightmare and vomits. Finally convinced of the enormity of his sin, Stephen confesses, is relieved, and feels himself joyfully connected with all life, from the muddy Dublin streets to a plateful of sausages. The next morning, fully confessed and kneeling at mass, Stephen readies himself to be reborn.
Stephen becomes immersed in the rituals of devotion and flesh mortification. He begins to doubt his devotion and humility and is only able to keep his doubts at bay by telling himself that at least he has amended his life. Stephen's display of piety is not lost on the director of Belvedere, who asks Stephen to become a Jesuit priest. Realizing he cannot lead a cloistered life, Stephen arrives home to find that his family will once again be moving, presumably because they are unable to pay the rent.
Next, Stephen is shown agitatedly waiting outside the university while his father likely attends to business connected with Stephen's admission. No longer able to wait, Stephen walks to the beach and reflects that, within him, art, nature, and sensuality are gradually overshadowing religion. There is a sense now of Stephen's increasing isolation amid a sea of humanity.
Leaving family and religion behind him, Stephen thinks about his courses, classmates, and his increasing poverty. At the university he casually discusses beauty with a dean, attends physics class, and finally meets friends for a political gathering. At the meeting he refuses to sign a declaration for world peace, perhaps because he suspects the emptiness of the gesture and disrespects the classmates who support it, and further, because over the declaration there is a framed picture of the Russian Czar, a figure Stephen dislikes. Stephen's political independence is driven home in a conversation in which he expresses his distaste for Irish nationalism. Walking out on politics and into another discussion about beauty and art, Stephen later writes a poem to the shawled girl of ten years ago. One evening he stands watching migrating birds over the library, foretelling of his eventual departure from Ireland. Finally, walking and talking with a friend, Stephen declares his distance from family, nationality.
Review: Like some of the best novels in the world it is the story of an education; it is by far the most living and convincing picture that exists of an Irish Catholic upbringing. It is a mosaic of jagged fragments that does altogether render with extreme completeness the growth of a rather secretive, imaginative boy in Dublin. The technique is startling, but on the whole it succeeds. Like so many Irish writers from Sterne to Shaw Mr. Joyce is a bold experimentalist with paragraph and punctuation. He breaks away from scene to scene without a hint of the change of time and place; at the end he passes suddenly from the third person to the first; he uses no inverted commas to mark off his speeches.
Opening Line: “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 down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…”
Closing Line: “April 27: Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.”
Quotes: "His soul sickened at the thought of a torpid snaky life feeding itself out of the tender marrow of his life and fattening upon the slime of lust."
"Whatever else is unsure in this stinking dunghill of a world a mother's love is not."