Stephen Dedalus wants to fly free of the shackles of nation and religion; Ireland and Catholicism alternatively reject him and entice him. Stephen wants to find his own destiny, to become an artist, an author, with an independent vision and the creative power to realise it. An omniscient narrator tells his story from very early childhood in Anglo-ruled Ireland to disaffected young man preparing for exile, encompassing first love, weird ideas about the body, introduction to Great Literature, questions of language and identity during a turbulent time in a beleaguered country and the need for self-creation unfettered by absent/alcoholic fathers and martyred mothers and mocking schoolmates and cruel priests and policemen.
Portrait is a classic, a work of genius, and I admire it greatly, but I didn’t find it much fun to read – somehow, despite flashes of wit, evocative characterisation and the interesting setting of the novel.
Perhaps Stephen’s – and Ireland’s – story is so complex that Joyce had to break the form of the novel and re-forge it as Ulysses to tell it properly; perhaps it’s just not to everyone’s taste.