A classic example of literary modernism, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man brings the reader inside Stephen Dedalus’s journey to self-discovery. The novel is both a bildungsroman, or a coming-of-age story about a character’s psychological development, and a künstlerroman, a story that traces a character’s artistic growth. Throughout Portrait, Joyce seems interested in exploring the conditions and processes that make these types of development possible. He does not, however, simply narrate the story of Stephen’s journey through adolescence. Rather than giving an objective account of the events that characterize Stephen’s life, Joyce uses a narrative technique known as free indirect discourse in order to allow the reader to share in Stephen’s experiences. The confusion and complexities of growing up and developing an individual identity are reflected in the at-times overwhelming nature of Joyce’s text, and this invites the reader to participate in the deeply personal journey of the novel more actively. Beyond the conventional struggles of navigating adolescence, Stephen continually finds himself trying to make sense of three major structuring principles that characterize his life: family, religion, and politics. The tensions within and among these elements become clearer to Stephen as he grows up, and he senses that living within these constructs will ultimately stunt his growth. As a result, Stephen’s struggle to resist the pull of family, religion, and politics in favor of pursuing an artistic life emerges as the central conflict of the novel.  

The first chapter of the novel plays a key role in establishing Stephen’s ever-evolving frame of mind and the environment that seeks to shape it. Right away, Joyce uses free indirect discourse to show, rather than tell, the reader how Stephen’s young mind wanders from thought to thought. The sensory details that appear throughout the novel’s first page indicate that sound, smells, touch, sight, and taste are the defining structures that shape how Stephen perceives the world at this stage in his life. He quickly moves beyond this sensory worldview, however, and begins to use memories of past experiences to help him make sense of his present life. This form of mental processing becomes a key part of his attempt to fit in at Clongowes Wood College, the Jesuit boarding school he attends. His arrival at the school serves as the novel’s inciting incident as it exposes Stephen to more people, places, and ideas than he had access to within the confines of his childhood home. Stephen must navigate the social dynamics playing out among the other children, and he tries to make sense of how he fits into a world complicated by religious and political tensions that he does not fully understand. 

One of the defining characteristics of the novel’s rising action is the pattern of following a triumph or epiphany at the end of each chapter by a deflation of that success at the beginning of the next, and this structure models the way in which Stephen’s perspective adapts over time. The novel’s rising action begins near the end of Chapter 1 as he decides to speak with the rector of the school after Father Dolan unjustly beats him. While earlier moments in the chapter, such as the tense Christmas dinner party, reiterate the familial, religious, and political pressures that he faces, Stephen’s response to his unfair punishment shows his desire to make choices about his own life. The empowered sense of agency that he experiences at the end of Chapter 1 disappears, however, as Chapter 2 begins with the elder Dedalus men attempting to pass their religious and political values onto Stephen. The pattern of triumph and deflation appears again in between Chapters 2 and 3 as Stephen undergoes a sexual awakening in the arms of a prostitute and then becomes haunted by his sins, especially during Father Arnall’s sermons. This change in perspective leads him to confess his sins to a priest and adopt a religious way of life by the end of Chapter 3. The peace and comfort that this seemingly concrete view of the world has to offer falls apart, however, when Stephen’s religious practices become mechanistic in Chapter 4. He discovers that this way of life is just as stifling as the other identities that he has attempted to adopt. 

Despite the wave-like nature of his development across the novel’s first four chapters, Stephen reaches a turning point in his personal and artistic growth near the end of Chapter 4 that empowers him to pursue art as the primary structuring principle of his reality. An offer from his school’s director to join the priesthood sends him into a moment of spiritual crisis, and he emerges from this quandary realizing that he cannot sacrifice his freedom to serve social or religious constructs. Stephen feels called to a life beyond the categories of family, religion, and politics, and as he walks toward the sea, he has an epiphany regarding his true identity as an artist. After musing about how the Greek myth of Daedalus may be a prophecy for his own life of creation, he sees a girl wading in the water and uses his imagination to transform her image into a vision of a bird. The bird girl scene serves as the novel’s climax as it reveals to Stephen the power that art has to shape reality. The novel’s final chapter, which consists of the falling action, follows Stephen as he systemically distances himself from the institutions that may restrict his artistic voice. He refuses to join the Irish Nationalist movement, rejects his Catholic faith, and opens himself up to the idea of living an isolated life. Stephen ultimately vows to use his artistic voice to awaken his people to the realities of their world.