To be frank, there’s not a whole lot of conventional "plot" in Portrait of the Artist. An unforgiving reader might just snort and say there’s none, but we prefer the term "plot-challenged." What the book does contain, however, is an intense moment-to-moment narration of the life of its main character, Stephen Dedalus, from early childhood to adulthood (approximately ages 5 to 20 – we don’t know exactly, but that’s our educated guess). Basically, Joyce takes us through the everyday events, small and large, of one boy’s life in early 20th century Dublin.
So here’s the quick rundown. The novel drops us straight into Stephen’s early home life; he lives with his mother, father, Aunt Dante, and Uncle Charles. He leaves for a Jesuit boarding school early in the chapter, and we see him struggle with schoolmates and teachers there. He returns after a short and unhappy time away from home. But all is not sunshine and roses at home, either, and his family’s financial situation steadily worsens throughout the book. They run out of money for boarding school, and Stephen is sent to a local Jesuit school, Belvedere College (these are actually the schools that Joyce himself attended!).
While at Belvedere, Stephen gains a reputation for being smart and very serious. He cultivates a crush on a girl and writes a poem for her, but he doesn’t know how to act around her – sound familiar? Stephen grows more and more dissatisfied with the condition of his life, and his feelings are made worse by the fact that his father sinks deeper and deeper into alcoholism and a kind of pathetic nostalgia.
Stephen and his father visit Cork, Mr. D’s hometown, to settle some business matters, and Stephen is sickened by how sad his father’s life is. When they return to Dublin, Stephen uses some prize money he earned from writing to try and make their lives happier, but when it runs out, he falls into a slump. He gives into his fledgling physical lust and loses his sexual innocence to a Dublin prostitute.
After a short period of bodily indulgence (and guilt), Stephen attends a religious retreat at his school. One of his old teachers from Clongowes, Father Arnall, is the guest of honor. Father Arnall delivers a searing, seemingly endless series of sermons about death, hell, and punishment. Stephen is horrified by his own sins and is certain he’s going to suffer the unspeakable torments of hell. He immerses himself in strict Catholicism to try and avoid this fate. His religious period takes over all aspects of his life, from his senses to his emotions. However, when he faces the decision to join the priesthood, Stephen decides that he’s not cut out for monastic life. He hopes to go to university instead; in this moment, he turns away from religion in general. The end of Chapter Four is perhaps one of the most famous moments in the book. Stephen goes to the river and sees a beautiful young girl, who reminds him of a wild seabird. He is astounded by the beauty of the moment and chooses to devote his life to creating art.
As a student at University College, Dublin, Stephen feels more and more alienated from his family and especially from Ireland. He has a few good friends like Davin, Lynch, and Cranly, with whom he can discuss at least some of his theories and troubles. It becomes more and more apparent, however, that Stephen must leave Ireland in order to discover his vocation. His classmates are all into Irish nationalism, but Stephen doesn’t share their beliefs. He openly admits to his disenchantment with the Irish cause and the Catholic Church. We witness Stephen alternately argue and explain himself with his school friends, who can’t all understand why he feels the need to revolt against his country, home, and religion. In the end, we see Stephen prepare for his departure from Ireland, hoping that this self-imposed exile will allow him to truly experience life.