Anyone visiting an art gallery, particularly one with a collection of works by Old Masters, is likely to encounter paintings simply entitled 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man'. The phrase normally refers to a self portrait painted early in the artist's career. In using the phrase as the title for his Bildungsroman Joyce is probably suggesting that the work is in some respect a portrait of himself, in some sense autobiographical. But he is also emphasising that it is an artist who is the central figure. The work is not the equivalent in words of a photograph: it allows itself artistic freedom in what it presents, and its focus is not merely on growing to maturity, but on artistic development (or perhaps more accurately on the intellectual and emotional development which provides a basis for an artistic career).
There are clear and obvious autobiographical elements. James Joyce (1882-1941), like the novel's central figure Stephen Dedalus, was born into a Dublin-based Irish Catholic family which in his early years was well off. Like Stephen in the novel, Joyce attended the elite Jesuit Clongowes Wood schook, and later Belvedere, and like Stephen he studied Arts subjects at University College Dublin. The Joyce family, like Stephen's descended from wealth into dire poverty, thanks largely to the improvidence of the father. James Joyce, like Stephen, considered and rejected a career as a Jesuit priest. But Stephen Dedalus is an artistic creation, and it would be naive to believe that everything he thinks, feels, and does reflects similar elements in Joyce's own life.
Portrait is a relatively conventional novel, and presents the reader with little of the obscurity for which Joyce later became famous, or notorious. But it does employ elements of a stream of consciousness technique that was still radical when the novel was published in 1916. Perhaps the most striking and impressive examples of this occur early in the book, when Joyce presents the impressions and sensations of a very young child.
The now ageing Penguin Modern Classic edition in my possession quotes in its 'blurb' the verdict of H.G. Wells: 'By far the most living and convincing portrait that exists of an Irish Catholic upbringing'. Certainly it was this element of the book which remained most in my memory from last reading the book thirty-five years ago. The Christmas dinner argument over that once classic Irish bone of contention, Parnell and the Catholic Church's attitude to him, is a vivid, shrewd and humorous portrayal of an encounter beween people determined at all costs to have the last word, though aware that it is not the time or the place for such a dispute. Not easily forgotten either is the vivid hellfire sermon preached by Father Arnall during a retreat when Stephen is a sex-obsessed teenager at Belvedere school. But readers expecting primarily a narrative of what it was like to grow up Irish and Catholic in an age of growing nationalism and repressive religiosity may be disappointed. The primary focus is not on the typical but on the individual. Stephen's development towards being an artist, his passage through the conventional to a realisation of a distinctive destiny which seems to require the rejection of everything in his upbringing, is at the centre of the novel. There is much in the later pages about aesthetics, and much of this may well seem a rather dry read to many readers. It is probably near heresy to say it about one of the most generally acknowledged masterpieces of twentieth century fiction, but this reader was at times bored, if never blind to the power of the presentation of the central character, whose limitations and sometimes bombastic characteristics Joyce presents vividly.