A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is the story of young Stephen Daedalus as he grows up in Ireland, dealing with matters of religion, family, national politics, and sexuality while realizing his own ambitions as a writer. The story is told as a fluid stream of episodes, alternating between moments of victory and loss, culminating in the decision to leave his past, and Ireland, ultimately behind him. In writing Portrait, Joyce draws much from his personal life, lending the story an additional layer of psychological weight.
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 coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo ...
His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt. — James Joyce, Opening to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
The childhood of Stephen Dedalus is recounted using vocabulary that changes as he grows, in a voice not his own but sensitive to his feelings. The reader experiences Stephen's fears and bewilderment as he comes to terms with the world in a series of disjointed episodes. Stephen attends the Jesuit-run Clongowes Wood College, where the apprehensive, intellectually gifted boy suffers the ridicule of his classmates while he learns the schoolboy codes of behaviour. While he cannot grasp their significance, at a Christmas dinner he is witness to the social, political and religious tensions in Ireland involving Charles Stewart Parnell, which drive wedges between members of his family, leaving Stephen with doubts over which social institutions he can place his faith in. Back at Clongowes, word spreads that a number of older boys have been caught "smugging"; discipline is tightened, and the Jesuits increase use of corporal punishment. Stephen is strapped when one of his instructors believes he has broken his glasses to avoid studying, but, prodded by his classmates, Stephen works up the courage to complain to the rector, Father Conmee, who assures him there will be no such recurrence, leaving Stephen with a sense of triumph.
Stephen's father gets into debt and the family leaves its pleasant suburban home to live in Dublin. Stephen realises that he will not return to Clongowes. However, thanks to a scholarship obtained for him by Father Conmee, Stephen is able to attend Belvedere College, where he excels academically and becomes a class leader. Stephen squanders a large cash prize from school, and begins to see prostitutes, as distance grows between him and his drunken father.
As Stephen abandons himself to sensual pleasures, his class is taken on a religious retreat, where the boys sit through sermons. Stephen pays special attention to those on pride, guilt, punishment and the Four Last Things (death, judgement, Hell, and Heaven). He feels that the words of the sermon, describing horrific eternal punishment in hell, are directed at himself and, overwhelmed, comes to desire forgiveness. Overjoyed at his return to the Church, he devotes himself to acts of ascetic repentance, though they soon devolve to mere acts of routine, as his thoughts turn elsewhere. His devotion comes to the attention of the Jesuits, and they encourage him to consider entering the priesthood. Stephen takes time to consider, but has a crisis of faith because of the conflict between his spiritual beliefs and his aesthetic ambitions. Along Dollymount Strand he spots a girl wading, and has an epiphany in which he is overcome with the desire to find a way to express her beauty in his writing.
As a student at University College, Dublin, Stephen grows increasingly wary of the institutions around him: Church, school, politics and family. In the midst of the disintegration of his family's fortunes his father berates him and his mother urges him to return to the Church. An increasingly dry, humourless Stephen explains his alienation from the Church and the aesthetic theory he has developed to his friends, who find that they cannot accept either of them. Stephen concludes that Ireland is too restricted to allow him to express himself fully as an artist, so he decides that he will have to leave. He sets his mind on self-imposed exile, but not without declaring in his diary his ties to his homeland:
... I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.