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.
Stephen Dedalus– The main character of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man . Growing up, Stephen goes through long phases of hedonism and deep religiosity. He eventually adopts a philosophy of aestheticism, greatly valuing beauty and art. Stephen is essentially Joyce's alter ego, and many of the events of Stephen's life mirror events from Joyce's own youth. His surname is taken from the ancient Greek mythical figure Daedalus, who also engaged in a struggle for autonomy.
Simon Dedalus– Stephen's father, an impoverished former medical student with a strong sense of Irish nationalism. Sentimental about his past, Simon Dedalus frequently reminisces about his youth. Loosely based on Joyce's own father and their relationship.
Emma Clery– Stephen's beloved, the young girl to whom he is fiercely attracted over the course of many years. Stephen constructs Emma as an ideal of femininity, even though (or because) he does not know her well.
Charles Stewart Parnell– An Irish political leader who is not an actual character in the novel, but whose death influences many of its characters. Parnell had powerfully led the Irish Parliamentary Party until he was driven out of public life after his affair with a married woman was exposed.
Cranly– Stephen's best friend at university, in whom he confides some of his thoughts and feelings. In this sense Cranly represents a secular confessor for Stephen. Eventually Cranly begins to encourage Stephen to conform to the wishes of his family and to try harder to fit in with his peers, advice that Stephen fiercely resents. Towards the conclusion of the novel he bears witness to Stephen's exposition of his aesthetic philosophy. It is partly due to Cranly that Stephen decides to leave, after witnessing Cranly's budding (and reciprocated) romantic interest in Emma.