With Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, stage two in my evil plan to read all of James Joyce is complete! My review cross-posted from goodreads. I should also add that you can read this for free on Google Books.
There are some books that really ought to be read in the context of a literature class, with a professor to provide context and interpretation and the fear of a final paper to instill motivation. For me at least, Portrait was that kind of a book. It rewards intense study much more so than casual reading, and the somewhat irritating character of Stephen Dedalus becomes far more interesting when seen in a broader context. So it was slow going for me, especially the beginning, but several extended sections were simply fantastic (the priest's description of hell, the beach scene, the final conversation with Cranly).
Portrait is clearly the work of an older writer looking back on his youth with a bit of embarrassment and a lot of brutal honesty. We see Stephen caught in that universal phase of adolescence marked by pretentiousness, self-righteousness and snobbery. So he's a bit of a jerk, but also clearly idealistic, perceptive and sensitive to others. Definitely relatable, and not entirely unlikeable.
The arc of Stephen's story involves him casting off every piece of received wisdom or cultural expectation he encounters -- the lifestyle of his father, English imperialism, Irish nationalism, the Irish cultural revival, Roman Catholicism, his college friends, his country and even his hope for love and companionship -- in a quest for artistic freedom. Mirroring this journey, Joyce places Stephen in the midst of a blizzard of quotations and obscure references (the endnotes in my version were essential in deciphering these) until the final six pages where Stephen finally cuts through the noise and speaks in a first-person voice as he makes his choice.
Stephen's struggle should be instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever tried to create something (be it a story, a piece of music, a scientific argument) -- namely the sinking feeling that it has all been said before and that your contribution is only a derivation, a minor rearrangement of the obvious. It won't truly be original, so why bother?
Unfortunately, his solution to this dilemma is literally exile and isolation. It all seems a bit harsh and more than a little melodramatic, although Joyce himself left Ireland as a young man and never returned. And perhaps it is true that great artists are in some ways outsiders to their community, never hewing to any party line.