A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man traces the religious and intellectual awakening of young Stephen Dedalus, a fictional alter ego of Joyce and an allusion to Daedalus, the consummate craftsman of Greek mythology. Stephen questions and rebels against the Catholic and Irish conventions under which he has grown, culminating in his self-exile from Ireland to Europe. His struggle to find identity parallels the Irish struggle for independence during the early twentieth century. Although he rejects any outright nationalism, he is also heavily concerned with his country's future and understands himself as an Irishman. This leads clearly to a contradiction.
The novel mixes third-person narrative with free indirect speech, which allows both identification with and distance from Stephen, and is written primarily as a third-person narrative with minimal dialogue until the final chapter. Joyce fully employs the free indirect style to demonstrate Stephen's intellectual development from his childhood, through his education, to his increasing independence and ultimate exile from Ireland as a young man.