A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is undoubtedly Joyce’s attempt at creating a novel which could convey his ideas on a new kind of realism for prose fiction. This 1916 novel challenges some conventions of the Nineteenth century realism in Literature, specially by rejecting the exaggerated emphasis on external details, discarding the old all-seeing and all-knowing narrator and cutting loose the principle of causality that has been organized narratives for quite a long time (characteristics, among others, that, roughly speaking, gave the novels their aspect of reality, the constitution of their mimesis).
In a modern world where the human experience is drastically affected and where “the portrait has disappeared”, as Anatol Rosenfeld points out, Joyce has to paint a picture of Stephen Dedalus using new formal features. Joyce, writing about his position as an artist, other modern writers and the new art, said that: “Our object is to create a new fusion between the exterior world and our contemporary selves, and also to enlarge our vocabulary of the subconscious […] we believe that it is in the abnormal that we approach closer to reality”.
In a certain way, this is what we have in A Portrait: the exterior world – Dublin, Stephen’s schools, his house – is there, as well as the inner self – the formative years of Stephen’s subjectivity – narrated in fragmented style. The accentuated highlight on the subjectivity of the protagonist is one of the most innovative features in the fiction of the time. Dedalus’ growth of inner life is put at the center of the narrative – the radical exploration of a character’s conscious has never been tried before in English Literature.
How is this exploration performed in the narrative? The narrator is the key-figure in this process: the intense use of free indirect discourse mixes the third-person narrator’s and the protagonist’s voices, so the reader has the impression that he can hear more the latter than the former. For example, Dedalus’ process of Coming of Age really affects the narrator, in such a way that he adapts his own language to the childish speech and thoughts of Stephen when he is just a kid.