“Portrait” is a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story, perhaps the prime example of that genre in English literature. It deals with identity or, more precisely, the way in which identity arises, the events that shape us and make us who we are. These circumstances are more or less the same for everyone. We are born into a family, and by virtue of how it receives and relates to us, we become manifest to ourselves and to others. We learn a language, and though it does not belong to us alone but is shared by all members of the community, it is by means of our language that we understand and express ourselves and that which is all around us. With the language comes a culture, of which, whether we like it or not, we become a part. Our circles widen, we start school, and the process of our socialization becomes more formal. We learn about the language, our culture and society, and to that first identity within the family, a new layer of national identity is added. Within this screen, Stephen Dedalus emerges as an Irish Catholic son of a petty bourgeois family, only to turn against all these categories in the latter half of the novel, rejecting Irish nationalism, rejecting his Catholic religion, rejecting the middle class, insistent on being nobody’s son.
The key scene in the book occurs when Stephen is out walking with his friend Cranly and confides to him that he has quarrelled with his mother that morning about religion — because he had refused to receive the Eucharist. Cranly fails to see the problem: Surely he could do it for his mother’s sake, regardless of his absent faith? But Stephen is resolute. “I will not serve,” he says. But why not? This is the novel’s most important question; and the work itself, in its artistic entirety, is the answer. We are not merely the age in which we live, not merely our language, or the family to which we belong, our religion, our country, our culture. We are this and more, insofar as each of us is an individual encountering and relating to all of these categories. But what exactly does this individual comprise? What is its nature, and how do we go about capturing and describing it? How do we even see it, when the tools and instruments at our disposal are precisely of our age, our language, our religion, our culture?