James Joyce was born on February 2, 1882, in the town of Rathgar, near Dublin, Ireland. He was the oldest of ten children born to a well-meaning but financially inept father and a solemn, pious mother. Joyce's parents managed to scrape together enough money to send their talented son to the Clongowes Wood College, a prestigious boarding school, and then to Belvedere College, where Joyce excelled as an actor and writer. Later, he attended University College in Dublin, where he became increasingly committed to language and literature as a champion of Modernism. In 1902, Joyce left the university and moved to Paris, but briefly returned to Ireland in 1903 upon the death of his mother. Shortly after his mother's death, Joyce began work on the story that would later become A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Published in serial form in 1914–1915, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man draws on many details from Joyce's early life. The novel's protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, is in many ways Joyce's fictional double—Joyce had even published stories under the pseudonym "Stephen Daedalus" before writing the novel. Like Joyce himself, Stephen is the son of an impoverished father and a highly devout Catholic mother. Also like Joyce, he attends Clongowes Wood, Belvedere, and University Colleges, struggling with questions of faith and nationality before leaving Ireland to make his own way as an artist. Many of the scenes in the novel are fictional, but some of its most powerful moments are autobiographical: both the Christmas dinner scene and Stephen's first sexual experience with the Dublin prostitute closely resemble actual events in Joyce's life.
In addition to drawing heavily on Joyce's personal life, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man also makes a number of references to the politics and religion of early-twentieth-century Ireland. When Joyce was growing up, Ireland had been under British rule since the sixteenth century, and tensions between Ireland and Britain had been especially high since the potato blight of 1845. In addition to political strife, there was considerable religious tension: the majority of Irish, including the Joyces, were Catholics, and strongly favored Irish independence. The Protestant minority, on the other hand, mostly wished to remain united with Britain.
Around the time Joyce was born, the Irish nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell was spearheading the movement for Irish independence. In 1890, however, Parnell's longstanding affair with a married woman was exposed, leading the Catholic Church to condemn him and causing many of his former followers to turn against him. Many Irish nationalists blamed Parnell's death, which occurred only a year later, on the Catholic Church. Indeed, we see these strong opinions about Parnell surface in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man during an emotional Christmas dinner argument among members of the Dedalus family. By 1900, the Irish people felt largely united in demanding freedom from British rule. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the young Stephen's friends at University College frequently confront him with political questions about this struggle between Ireland and England.
After completing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in Zurich in 1915, Joyce returned to Paris, where he wrote two more major novels, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, over the course of the next several years. These three novels, along with a short story collection, Dubliners, form the core of his remarkable literary career. He died in 1941.
Today, Joyce is celebrated as one of the great literary pioneers of the twentieth century. He was one of the first writers to make extensive and convincing use of stream of consciousness, a stylistic form in which written prose seeks to represent the characters' stream of inner thoughts and perceptions rather than render these characters from an objective, external perspective. This technique, used in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man mostly during the opening sections and in Chapter 5, sometimes makes for difficult reading. With effort, however, the seemingly jumbled perceptions of stream of consciousness can crystallize into a coherent and sophisticated portrayal of a character's experience.
Another stylistic technique for which Joyce is noted is the epiphany, a moment in which a character makes a sudden, profound realization—whether prompted by an external object or a voice from within—that creates a change in his or her perception of the world. Joyce uses epiphany most notably in Dubliners, but A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is full of these sudden moments of spiritual revelation as well. Most notable is a scene in which Stephen sees a young girl wading at the beach, which strikes him with the sudden realization that an appreciation for beauty can be truly good. This moment is a classic example of Joyce's belief that an epiphany can dramatically alter the human spirit in a matter of just a few seconds.