Portrait is an interesting text because it melds together both English “empire” (in Ireland), and the idea of a Bildungsroman. What I like most about this is the fact that it is so subjective. First, the title of the text betrays that it is only “a” portrait (as opposed to being “the” portrait for example). The idea of language as art, of representation as a form of art is therefore brought up (as earlier posts have mentioned). Secondly, the fact that the character of Stephan is viewed by us with irony and distance also makes the text part of the modernist tendency (not only is he not a typical protagonist, but also because Joyce presents us with a character that is so subjective).
The motif of flight appears throughout the novel as a form of desire, escape and art. Stephan holds very grand notions of flying above men, and feels that he is destined to be “a symbol of the artist forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being” (183). Stephan’s notions of grandeur thus makes him a character (who envisions that he is) larger than life, and ironic. The way he holds himself in high regard, compared to other “characterless” characters (182) is a humorous way in which Joyce has depicted a young man who fancies himself a great artist belonging to some universal prophecy. Also, the idea that the young man is portrayed “as” an artist is telling- he is conscious of his role as an artist, and is playing this very role. This adds a further distancing effect between us and him as a (believable) character.
Stephan concludes by telling us that he is able to “fly by these nets”, therefore transcending his marginalized existence (by being Irish), and also (physically) escaping Ireland. Yet, many critics have pointed out that although Joyce’s semi-autobiographical character (and Joyce himself) has physically left Ireland, Joyce himself has never been able to “leave”, judging by the fact that his later works still deal with Ireland. Viewed in retrospect, this adds another layer of irony to the work, leaving it indeed a subjective portrait.