We are locked up inside Stephen Dedalus' head from the start. From the very first lines evoking Stephen's consciousness as 'baby tuckoo', we see him through his own sensations as he develops into manhood before he departs Ireland for Europe. The nature of the artist's vocation becomes the central theme of 'A Portrait'. It frames the conflict in Stephen's mind between two opposing forces –the power of his environment and the authority of the church, school and family on the one hand, pitted against his own consciousness of a growing powerful individuality which he must affirm at all cost. In rejecting the demands of home, fatherland and church, Stephen takes up this task of expressing himself freely as an artist. Furthermore he is utterly lonely from the early days at Clongowes College to his last weeks at the university. He is in psychological terms an 'isolate' and so far from playing any part in the life of his country, his only recourse can be exile;
'This race and this country and this life produced me---I shall express myself as I am'
When Davin, one of his student friends, urges he to one of them, his response is uttered with the 'cold violence' of disillusion,
'Ireland is the old sow that eats her fallow'
With his departure for Europe his only defence he allows himself to use is 'silence, exile and cunning'. This sense of isolation for Stephen's artistic temperament extends not only to people and places but also to the very language he uses. The Dean of Studies in Clongowes College, an Englishman, when in their conversation Stephen realises the profound differences between the Irish and English usage of language. The Dean speaks and writes words which gives Stephen 'unrest of spirit'. In contrast, Stephen's language was to become a truly verbal music—through the manifestations of epiphanies. In Joyce's terminology, epiphanies are commonplace events or objects that have a special inexplicable radiance. He was obviously influence by the 'claritas' of St Thomas of Aquinas studied with the Jesuits and thus he no doubt stole this term from the Catholic Religion to replace it with art. They become illuminations lit up at moments by the 'lightings' of intuition.--- manifesting themselves like blinding sensations They embody the metaphors of flight, freedom and when these epiphanies happen they point to the true nature of his vocation where 'his heart trembled; his breath came faster and a wild spirit passed over his limbs as though he was soaring sunward---'
In one of the most vivid episodes---the vision of the wadding girl ,Stephen describes the sense of the epiphany in seeing her as the 'angel of mortal youth and beauty' la figure feminine immobile'
' –gazing out to sea-with her long, slender, bare legs and her skirts kilted up about her waist, she looks like a strange and beautiful seabird-----her face touched with the wonder of mortal beauty'
This wading girl offers myth and symbol to Stephen—she rises from the sea like Venus and has the searing clarity of truth for him and he in return will become 'a hawk-like man flying sunward above the sea-----'
Stephen will create proudly out of the freedom and power of his soul, as the great artificer whose name he bore, a living thing, new and soaring and 'beautiful, impalpable, imperishable'
So the climax of 'the priest of the eternal imagination' takes place within Stephen's soul and the new living thing forces him to walk the plank of banishment from his homeland. In the end his wings are fashioned; he might soar to dizzy heights, but it is better to burn up in flight than to die in the bat-like labyrinth and as the day of his flight draws near ,Stephen breathes the words of Icarus,
'Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead'