The term “epiphany” looms large in Joyce’s earlier work, providing a helpful point of entry into both Dubliners and Portrait. The term’s roots are Greek; it means, literally, a “showing forth.” In the Christian calendar, the feast of the Epiphany, celebrated on January 6, the “Twelfth Night” of Christmas, commemorates the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem to worship the newborn Christ-the “epiphany” is the showing forth of Christ to the three kings. Joyce adopted the term and broadened its sense to describe a series of very short prose pieces he wrote between 1900 and 1903, some of which later found their way into Portrait. In Stephen Hero (an earlier draft of Portrait, the surviving parts of which were published a few years after Joyce’s death), Stephen, who is planning a book of his epiphanies, offers this definition: “By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.” An epiphany, in other words, is a moment of revelation, when the very truth or essence of something is suddenly glimpsed. Art, as Stephen understands it, attempts to capture and preserve such fleeting moments. The planned collection of brief epiphanies in Stephen Hero is very similar to the approximately 40 early epiphanies written by Joyce that have survived. While neither of these collections looks like Portrait, something of Joyce’s own earlier epiphanies does remain in the novel. We might see the completed novel, with its fragmented structure, as an assemblage of Stephen’s important moments of insight, which, taken together, constitute the whole “portrait.”
Closely related to the novel’s fragmented structure is its distinctive narrative technique. Although the novel begins with the most familiar of all openings, “Once upon a time,” it quickly veers into less familiar territory, and that formulaic phrase serves to highlight the unconventional nature of Joyce’s narrative. He might well have begun the novel “Once upon a time there was a little boy named Stephen Dedalus,” and gone on to tell us about his mother and father, the city and circumstances of his birth, and so on. Many novels had begun this way, and many still do, but Joyce’s does not. We do learn some of the details of Stephen’s life-we hear his name, for instance, and what is apparently a nickname, “baby tuckoo”; we see something of his mother and father and other friends and relations; and we see something of the world outside, where a moocow comes down the road and Betty Byrne lives. However, we do not know where we are, or when. Readers who know something of Irish history will likely recognize the names of Michael Davitt and Charles Stuart Parnell, but there is no sign here that these names might be more important than that of Betty Byrne or even than the cachous Stephen is given whenever he brings Dante a piece of tissue paper. With its short, simple sentences, its loose associations and its non sequiturs, the narrative mimics the fragmentary, disjointed and egocentric manner in which the mind of the infant Stephen encounters and interprets a constant flow of sensory data, a “stream of consciousness.” Influenced by the then-emerging discipline of psychology-particularly the work of William James, who coined the phrase-Joyce and many of his contemporaries, including Dorothy Richardson, Katherine Mansfield, and Virginia Woolf, explored ways of expressing the complex inner worlds of human minds. In his later work (some of the episodes of Ulysses, for instance) Joyce would take such experimentation much further, all but eliminating external description in favor of interior monologue.
In Portrait, though, while Joyce omits many of the conventional signs of the author’s presence, such as indications of who is speaking (“He said”), we are still aware of an external authorial presence who describes to us the world of Stephen’s experience. However, our view is sharply limited to that particular experience. Only characters or events important to Stephen will emerge in the narrative, and some characters, especially E.C., are only vaguely realized in the book. In addition to determining what we will see, Stephen’s mind also determines the style of language at each point in the novel, which moves from the childish simplicity of the opening paragraphs to the complex aesthetic theorizing of the later chapters. Again, though, Stephen’s thoughts and perceptions do not limit those of the novel’s readers absolutely. As he examines and judges those around him, Joyce also invites us to distance ourselves from Stephen, to examine him as he examines others.