Of all the characters in the novel, Stephen Dedalus is the only one whose portrait is fully realized. His most intimate thoughts, memories and sensations are revealed to us throughout; all the other characters exist for the reader only insofar as they matter to Stephen. Joyce’s self-portrait is a complex one, inviting us to sympathize with Stephen while also causing us to regard him more critically, and even laugh at him. The little boy wrongly punished by Father Dolan for failing to copy out his Latin themes or falling ill after being shouldered into the ditch by Wells is likely to have our sympathy. Less sympathetic is the saintly youth whose absurd devotions betray a high degree of egotism and whose abstract meditations on the nature of love have no positive bearing whatsoever on his relationships with others; or the pretentious university student propounding his aesthetic theories at great length to poor Lynch, an unwilling and barely interested auditor, who makes jokes throughout, which the pedantic and humorless Stephen ignores. Stephen tends to view his life in terms of a heroic struggle to free himself from the various confinements he feels his native city imposes upon him-the “nets” of politics, religion and family. Throughout, though, Stephen’s inflated sense of himself is subtly undercut by Joyce, who provides many reminders of the flaws and inadequacies in Stephen’s character that the young man himself fails to perceive. Stephen identifies with the classical hero whose name he bears, but he is more like the son Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and came crashing down into the sea, than the father Daedalus, whose cunning enabled him to forge the wings that permitted his escape from Minos’s prison.
Stephen’s actual father, Simon Dedalus, is an important figure in the early parts of the novel, and Stephen’s gradual detachment from him reveals much about his growing emotional isolation from his place of birth. Simon Dedalus looms very large in the world of Stephen’s youth as we see it in the novel’s opening chapter: his story about the moocow opens the novel, and the advice he offers his son as he sends him off to Clongowes (“never peach on a fellow”) is accepted by the son as all-important and beyond question. As Stephen grows older, though, his father stands in a less kindly light. During the disastrous Christmas dinner, Simon Dedalus breaks down in tears when he recalls the death of Parnell, the role of the Roman Catholic Church in his leader’s downfall and the frustration of his republican hopes. By the time Stephen accompanies his father to Cork, Simon Dedalus appears bound to a nostalgic and alcohol-soaked vision of the past, while his life in the present gradually crumbles around him. By the end of the novel Stephen regards his father as little more than a vaguely interesting specimen.
Stephen’s mother is a dim presence in the novel, but an important one for what she reveals about her son: his lack of basic kindness and his cruelty born of a sense of his own superiority. She also figures prominently in the beginning of the book; however, this, too, is a relationship that will fade, as Stephen grows older. The Catholic beliefs to which she faithfully adheres become a barrier between mother and son after Stephen vehemently rejects that faith. His education further distances him from her, making her mistrustful of him. However, while Stephen’s father is portrayed in increasingly negative terms, his mother remains a sympathetic figure, whose attempts to keep the peace during the Christmas dinner battle between Simon, Dante, and Mr. Casey are suggestive of her lifelong struggle with a difficult husband in trying circumstances. Cranly says to Stephen at one point, “Your mother must have gone through a good deal of suffering.” It is telling that this assessment does not come from Stephen himself.
As is the case with his parents, the fond portrait of Dante with which the novel begins is sharply revised later on. Stephen’s earliest recollections are of a generous, motherly figure, but her two velvet-backed brushes, maroon for Michael Davitt and green for Parnell, foreshadow the religious and political strife that will disrupt the family’s Christmas dinner a few years hence. In that scene, Dante appears cruelly inflexible in her rejection of the fallen Parnell and her adherence to the church that helped bring him down. Stephen himself will demonstrate a similar inflexibility later on, during both his pious phase and his later refusal to make any concessions to the church to which his mother remains devoted.
During Stephen’s years at Clongowes, the figures who stand out most are the Jesuit priests who run the school, particularly the rector, Father Conmee, his Latin master, Father Arnall, and the authoritarian prefect of studies, Father Dolan, who punishes Stephen harshly and unjustly. This injustice appears more than compensated for by Stephen’s experience of the benevolent authority of Father Conmee, which makes a profound impression upon the boy, certainly influencing his later consideration of the Roman Catholic priesthood.
As Stephen grows older and becomes more self-absorbed, the characters around him (his fellow students Cranly, Dixon, Davin, Lynch, Temple, and MacCann) are left standing in a haze surrounding him, emerging only during occasional verbal exchanges. They do help reveal Stephen’s character, though. Cranly offers the telling assessment of Stephen’s mother’s unhappy life while Stephen basks in his principled refusal to perform the Easter rituals of her church. Also serving as a foil to Stephen is Davin, a naive and artless nationalist who is often shocked and perplexed by his friend, but who is nonetheless clearly fond of him. Indeed, the apparent strength of these friendships suggests that the more positive dimensions of Stephen’s personality have been slighted in this portrait.
Also inhabiting the haze around Stephen, but even more obscured by it, is the object of his youthful affections, a young woman identified only by her initials, E.C. We glimpse her first on the tram with Stephen, an experience he later condenses into an imagist poem. Her absence at the play at Belvedere is a great source of disappointment to him; years later, she inspires his villanelle and finds a place in his diary entry for April 1 at the end of the novel. Since E.C. is, supposedly, his principal source of inspiration, the fact that his poem tells us nothing whatsoever about her perhaps provides an indication that Stephen’s artistic development is far from complete.