The novel mixes third-person narrative with free indirect speech, which allows both identification with and distance from Stephen. The narrator refrains from judgement. The omniscient narrator of the earlier Stephen Hero informs the reader as Stephen sets out to write "some pages of sorry verse," while Portrait gives only Stephen's attempts, leaving the evaluation to the reader.
The novel is written primarily as a third-person narrative with minimal dialogue until the final chapter. This chapter includes dialogue-intensive scenes alternately involving Stephen, Davin and Cranly. An example of such a scene is the one in which Stephen posits his complex Thomist aesthetic theory in an extended dialogue. Joyce employs first-person narration for Stephen's diary entries in the concluding pages of the novel, perhaps to suggest that Stephen has finally found his own voice and no longer needs to absorb the stories of others. Joyce fully employs the free indirect style to demonstrate Stephen's intellectual development from his childhood, through his education, to his increasing independence and ultimate exile from Ireland as a young man. The style of the work progresses through each of its five chapters, as the complexity of language and Stephen's ability to comprehend the world around him both gradually increase. The book's opening pages communicate Stephen's first stirrings of consciousness when he is a child. Throughout the work language is used to describe indirectly the state of mind of the protagonist and the subjective effect of the events of his life.
The writing style is notable also for Joyce's omission of quotation marks: he indicates dialogue by beginning a paragraph with a dash, as is commonly used in French, Spanish or Russian publications.
The novel, like all of Joyce's published works, is not dedicated to anyone.