The story of a young man trying to find himself, a story about James Joyce himself, his character Stephen Dedalus is partly autobiographical. Stephen comes from a poor Irish family who goes to a religious boarding school which he has to leave for financial reasons. He then enters another religious school where they try to convince him to become a priest. This question is very important to the author and he tries to imagine himself as a priest. But he decides that life as it is is far more interesting for him and that he wants to live it in freedom. Between all this, he goes from all sorts of religious and social questions to the meaning of life and his first attempts of becoming a writer.
The book itself is highly philosophical and one could write a whole new book about Stephen Dedalus ... well, James Joyce did. "Ulysses" was first intended to be just a short story for the collection "Dubliners" but then was written as a sequel to "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man".
From the back cover:
"Published in 1916, James Joyce's semiautobiographical tale of his alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, is a coming-of-age story like no other. A bold, innovative experiment with both language and structure, the work has exerted a lasting influence on the contemporary novel.
'Joyce dissolved mechanism in literature as effectively as Einstein destroyed it in physics,' wrote Alfred Kazin. 'He showed that the material of fiction could rest upon as tense a distribution and as delicate a balance of its parts as any poem. Joyce's passion for form, in fact, is the secret of his progress as a novelist. He sought to bring the largest possible quantity of human life under the discipline of the observing mind, and the mark of his success is that he gave an epic form to what remains invisible to most novelists.... Joyce means many things to different people; for me his importance has always been primarily a moral one. He was, perhaps, the last man in Europe who wrote as if art were worth a human life.... By living for his art he may yet have given others a belief in art worth living for."