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Joyce fled from Dublin to the mainland of Europe, but Dublin never left him. He wrote about the city for the rest of his life— in Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist, Ulysses, and Finnegan’s Wake. Dublin is more than the backdrop of Portrait of the Artist. It is also the symbol of Stephen’s discontent. The drab, stagnant city is seen as the heart of a paralyzed Ireland that stifles the aspiring young artist. The city’s streets, through which Stephen constantly wanders as he works out his future, are like the labyrinth (maze) constructed by his eponym, the mythical Daedalus. For both of them the only escape is flight.
Stephen’s family starts out living in Bray, an affluent sea side village to the south of Dublin. However’ financial problems force the family into the city, first to the suburb of Blackrock, and then to a series of progressively bleaker dwellings in the city’s shabbier sections. As you might expect, these downhill moves color Stephen’s view of the city and of his life. The Dublin streets reflect his dissatisfaction. There even comes a time when, disgusted with himself, he finds comfort in their foul-smelling filth—they match his own darker moods and self-disgust. The real Dublin of Joyce’s time had its gracious sections adorned by eighteenth-century Georgian brick houses and by many handsome monuments. It also had the natural beauty of Dublin Bay, the outlet of the River Lifer. Stephen is not completely blind to this beauty. In his frequent walks, he goes to the water. It is on the harbor’s seawall, called the Bull that he clearly hears the call of his artistic destiny, and on the Bay Shore that he sees the girl who becomes a symbol of the freedom and beauty he seeks. (Some see the Lifer and the sea as symbols of the “stream” of Stephen’s thoughts and as the sites of his rebirth and baptism as an artist.) But it’s the seamy side of Dublin that haunts Stephen in all its sordid detail: water-logged lanes, putrid puddles, dung heaps, odors of fish, “horse piss and rotted straw.” Despite any momentary feelings of communion, Stephen must reject the “dull phenomenon or Dublin”—and Ireland—as an environment suitable for artistic growth, even though both city and country will remain a rich source of the art itself.