Episode 1: Telemachus
Ulysses opens atop the Martello Tower in Sandycove, just south of Dublin, at 8:00 am on the morning of June 16th, 1904. Buck Mulligan, a roommate and frienemy of Stephen Dedalus, parodies the Catholic Mass and calls down the tight spiral staircase for Stephen to come join him in the morning air.
If you have read Joyce’s first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, you’ll remember that Stephen Dedalus left Dublin for Paris in April of 1902 in order to “forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race” (P 235). Called to a life of artistic creation, Stephen seeks to fly past the “nets” of his family, his religion, and his nation. Stephen’s self-imposed exile was cut short when he was called home to say goodbye to his sick mother before her death on June 26th, 1903. Nearly a year later, 22 year old Stephen remains in Dublin, paralyzed by guilt, poverty, and frustration over his failure to realize his lofty ambitions. 22 year old Stephen is now living in the Martello Tower with Buck Mulligan, a blasphemous but funny medical student, and Haines, a well-meaning but naive Oxford-educated Englishman.
We should situate Ulysses in the context of its principle correspondences (Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey and Shakespeare’s Hamlet). The Odyssey begins with Telemachus, Odysseus’s adolescent son, depressed and surrounded by men aiming to usurp his rightful kingdom and vying to marry his mom, Penelope. Odysseus has been away for roughly 17 years, first fighting the Trojan War and, now, wandering the Mediterranean from disaster to disaster in his doomed journey home to Ithaca. Shakespeare’s Hamlet begins with Prince Hamlet mourning the death of his father and seething over his mother’s hasty remarriage to his uncle Claudius, who has usurped the Prince’s rightful throne. Both Hamlet and Telemachus begin their respective stories in a state of angsty paralysis, and both are sons without fathers. In these and other ways, Stephen Dedalus fits into the lineage of these characters. These are his literary ancestors.
Imbued with subtle allusions to Christianity (“a mirror and razor lay crossed” (1.2)), the Trojan horse (“equine...oak” (1.15-16)), and various sinful heretics, Buck Mulligan blasphemously mocks the liturgy while he shaves his face and antagonizes Stephen, who emerges “displeased and sleepy” (1.3) from the “dark winding stairs” (1.6) onto the rooftop of the Tower. Buck dominates the proceedings in these first pages of the novel, and while he may be obnoxious, he is undoubtedly charismatic.
Nearly everything mentioned in the first two pages is drenched in metaphorical resonances, but the text simultaneously simply presents what’s happening. For example, when Mulligan “blessed gravely thrice the tower, the surrounding country and the awaking mountains” (1.10), we might consider that he elevates the Martello Tower, the nation of Ireland, and the personified city of Dublin into a cosmic realm. But he’s also just being funny and theatrical. You can read deeply into just about anything in this book, and the genius of the text will support that level of interrogation, but you don’t have to do so in order to understand or enjoy Ulysses - certainly not on a first reading. In the first guide to this episode I wrote for my students back in 2006, I tried to explain everything. I no longer feel it incumbent upon me to do so.
That said, we should pause a moment to consider the word “Chrysostomos” (1.26). This word, an interruption in the narration, represents our first access to Stephen’s inner monologue: looking at the Buck’s “white teeth glistening here and there with gold points” (1.25-26) (Buck has gold dental fillings), Stephen thinks about Chrysostomos, the “golden mouthed” Greek rhetorician from the 1st century. Deeply educated, well-read, and hyper-intellectual, Stephen’s mind will constantly draw connections and pull references that will send most readers to the Gifford book of annotations for explanation.
In the novel’s first few pages, Buck makes numerous attempts to name or label Stephen - “Kinch,” “fearful jesuit,” “absurd,” “jejune jesuit,” “the bard,” “sinister,” “poor dogsbody,” and “insane” - yet Stephen’s character is too complex for easy definition.
After all of Buck’s poking and prodding, Stephen finally speaks, asking “How long is Haines going to stay in this tower?” (1.49). Haines, an Oxfordian interested in Irish culture, woke Stephen up in the night, yelling through a nightmare about shooting a black panther. Stephen asks where Haines keeps his guncase out of concern that another nightmare might prompt Haines to fire a shot. In reality, a young man named Trench (the source for Haines), actually shot his revolver at the fireplace beside which James Joyce was sleeping after a nightmare. Stephen threatens to leave the Tower if Haines stays. In this way, Stephen brandishes “exile,” one of his three proclaimed weapons, along with “silence” and “cunning” (P 229)).
Mulligan seems to ignore this threat, asking to borrow Stephen’s handkerchief and teasing him about its “snotgreen” color (1.73). Looking out at the “snotgreen sea” (1.78) in Dublin Bay, Mulligan refers to the sea as “our mighty mother!” (1.85), prompting him to pivot mentally to Stephen’s late mother: “The aunt thinks you killed your mother” (1.88). This cruel needling refers to Stephen’s refusal to kneel down and pray for his mother on her deathbed, denying her dying wish.
We can condemn Stephen for this selfish act, sure, but we might also respect his integrity; in Portrait, Stephen states that he “will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church” (P 229). Because Stephen no longer believes, praying at his mother’s bedside would have been dishonest, disrespectful, and blasphemous. Buck accuses Stephen of being “sinister” (1.94), suggesting Lucifer, the proud angel who also refused to serve God, saying “non servium.”
The paragraph which begins “Stephen, an elbow rested on the jagged granite” (1.100) initiates the reader into Joyce’s revolutionary technique of quickly shifting between narrative modes: from highly detailed realism (“gazed at the fraying edge of his shiny black coatsleeve”) to lyricism (“pain, that was not yet the pain of love, fretted his heart”) to the narration of a dream (“silently, in a dream, she had come to him after her death”) back to realism (“across the threadbare cuffedge he saw the sea [...] a dull green mass of liquid”) which prompts an image to arise from his memory (“the green sluggish bile which she had torn up from her rotting liver by fits of loud groaning vomiting”). Joyce doesn’t provide a ton of guidance through these shifts, but he is subtly training us in how to read this novel.
Buck inquires about the pants he has passed on to Stephen, who “can’t wear them if they are grey” (1.120) - Stephen is still wearing black in mourning for his mother, nearly a year after her death. Buck again baits Stephen over “kill[ing] his mother” (1.122) and passes on the rumor that Stephen has “general paralysis of the insane” (1.129), or syphillis. Nice. Buck then thrusts a mirror toward Stephen, commanding him to look. We get our first sustained access to Stephen’s inner monologue: “Hair on end. As he and others see me. Who chose this face for me? This dogsbody to rid of vermin. It asks me too” (1.136-37). Stephen eventually offers a witticism, identifying the broken mirror as “a symbol for Irish art. The cracked lookingglass of a servant” (1.146). This symbolism reflects Joyce’s own “bitter” criticism and rejection of the early 20th century Irish literary movement as introspective, submissive, and self-pitying. Reminded of Stephen’s cleverness, Buck seeks to ingratiate himself to Stephen out of fear that he might end up victimized by Stephen’s depiction of him in a future work of literature. Too little, too late.
Hoping to alleviate the anxiety of their intellectual dueling and mutual distrust, Buck attempts to shift Stephen’s attention towards a common enemy, Haines, suggesting they “give [Haines] a ragging” (1.163), launching Stephen’s mind into the scene of Clive Kemphorpe’s hazing at school. Stephen, who detests cruelty and violence in all its forms, tells Buck to “let [Haines] stay.” He also seems to associate this noise with the phrases “to ourselves” (the Sinn Fein Irish independence movement), “new paganism” (an artistic movement) and “omphalos” (a Greek word explained by Stuart Gilbert to mean the center or navel of the earth, the “cord linking up the generations of mankind”).
In this context, Stephen thinks of the Martello Tower - which kind of resembles a belly button - as the omphalos of Buck’s Irish literary movement. He “free[s] his arm quietly” (1.182) in silent rejection of Buck’s appeals. Buck asks, “What have you against me now?” (1.180). Apparently, Stephen was offended when Buck answered his mother, when she had asked who was in the room, “O, it’s only Dedalus whose mother is beastly dead” (1.198-99). Buck “didn’t mean to offend the memory of [Stephen’s] mother” (1.214-15) and tries to explain, as a medical professional, his callous attitude toward death. But Buck has misunderstood Stephen, who is “not thinking of the offence to [his] mother” but rather “of the offence to [himself]” (1.218, 220). Here, I understand Stephen to be offended by Buck saying, “it’s only Dedalus” (emphasis mine), thus minimizing Stephen’s own importance. 🙄
Buck, echoing Claudius in Hamlet, then implores Stephen to “give up the moody brooding” before singing “Fergus’ Song” as he descends the “dark winding staircase” into the main room of the tower, leaving Stephen alone looking out on the sea. Stephen recalls singing “Fergus’ Song” at the request of his crying mother on her deathbed.
Take note that “a cloud began to cover the sun” (1.248) at around 8:15 am; we will see this same cloud in the “Calypso” episode, which also begins at 8:00 am but across town in the home of Mr. Leopold Bloom. We will use the term “parallax” to describe moments when the novel shows us the same object, person, or idea from different perspectives (more on that to come).
Stephen thinks of Turko the Terrible, a famous pantomime, and recalls again memories of his mother. He is haunted.
Buck calls up to Stephen that breakfast is ready, and Stephen announces that he will get paid this morning for his work as a teacher at Mr. Deasy’s school in Dalkey. Buck’s spirits rise as he foresees getting “glorious drunk” (1.297) on Stephen’s tab. Stephen notices that Buck has left his shaving bowl on the parapet, and he mulls over whether or not to carry it down to the main room of the tower or leave it as an emblem of their “forgotten friendship” (1.308). He decides to do Buck a favor, and this act of carrying the bowl of lather reminds him that he also “carried the boat of incense then at Clongowes” (1.311) in his schoolboy days. He contemplates his physical and spiritual development since those days, thinking “I am another now and yet the same” (1.311-12). Questions of the continuity of our character and discontinuity of our persons will arise a few times over the course of the day. Regardless of whether Stephen is the same as he was as a child, he remains a “server of a servant” (1.312); he serves Buck, a servant of Ireland, in turn a servant of England, just as he served the Clongowes priests, servants to Rome.
The narrator moves the reader into the “gloomy domed livingroom of the tower” (1.313) where Buck prepares breakfast for the three young men. Haines, the “tall figure” (1.319) sitting on the hammock, asks the whereabouts of the key to the tower, and Buck responds that “Dedalus has it” (1.323) because he pays the rent. Stephen unlocks and opens the door. Keys will feature throughout the novel as a prominent motif, signifying ownership and belonging.
Buck again parodies religious language in his mock blessing, and then curses when he realizes that “there’s no milk” (1.336) for his tea because the milkwoman, representing the nurturing of the Irish Motherland, has not yet delivered to the Tower. Buck demands that he, somewhat parochially, “wants Sandycove milk,” contrasting with Stephen’s suggestion that they use lemon to flavor their tea, representing his more worldly willingness to adopt foreign customs and culture. English Haines announces the arrival of the Irish Mother bringing milk, and after continuing his sacrilege, Buck parodies the “wheedling” voice of his own Irish Mother, saying “when I makes tea I makes tea, as old mother Grogan said. And when I makes water I makes water” (1.357-58). This parody provides a bit of scatological humor before Buck presents his Irish Mother to Haines as a curiosity for inclusion in his book on Irish culture. Buck seeks Stephen’s help in elevating mother Grogan’s tea to the sacred level of the Hindi texts of the Mabinogion and the Upanishads, but Stephen “gravely” (1.372) declines. Rather, he suggests that Mother Grogan more likely shares kinship with Mary Ann, a bawdy character from Irish folk songs. Buck is amused by this slight and, as he continues to slice bread, begins to sing a song featuring Mary Ann.
With imagery that alludes to Athena’s entrance in Book 1 of The Odyssey, the milkwoman enters the Tower, and we have access to Stephen’s thoughts; Homeric and Irish folk allusions abound in this vivid inner monologue. In “scornful silence” (1.418), his monologue continues to reveal his venom toward the Irish Mother’s preference for Buck over him. Stephen might feel vindication in the shortcomings of an Irish Mother who does not recognize the Irish language when she hears it. Certainly, there’s a touch of irony in Haines speaking Irish; his opinion that they “ought to speak Irish in Ireland” hints of tokenism.
Buck pays the majority of the milk bill and implores Stephen to hurry back with money from the school; he parodies a slogan of Irish nationalism in anticipation of the drunken revelry to come. Haines indicates his intention to visit the National Library, which he will do in the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode later in the novel.
Buck plans a morning swim in Forty Foot bathing area just beside the Tower, but Stephen, a hydrophobe, “the unclean bard,” washes only once a month, claiming that “all Ireland is washed by the gulfstream” (1.476). Stephen’s hydrophobia may reflect his rejection of his baptism. It also builds upon the sea/mother/Ireland/control association: he rebels against washing just as he rebels against his mother, his church, and his nation. But it’s also just kinda gross.
Haines, who expressed no interest in Buck’s offer of “five lines of text and ten pages of notes about the folk and the fishgods of Dundrum” (1.365-6), explains that he “intend[s] to make a collection of [Stephen’s] sayings” (1.480). Stephen’s inner response to Haines’s offer suggests that the English “wash and tub and scrub” to rid themselves of the guilt they feel for their historic oppression of the Irish. He thinks of “Agenbite of inwit” (1.481), the Middle English phrase for remorse of conscience, and his next thought, “Yet here’s a spot” (1.482), alludes to Lady Macbeth’s subconscious guilt over her murderous deeds. In short, Stephen uses centuries-old versions of his oppressor’s language to imply the longevity of Irish subjugation to the English, even as Haines confronts his colonial guilt by seeking to educate himself on all things Irish.
With a covert kick under the table, Buck hypes Stephen’s theory about Hamlet, hoping that Stephen will play along. Rather rudely, Stephen ask if he would profit financially from contributing to Haines’s collection. Awkwardly, Haines is put off by Stephen’s direct solicitation, and Buck disapproves of Stephen’s reluctance to “play” (1.506) the English for money, but Stephen contends that “the problem is to get money. From whom? From the milkwoman or from him. It’s a toss up, I think” (1.497-98). He sees poor Ireland and wealthy England as his only potential sources of patronage, yet he “see[s] little hope” (1.501) from either. Buck offers himself as a source of income, implying that Stephen could take a prominent place in the Irish Renaissance literary movement of which Buck is a member and which Stephen largely rejects. Buck, by enticing Stephen to betray himself, corresponds to Antinous in The Odyssey and the Biblical temptation of Christ.
In anticipation of his bath in Forty Foot, “Mulligan is stripped of his garments” (1.510) (an allusion to the Stations of the Cross), and Stephen prepares to walk to his teaching job in Dalkey by putting on his wide brimmed “Latin quarter hat,” “taking his ashplant” walking cane, and dropping “the huge key in his inner pocket” (1.530). They descend the ladder to the ground and, walking to the water, Haines inquires about the Tower. Buck explains that they were built by the English to defend the coast against an anticipated Napoleonic invasion; he also claims that that their Tower is “the omphalos,” meaning both the architectural source for the other towers designed by Billy Pitt and the artistic center of the secular Irish literary movement.
Haines comments that the Tower and the rocky coast of Sandycove remind him of Elsinore (the setting for much of Shakespeare’s Hamlet) and presses Stephen on his Hamlet theory, but Buck claims to need “a few pints” (1.548) before he can listen to the absurd complexity of Stephen’s argument: “He proves by algebra that Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father” (1.555-56). Baffled, Haines offers halting comments on Hamlet, receiving no reply from Stephen, and tosses out “a theological interpretation” of the play, “the Father and Son idea. The Son striving to be atoned with the Father” (1.577-78), thus adding the flavor of divinity to the theme of father-son consubstantiality. These ideas seem inadequate here, but they will resonate in the “Scylla & Charybdis” episode when Stephen finally delivers his Hamlet lecture.
Buck recites his blasphemous “Ballad of Joking Jesus” as he “caper[s]” (1.600) down to the water. Haines laughs at Buck’s clowning but, now walking alone with Stephen, checks himself. He attempts to engage Stephen on questions of faith, but Stephen intellectually toys with Haines in a manner similar to Hamlet’s manipulation of Polonius.
Haines removes from his pocket “a smooth silver case in which twinkled a green stone” (1.615-16) which may symbolize emerald Ireland as a charming trinket in England’s possession. Still, Stephen accepts the cigarette Haines has offered.
Stephen’s silent monologue imagines Buck and Haines returning to the Tower in the dark tonight and preciently foresees Buck asking for the key. Stephen claims legitimate possession because he paid the rent.
You have to admire Haines’s persistence in trying to engage Stephen, who is more-or-less ignoring him. However, Stephen realizes that his “grim displeasure” for the Englishman might be exaggerated as he sees that naïve but well-intentioned Haines is “not all unkind” (1.635). As a result, Stephen softens his defensive posture and explains that he serves “two masters, … an English and an Italian” – the British Empire and the Roman Catholic Church – “and a third [Ireland]… who wants [him] for odd jobs” (1.638, 641). Haines, expressing his English guilt while avoiding personal responsibility, says that “we feel in England that we have treated you rather unfairly. It seems history is to blame” (1.648-49).
The reference to “history” sends Stephen’s mind, which was already spinning with Christian theology, into thoughts of Church history, particularly its engagement of the controversy and various heresies surrounding the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son. Stephen notes the connection between these tidbits of Church history and the “words Mulligan had spoken a moment since” (1.660-61) when he mocked Stephen’s Hamlet theory regarding father-son consubstantiality.
Stephen is brought down from the elevated plane of his inner consciousness to the base plane of Haines’s anti-Semitism. His fear of the influence of “German jews” (1.667) establishes the hostile environment in which Mr. Bloom, the son of a Jewish immigrant, lives.
They walk past two men looking out at the bay and discussing the man who drowned nine days ago and whose corpse is expected to come in with the afternoon tide. Stephen imagines the scene of the “swollen bundle” (1.676) appearing on shore. They make it to the bathing area, where a young man carefully navigates the rocks “frogwise” (1.680) and an old man pops out of the water.
Mulligan knows the unnamed young man, and they share the latest news from their buddy, Bannon, who has a new romantic interest, a “sweet young thing … photo girl” (1.685) (by parallax, we will soon learn the identity of this girl). They also discuss Seymour, another friend, who has changed his career from medicine to military and is apparently involved with a rich red-headed girl. The misogynistic stereotype that “redheaded women buck like goats” (1.706) establishes the beastly tone of male sexuality and the objectification of women.
Buck references Nietzsche and strips down. The young man in the water does the backstoke. Haines smokes. Stephen begins to leave, but Buck calls him back, issuing a command: “Give us that key, Kinch.” However, he veils his aggression with a practical purpose for this demand: “to keep my chemise flat” (1.721). Stephen, despite his earlier assertion that “it is mine, I paid the rent,” relinquishes his ownership of the Tower by laying the key across Buck’s shirt. Perhaps emboldened, Buck also demands money “for a pint,” and Stephen again obliges. Haines bids Stephen farewell, and Buck and Stephen agree to meet at The Ship, a pub, at 12:30.
As Stephen begins his walk south to Mr. Deasy’s school, three chimes of a local church ring out to signify that the time is now 8:45. With each chime, Stephen mentally recites one line from the Latin deathbed prayer recalled earlier in the episode; the Latin translates to “May the glittering throng of confessors, bright as lilies, gather about you. May the glorious choir of virgins receive you.” Again, he is haunted by the memory of his mother’s death.
Keyless Stephen, inclining himself to self-imposed exile, realizes that he “will not sleep here tonight. Home also [he] cannot go” (1.740). Buck calls to him from the water, and Stephen waves in reply. Silently, though, he condemns Buck as a “usurper” (1.743).