Episode 1: Telemachus


The first episode of Ulysses narrates the activities of Stephen Dedalus from 8:00 am to roughly 8:45 am on the morning of June 16th, 1904.  In April, Stephen returned to Dublin from Paris after receiving a telegraph from his father, Simon, which read “MOTHER DYING COME HOME FATHER.”  Mrs. Dedalus has since passed away, and Stephen currently resides in the Martello Tower with two other young men: Buck Mulligan, an ambitious, blasphemous, and aggressively jocular Trinity Medical student frienemy, and a naïve but probably well-meaning Oxford Brit named Haines.  

At the outset of the novel, Buck parodies the Roman Catholic Mass while shaving on the rooftop parapet of the tower.  Buck’s parody of the Mass acquires further iconographical significance with the association of the religious imagery of the cross (“mirror and a razor lay crossed”) and chalice (“bowl of lather”).  Thus, the everyday act of shaving acquires spiritual significance, even if depicted in a mocking posture.  

The Martello Tower in Sandycove

The Martello Tower in Sandycove

Mulligan “blessed gravely thrice the tower, the surrounding country and the awaking mountains,” thereby elevating the Martello Tower, the nation of Ireland, and the city of Dublin into a cosmic realm.  This sentence also demonstrates Joyce’s playfulness with prosody as he employs iambic meter and rolling consonant sounds of “blessed gravely thrice the tower.”  Joyce characterizes Buck with the diction of “plump,” “ungirdled,” “coarse,” and “mount,” all of which have negative connotations, many of which hint toward animals and beasts.  

The parapet of Martello Tower, where Buck begins the novel.

The parapet of Martello Tower, where Buck begins the novel.

This depiction continues as Stephen is “displeased” by the “shaking gurgling face” of Mulligan. Buck’s associations with “equine” and “oak” suggest specific animal: a wooden horse (Odysseus’s treacherous Trojan Horse?).  Joyce makes another classical allusion in his characterization of Buck as “Chrysostomos,” the golden-mouthed Greek rhetorician.

Taken together, the first page of Ulysses presents Buck Mulligan’s character as blasphemous, beastly, and distrusted while establishing Christianity and Antiquity as two central sources of the novel’s dense web of allusions.

The "dark winding stair" of the tower

The "dark winding stair" of the tower

Buck instigates an interaction with Stephen, calling down “the dark winding stairs” of the tower for Stephen, who is just waking up. Buck applies a few labels to Stephen: “Kinch” the “fearful jesuit.”  Stephen’s silence and passivity allow Buck to define Stephen here at the outset of the novel.  “Kinch, the knife-blade,” reflects Stephen’s sharp mind, yet I have also heard somewhere that “kinch” is a slang term for a boy who runs errands for prostitutes in a brothel. Buck’s statement that Stephen is “fearful” exposes Stephen’s deep-rooted concern for the state of his soul - in A Portrait, Stephen abandoned his once devout Catholic faith in favor of a life of spiritual freedom and artistic creation.  Buck further modifies “jesuit” with a second adjective on the next page, “jejune,” which means immature, sophomoric, deficient, and dull.  In short, Buck needles Stephen.

In addition to Buck’s name-calling, he also mentions the “absurd[ity]” of Stephen’s actual name, Dedalus, “an ancient Greek,” which alludes to Daedalus, the mythological figure who created wings out of feathers and wax, and derives from the ancient Greek word “daidolos” which means “cunningly wrought.”  

Remember that at the end of A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man Stephen made a few proclamations. Among them, he stated:

             I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my

              fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as

              freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself

              to use – silence, exile, and cunning. (Portrait 208)

We see that Stephen employs these “arms” as he spars with Buck (representative of the Irish “fatherland”) and, later, Haines (representative of domineering English imperialism).

Stephen offers his first words in the form of a command (“Tell me, Mulligan”) followed by a passive-aggression (“How long is Haines going to stay in this tower?”).  That the command comes “quietly” reflects the “silence” element of Stephen’s “defense.”  He threatens self-imposed “exile” by initially claiming that “if [Haines] stays on here I am off.”

We should ask ourselves whether we find Stephen’s battle tactics heroic.  Stephen himself first indicates that he is “not a hero” because he does not “save men from drowning” as Buck has done, but we should avoid agreeing with him too readily.  Labeling hastily (in the manner of Buck Mulligan) would disallow the opportunity to learn about the complexities of Stephen's character.  We, like Haines, “can’t make [Stephen] out” until we acquire more information regarding his thoughts and behavior.  We need to spend a full day with Stephen, and later Bloom, before we can pass judgment on whether either is a hero or an anti-hero, and evidence abounds for each side of the argument.

The "snotgreen sea" as seen from atop Martello Tower.

The "snotgreen sea" as seen from atop Martello Tower.

Joyce continues to use Buck as the vehicle for action as he borrows “the bard’s noserag” and mock-elevates it as a “new art colour for our Irish poets: snotgreen.”  This adjective carries into a description of “the snotgreen sea,” which itself acquires symbolic associations with Ireland personified as “a grey sweet mother.”  This metaphor leads to thoughts of Stephen’s late mother, for whom he “refused” to kneel down and pray (recall his proclamation in A Portrait).  Buck condemns this act despite his own professed “hyperborean” non-conformity, and he attempts to pin the label “sinister” to Stephen.  This diction connotes Lucifer, the proud angel who refused to serve God by saying “non servium.

Stephen’s subconscious remains haunted by the guilt he carries from his behavior towards his dying mother.  We see and smell Stephen’s horrific dream of the ghost of his mother, then we return to Joyce’s narrative description of the view and words spoken atop the tower, followed by a plunge back into the mind of Stephen, who continues to think of his mother’s deathbed in a naturalistic manner: “the green sluggish bile which she had torn up from her rotting liver by fits of loud groaning vomiting.”

This paragraph initiates us into Joyce’s revolutionary narrative technique whereby he quickly shifts from Stephen’s inner-monologue remembering a subconscious event into a detailed third person description of Stephen’s posture and attire atop the tower, and then shifts again into a naturalistic recollection of a conscious experience.  Furthermore, his mind follows associative threads through each mode of thinking – mother, sea, green, drowning, death, etc.            

We begin to understand the elusiveness of Stephen’s character as Buck once again applies a label, “poor dogsbody,” which colloquially refers to one who performs oddjobs.  Buck shows concern for Stephen’s dismal financial circumstances by offering to give him a pair of grey trousers, but Stephen declines because he feels he must wear black in mourning of his mother’s death.  This desire to outwardly display his inward mourning of a parent represents the first of many correspondences between Stephen and Hamlet.  In response to Stephen’s “etiquette,” Buck diagnoses Stephen as having “general paralysis of the insane” and laughs unto the “sunlight now radiant on the sea” before mockingly asking Stephen to “look at yourself, you dreadful bard.”  

Stephen acquiesces to Buck’s command, “peer[ing] at the mirror held out to him, cleft by a crooked crack, hair on end.”  Stephen finds abstract meaning in this object as “a symbol of Irish art.  The cracked lookingglass of a servant.”  This symbolism reflects Joyce’s own “bitter” criticism and rejection of the early 20th century Irish literary movement as introspective, submissive, and self-pitying.

Buck, again the active character, instigates the first physical contact of the novel by “suddenly link[ing] his arm in Stephen’s.”  This act reminds Stephen of “Cranly’s arm” from the end of the narrative in A Portrait.  Buck then compliments Stephen, saying he has “more spirit than any of them,” but Stephen’s silent monologue recognizes this flattery as a defensive maneuver by Buck for “fear” of the attack of Stephen’s “cold steelpen” just as he “fear[s] that of his.”  Thus, a tense dynamic of intellectual dueling, cohabitation, and mutual fear emerges.  Buck proposes a truce by turning their attention towards a common enemy, Haines, the “oxy chap downstairs,” and by proposing that he and Stephen “work together” to “Hellenise” Ireland.  Buck claims to be “the only one that knows what [Stephen is],” which is ironic given the difficulty Buck has had in labeling Stephen, and he wants to know why Stephen doesn’t “trust [him] more.”  He offers to “give [Haines] a ragging,” which launches Stephen’s mind’s eye into the horrible memory of watching Clive Kemphorpe’s hazing at school.  Stephen detests cruelty and violence and consequently tells Buck to “let [Haines] stay.”

This passage also introduces the idea of the “omphalos,” a trope that reappears throughout the novel.  Stuart Gilbert explains that the “omphalos” refers to the “central point,” the navel of the earth, the “cord linking up the generations of mankind,” and in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey it “signifies a round protuberance, a swelling,”[i] not unlike the Martello Tower in which they live.  Gifford also points out that some late-nineteenth-century Theosophists contemplated the omphalos variously as the place of the “astral soul of man,” the center of self-consciousness and the source of poetic and prophetic inspiration.

In this context, Stephen thinks of the Martello tower as the omphalos of Buck’s Irish literary movement.  Stephen, though, “free[s] his arm quietly” in silent rejection of Buck’s movement, and he offers to explain his dislike for Mulligan.  Buck pontificates on the omnipresence of death and curses the “absurd,” “beastly” behavior of Stephen towards his dieing mother, which leaves “gaping wounds … in [Stephen’s] heart.”  Buck, like the usurping uncle 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.  Stephen, who has a beautiful tenor singing voice, sang this very song, coincidentally enough, at the request of his crying mother on her deathbed.

In terms of Joyce’s strategies, be sure to take notice of the appearance of a “cloud” which “cover[s] the sun slowly, shadowing the bay in deeper green,” and be on the lookout for its return elsewhere in the novel.  Similarly, the motif of “Turko the terrible” shall feature prominently in the mind of Mr. Bloom, and its appearance here demonstrates the mental consubstantiality of father and son, Ulysses and Telemachus.  Also, notice the first instance of a repetition as Stephen again recalls the haunting dream of his mother before building on the memory of her final moments, “her eyes on me to strike me down.”  Take note of the prayer intoned by the others: “Liliata rutilantium te confessorum turma cicumdet: iubilantium te virginum chorus excipiat.”  This prayer, too, will return to Stephen’s mind at certain points in the day.  The mental image causes Stephen to “tremble at his soul’s cry.”  By saying, “No mother.  Let me be and let me live,” he expresses his wish to be free of his mother and the haunting guilt that accompanies her memory.

Completely unaware of Stephen’s spiritual agony, Buck again raises the idea of “touching” Haines for some money in exchange for Stephen’s ideas, and Stephen points out that he will “get paid this morning” for his work as a “dogsbody” teacher (he teaches history, math, and literature) at Mr. Deasy’s School.  Buck’s spirits rise as he foresees getting “glorious drunk” on “whiskey, beer, and wine” with Stephen’s money.  Stephen sees that Buck has “forgotten” his shaving bowl, and he mulls over whether or not to “bring it down” to the main room of the tower or “leave it there all day.”  He decides to do Buck a favor, and this act of carrying the bowl of lather reminds him of “carr[ying] the boat of incense then at Clongowes,” the school he attended as a boy.  He contemplates his physical and spiritual development since those days, thinking “I am another now and yet the same” in that he remains a “server of a servant.”  He refers now to serving Buck, a servant of Ireland, just as he served the Clongowes priests, servants to Rome.   

The "gloomy domed livingroom of the tower"

The "gloomy domed livingroom of the tower"

The narrator moves the reader into the “gloomy domed livingroom of the tower” where Buck prepares breakfast for the three young men.    Haines, the “tall figure” sitting on the hammock, asks regarding the whereabouts of “the key” to the tower, and Buck responds that “Dedalus has it” because he pays the rent.  Joyce applies detailed attention to the action of the key, a trope that will acquire great significance, as it “scrape[s] round harshly twice and, when the heavy door had been set ajar, welcome light and bright air entered.”

Buck again parodies religious language in his mock blessing, and then curses upon realizing that “there’s no milk” because the milkwoman hasn’t come yet.  She represents Ireland and the nurturing of Irish Motherhood as Buck demands that he “wants Sandycove milk.”  His desire for a local Irish Mother contrasts with Stephen’s willingness to accept the customs and culture of another place, Paris.  British 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.”  This parody provides a bit of humor before Buck peddles his Irish Mother to the English.  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” declines.  Rather, he “imagines” that Mother Grogan more likely shares kinship with Mary Ann, a bawdy character from Irish folk songs.          

Haines's hammock and the living space of the Tower

Haines's hammock and the living space of the Tower

The milkwoman “darken[s]” the doorway as she enters the tower, and Stephen’s silent monologue begins with “not hers” and continues until Buck responds to her “praise [of] the goodness of the milk” by saying, “It is indeed, ma’am.”  Homeric allusions abound in the silent monologue, and we should appreciate the poetry of the language that streams through Stephen’s consciousness.  In “scornful silence,” his monologue resumes to reveal his venomous response to the Irish Mother’s preference for “loud” Buck.  Stephen might find vindication in the shortcomings of an Irish Mother who does not recognize the Irish language when she hears it.  Of course, there’s a touch of irony in that Haines speaks “confident” Irish, and his opinion that they “ought to speak Irish in Ireland” hints of tokenism.

Buck pays the majority of the bill, implores Stephen to hurry back with money from the school, and parodies a slogan of Irish nationalism in anticipation of the drunken revelry to come.  Haines indicates his intention to visit the national library, which foreshadows the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode of the novel.  Buck wants to go for a swim in Forty Foot bathing area, but Stephen, “the unclean bard,” washes only once a month, claiming that “all Ireland is washed by the gulfstream.”  Stephen’s hydrophobia builds upon the sea-mother-control trope: he rebels against washing just as he rebels against his mother, his church, and his nation.

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,” explains that he “intend[s] to make a collection of [Stephen’s] sayings.”  Stephen thinks of “Agenbite of inwit,” the Middle English phrase for “remorse of conscience,” and his next thought, “Yet here’s a spot,” quotes Lady Macbeth’s subconscious conscience.  That he alludes to guilt in both Middle English and Shakespearean English lends itself to Stephen’s view that the people of England “wash and tub and scrub” to rid themselves of the guilt they feel for their historic oppression of the Irish.  Haines confronts this guilt by seeking to educate himself on all things Irish.

Stephen rudely responds to Haines’s inquiry by asking if he would profit from contributing to Haines’s collection.  With “course vigour,” Buck disapproves of Stephen’s “lousy leer[ing]” reluctance to “play” 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.”  He sees “poor old” Ireland and wealthy, guilty England as his only potential sources of patronage, and he “see[s] little hope” from either.  Buck answers Stephen’s question of “From whom” by saying “from me,” implying that Stephen could take a prominent place in Buck’s Irish Renaissance movement.  Buck’s offer corresponds to the suitors in The Odyssey and the Biblical temptations of Christ.

Stephen's ashplant

Stephen's ashplant

As “Mulligan is stripped of his garments” (a blasphemous allusion to the Stations of the Cross), Stephen prepares to walk to his teaching job in Dalkey by putting on his “Latin quarter hat,” “taking his ashplant” walking stick, and dropping “the huge key in his inner pocket.”  Haines asks about the tower, so Buck tells him that theirs is “the omphalos,” meaning both the architectural source of the other towers constructed by Billy Pitt and the artistic center of the secular Irish literary movement.

Commenting that the Tower and the rocky coast of Sandycove remind Haines of Elsinore (the setting for much of Shakespeare’s Hamlet), Haines presses Stephen on his Hamlet theory, but Buck claims need of “a few pints” 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.”  In essence, Stephen’s Hamlet theory engages themes of paternity and creation.  Haines tosses out “a theological interpretation” of Hamlet, “the Father and Son idea.  The Son striving to be atoned with the Father,” which adds the flavor of divinity to the theme of father-son consubstantiality (at-one-ment).  Buck furthers this trope by calling Stephen “Japhet in search of a father!”.  Stephen, who struggles to free himself from his guilt-ridden impulses towards his mother, must shift his thinking, a la Telemachus and Hamlet, towards the search for a father.  

Forty Foot bathing area beneath the Martello Tower

Forty Foot bathing area beneath the Martello Tower

Buck recites his blasphemous ballad of Joking Jesus, which puns on the transformation of water into wine into water (urine).  Stephen’s silent monologue foresees that Buck wants that key to the tower and will ask for it.  Stephen claims legitimate possession because he paid the rent.

 Haines, still probing Stephen, attempts to engage him in the typical twentieth century atheistic discussion, but Stephen intellectually toys with him 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,” which may metaphorically reduce emerald Ireland to a charming trinket in England’s possession.  However, Stephen accepts the cigarette Haines has offered and realizes that his “grim displeasure” against the Englishman might be exaggerated as he sees that naïve but well-intentioned Haines is “not all unkind.”  As a result, Stephen relaxes his defensive stance and explains that he serves “two masters, … an English and an Italian” – the British Empire and the Roman Catholic Church – “and a third … who wants [him] for odd jobs,” Ireland, who uses Stephen as a “dogsbody” servant.  Haines, expressing his English guilt (but avoiding responsibility), says that “we feel in England that we have treated you rather unfairly.  It seems history is to blame.”

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 surrounding the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son.  He quotes in Latin from the last section of the Nicene Creed, a prayer which contains the phrase “being of one substance with the Father” and was written in 325 to establish an official set of Christian beliefs.  He also references the “Symbol of the apostles,” the Apostles’ Creed.  Due to his musical bent, Stephen’s mind pivots toward the history of music and the Church.  

He references the Italian composer Palestrina’s 1565 “mass for pope Marcellus” which parallels the Apostles’ Creed.  Stephen would be familiar with this composition because it was first performed in Dublin in 1898.  

He then thinks of the Catholic church’s invocation of the Archangel Michael against the heresy of the Protestant Reformation, which culminated in the Catholic Reformation’s Council of Trent (1545-63).  Stephen then thinks of “Photius and the brood of mockers of whom Mulligan was one,” which places Buck in the company of a man regarded by the Roman church as “one of its worst enemies.”

Stephen also links Buck with Arius, another heretic who taught that Christ was God’s first creation, that God created him out of nothing; and then Christ created the Holy Spirit; and the Holy Spirit created our world.  Thus Christ is God’s first creation and inferior to God; and the Holy Spirit, as Christ’s creation, is inferior to Christ.  The first Council of Nicaea in 325 CE used the term consubstantial to underscore the equality of the three persons of the Trinity in refutation of Arius’s speculations.

Stephen notes the connection between these tidbits of Church history and the “words Mulligan had spoken a moment since” when he mocked Stephen’s Hamlet theory regarding father-son consubstantiality.  Stephen invokes Michael’s wrath against Buck, a heretic against both Stephen’s “rare thoughts” and, as we’ve seen throughout the episode, the church.

This damning of Buck to “the void” assumes a sacred divinity of Stephen’s mind.  To support this, the narrator refers to his “thoughts” as “a chemistry of stars,” which alludes to Joyce’s contemporaries’ fascination with Alchemy and its belief in the transmutation of the physical into the spiritual.  Just as Joyce’s art seeks to elevate the details of everyday existence into a spiritual dimension, the author also intends to place his own mind on a similar plane of cosmic significance.          

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” establishes the hostility towards the people of Mr. Bloom’s ethnic heritage.

Stephen creates a mental image of the “swollen bundle” of a drowned man expected to arrive to shore with the afternoon tide.

Haines and Mulligan share the latest news on their mutual friends. One buddy, Bannon, has a new romantic interest, a “sweet young thing … photo girl” (the identity of this girl will soon be revealed). Seymour, another friend, 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” establishes the beastly tone of male sexuality and the objectification of women.

View of the Tower from the water

View of the Tower from the water

Buck issues a command, “Give us that key, Kinch,” but he veils his aggression with a practical purpose, “to keep my chemise flat.”  Stephen, despite his earlier assertion that “it is mine, I paid the rent,” relinquishes his mode of entry to the tower.  Before “plung[ing]” his “plump body” into the water, Buck demands money “for a pint,” and Stephen again obliges the “usurper.”  They make plans to meet at The Ship, a pub, at 12:30, and Stephen begins his walk to Deasy’s School.    

As Stephen leaves, three chimes of a local church ring out to signify that the time is now 8:45.  With each chime, Stephen mentally recites one phrase from the deathbed prayer recalled earlier in the episode.  Keyless Stephen realizes that he “will not sleep here tonight.  Home also [he] cannot go.”  

Subject to self-imposed exile, Stephen begins his day of wandering through Dublin.