Episode 3: Proteus
Dense, erudite, and consisting almost entirely of Stephen’s stream-of-consciousness, “Proteus” is where most first-time readers of Ulysses throw in the towel. Don’t.
Sure, even the most robust Joyce scholar could spend an entire career reading deeply in this episode, but you needn’t get bogged down if you don’t want to. Here, I’ll give you what you need to move you through to meeting Mr. Bloom in the next episode. Of course, if you like Aristotle, aesthetic theory, and Stephen’s mind, pull out the Gifford and have at it! If not, here we go:
The time is 11 am. Stephen has taken a tram from Dalkey, where Mr. Deasy’s School is located, and gotten off at Sandymount, a lovely bayside suburb. We are now north of the Martello Tower in Sandycove but still south of the heart of Dublin. Stephen has walked from the tram station to Sandymount Strand, where we join him.
Stephen opens the monologue with queries into how the senses experience and interpret reality. He begins with Aristotle’s ideas on sight and color, then closes his eyes and ponders sound, time, and space. He opens his eyes again and sees midwives coming down the stairs from the street level to the strand. He contemplates his own birth and imagines that one of the women has in her bag a dead foetus with its umbilical cord, prompting him to reconsider the omphalos idea from the opening episode. He imagines the cords linking everyone back to Adam and Eve, as if to a telephone operator.
Stephen then contemplates his own parentage and creation, leading him to the Christian theological notion of Father-Son consubstantiality and then again to the heretic Arius (linked in Stephen’s thoughts to Buck Mulligan in “Telemachus”).
The world of reality, in the form of wind, asserts itself (even if laden with an allusion to Hamlet), and Stephen reminds himself of his promise to submit Mr. Deasy’s foot and mouth disease letter to the newspaper and his plan to meet Buck at The Ship at 12:30. He mocks his own irresponsibility with money.
Stephen then slows his walk to decide if he is going to pop into his Aunt Sara and Uncle Richie Goulding’s house for a visit. He then imagines his father Simon’s reaction to hearing that Stephen has visited his in-laws, involving Simon’s mocking parody of Uncle Richie’s stammer (“And and and and tell us, Stephen, how is Uncle Si?” (3.64-65)). Stephen then paints a vignette of his imagined arrival and warm welcome in the Goulding home.
Stephen’s attention returns to the present, and he seems to prefer it to the imagined future, saying “This wind is sweeter” (3.104). He laments the many “houses of decay” (3.105) in his life, and chastises himself for the lies he told his Clongowes School-mates about his family. He goes on to mock himself for his pious phase, his sins of simony, his misogyny, his literary pretensions, and his delusions of grandeur. While he may be feeling the sting of his failure to achieve the lofty goals he set for himself at the end of Portrait (“to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” (P xx)), we have to feel that Stephen is hard on himself.
He returns again to the physical present as he moves from sand to the “crackling mast, razorshells” (3.147-8) of the tideline, then stops, realizing he has, in his distracted thoughts, already “passed the way to aunt Sara’s” (3.158). Oh well.
He thinks about Irish expatriates in Paris and mocks his own cosmopolitanism in his Latin quarter hat and casual mentionings of his time in the City of Light. He reveals a measure of paranoia in carrying a punched ticket as an alibi if he was arrested on suspicion of murder there. Stephen continues to castigate himself for not accomplishing his stated goals in Paris, then shamefully remembers pretending not to speak English in order to avoid tipping the porter upon his arrival back in Dublin. He paints a Paris morning scene and again thinks of Kevin Egan and his son Patrick, Irish revolutionaries in exile, and snippets of their conversations together.
He reaches the soft sand at the edge of the water, turns around to face south, and imagines the interior scene of the Tower. Knowing that Buck now “has the key,” Stephen resolves, “I will not sleep there when this night comes” (3.276). Thus, he finds himself exiled.
He climbs and sits upon a rock and notices a dead dog carcass nearby. Then, a live dog named Tatters, accompanying two cocklepickers, comes along the strand, spurring Stephen’s panic (he and Joyce both are cynophobic). He decides to sit still and respect the creature’s right to liberty. He thinks of Viking invaders on these shores, then compares Buck Mulligan’s courage (“He saved men from drowning”) to his own cowardice (“and you shake at a cur’s yelping”)(3.317-18). Despite this unfavorable comparison, Stephen affirms that “I want his life still to be his, mine to be mine” (3.327-28). Nevertheless, he remains haunted by the memory of his mother.
We follow Tatters’s jaunty fun on the beach for a few paragraphs, and then Stephen’s inner monologue remembers his dream from the previous night:
After he woke me last night same dream or was it? Wait. Open hallway. Street of harlots.
Remember. Haroun al Raschid. I am almosting it. That man led me, spoke. I was not
afraid. The melon he had he held against my face. Smiled: creamfruit smell. That was the
rule, said. In. Come. Red carpet spread. You will see who. (3.365-69)
This passage, in addition to expressing the way we can and can’t quite remember our dreams, foreshadows Stephen’s encounter with Mr. Bloom late this night. Haroun al Raschid was a Persian King who, among other things, walked in disguise amongst his subjects. As for the remainder of the passage, “you will see” how Stephen’s prophetic dream plays out in the later episodes of the novel. The encounter between these two wandering exiles is absolutely worth the reader’s work here in “Proteus” and all the rest that lies ahead.
Tatters’s owners pass with a sidewards glance at Stephen’s “Hamlet hat” (3.390), a metonymy of his correspondence with Hamlet as well as his cosmopolitanism (which Stephen mocked earlier in the episode) and, later, his fall. Stephen then composes some poetry in his head and searches his pockets for some paper. Realizing he has twice forgotten to take slips from the library, he tears off the bottom of Deasy’s foot and mouth disease letter and uses that to work out a few lines of verse (about a romantic encounter between a woman and a vampire?).
Then we get a rather poignant paragraph: “Touch me. Soft eyes. Soft soft soft hand. I am lonely here. O, touch me soon, now. What is that word known to all men? I am quiet here alone. Sad too. Touch, touch me” (3.434-36). I personally struggle to identify the voice of this passage with any degree of certainty. I used to think that it was Stephen himself expressing his vulnerability, loneliness, and deep desire for companionship and love (the “word known to all men”). Recently, I’ve read it as part of the poem he is composing. It’s hard to attribute this one for sure, but the very next paragraph clearly begins in the narrator’s voice (“He lay back at full stretch over the sharp rocks” (3.437) but shifts quickly to Stephen’s inner monologue (“That is Kevin Egan’s movement I made” (3.439).
Stephen sings a snippet of “Fergus’s Song” and looks at his boots (Buck’s hand-me-downs) and, in a wonderful synecdoche, reflects that they once held a “foot I dislove” (3.448-49). He then takes a piss.
He imagines the scene of the drowned man being pulled from the water, expected this afternoon. His mind wanders from The Tempest to Proteus to Lucifer to Ophelia before noting that next Tuesday will be the Summer Solstice. He notes that his teeth are in poor shape and momentarily considers using this morning’s pay from Mr. Deasy for a visit to a dentist. That’s not going to happen.
He picks his nose and leaves the booger on a rock, then has a moment of self-consciousness and peeks over his shoulder to see if anyone saw. No, but he does see a tall ship with “crosstrees” (3.504), Christological imagery portending crucifixion.
This ship, like Stephen, is due in Dublin.