Ulysses – Episode One: “Telemachus”

It is around 8:00 in the morning,
and Buck Mulligan, performing a mock mass with his shaving bowl,
calls Stephen Dedalus up to the roof of the Martello tower overlooking
Dublin bay. Stephen is unresponsive to Buck’s aggressive joking—he
is annoyed about Haines, the Englishman whom Buck has invited to
stay in the tower. Stephen was awakened during the night by Haines’s
moaning about a nightmare involving a black panther.
Mulligan and Stephen look out over the sea, which Buck
refers to as a great mother. This reminds Mulligan of his aunt’s
grudge against Stephen for Stephen’s refusal to pray at his own
mother’s deathbed. Stephen, who is still dressed in mourning, looks
at the sea and thinks of his mother’s death, as Buck mocks Stephen
for his second-hand clothes and dirty appearance. Buck holds out
a cracked mirror for Stephen to see himself in. Stephen staves off
Buck’s condescension by suggesting that such a “cracked lookingglass
of a servant” could serve as a symbol for Irish art. Buck puts a
conciliatory arm around Stephen and suggests that together, they
could make Ireland as cultured as Greece once was. Buck offers to
terrorize Haines if he annoys Stephen further and Stephen remembers
Buck’s “ragging” of one of their classmates, Clive Kempthorpe.
Buck asks Stephen about his quiet brooding, and Stephen
finally admits to his own grudge against Buck—months ago, Stephen
overheard Buck referring to his mother as “beastly dead.” Buck tries
to defend himself, then gives up and urges Stephen to stop brooding over
his own pride.
Buck goes down into the tower singing, unknowingly, the
song that Stephen sang to his dying mother. Stephen feels as though
he is haunted by his dead mother or the memory of her. Buck calls Stephen
downstairs for breakfast. He encourages Stephen to ask Haines, who
is impressed with Stephen’s Irish wit, for money, but Stephen refuses.
Stephen goes down to the kitchen and helps Buck serve breakfast.
Haines announces that the milk woman is approaching. Buck makes
a joke about “old mother Grogan” making tea and making water (urine),
and encourages Haines to use it for a book of Irish folk life.
The milk woman enters, and Stephen imagines her as a
symbol of Ireland. Stephen is silently bitter that the milk woman
respects Buck, a medical student, more than him. Haines speaks Irish
to her, but she does not understand and thinks he is speaking French.
Buck pays her and she leaves.
Haines announces his desire to make a book of Stephen’s
sayings, but Stephen asks if he would make money off it. Haines
walks outside, and Buck scolds Stephen for being rude and ruining
their chances of getting drinking money from Haines. Buck dresses
and the three men walk down toward the water. On the way, Stephen explains
that he rents the tower from the secretary of state for war. Haines
asks Stephen about his Hamlet theory, but Buck insists it wait until
they have drinks later. Haines explains that their Martello tower
reminds him of Hamlet’s El-sinore. Buck interrupts Haines to run
ahead, dancing and singing “The Ballad of Joking Jesus.” Haines
and Stephen walk together. As Haines talks, Stephen anticipates
that Buck will ask Stephen for the key to the tower—the tower for
which Stephen pays the rent. Haines questions Stephen about his religious
beliefs. Stephen explains that two masters, England and the Catholic
Church, stand in the way of his free-thinking, and a third master,
Ireland, wants him for “odd jobs.” Trying to be conciliatory about
Irish servitude to the British, Haines weakly offers, “It seems
history is to blame.” Haines and Stephen stand overlooking the bay
and Stephen remembers a man who recently drowned.
Haines and Stephen walk down to the water where Buck
is getting undressed, and two others, including a friend of Buck’s,
are already swimming. Buck talks to his friend about their mutual friend,
Bannon, who is in Westmeath—Bannon apparently has a girlfriend (we
learn later she is Milly Bloom). Buck gets in the water, while Haines
smokes, digesting. Stephen announces that he is leaving, and Buck
demands the tower key and two pence for a pint. Buck tells Stephen
to meet him at a pub—The Ship—at 12:30.
Stephen walks away, vowing that he will not return to the tower
tonight, as Buck, the “Usurper,” has taken it over.
The first three episodes of Ulysses center
upon Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s autobiographical protagonist from A
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. We left Stephen
at the end of Portrait, an ambitious and slightly
arrogant young poet who was just finishing college and leaving Dublin
for Paris in the Spring of 1902. Ulysses picks
up just over two years later. In Paris, Stephen lived a bohemian-intellectual lifestyle
after abandoning medical school. Stephen was called back from Paris
by his mother’s illness, probably in the summer of 1903. Almost
a year later—June 16, 1904—we
see Stephen in “Telemachus,” unresigned to life in Ireland and still
dressed in mourning for his mother. He is as yet unrealized as an
The novel’s epic in medias res (“in
the middle of things”) opening begins, however, not with Stephen,
but with Buck Mulligan, who appears as a contrast to Stephen. Whereas
Stephen is nearly silent and very reserved, Buck is boisterous and
physically active. Buck and Stephen’s relationship is fraught: Buck
seeks to establish superiority over Stephen through mockery, yet
he also trots out his cultural and intellectual knowledge to impress
Stephen. Buck is associated with the consumption, recycling, and
marketing of art, not the creation of it—he is likened to a medieval
patron of arts and encourages Stephen to market his witticisms to
Haines. Buck serves to reveal Stephen’s stubborn pride. Buck’s jokes
that imply that Stephen is a servant, and Buck’s eventual acquisition
of the house key and Stephen’s money lead to Stephen’s final, frustrated
thought of the chapter—“Usurper.”
An early parallel between Stephen and Hamlet is set up
in “Telemachus,” through Stephen’s brooding presence and the Elsinore-like
setting of the Martello tower. In the context of this parallel,
we can begin to understand Buck’s joking references to Stephen’s supposed
madness and Stephen’s resentment of Buck, the “Usurper,” as related
to Hamlet’s seething, silent resentment of Claudius. However, no
single parallel can be used to match a corresponding character in Ulysses. For
example, while Hamlet is famously haunted by the death of his father,
Stephen is haunted instead by the death of his mother. The complication
of a direct relation between Stephen and Hamlet is also disturbed
by the fact that Stephen himself is well aware of this relation—Buck
informs us that Stephen has his own “Hamlet theory,” which Haines
mistakenly, though not insignificantly, thinks will connect the
play to Stephen himself.
Episode One introduces us to Stephen’s struggle with
the ins and outs of Irish identity. The poet Yeats wrote “Who Goes
with Fergus?,” the poem that Buck sings, and that Stephen sang to
his dying mother. Yeats is evoked in Episode One as a representative
of the Irish Literary Revival, a movement of Irish writers contemporary with
the setting of Ulysses who, in part, intended to
define an insular sense of Irish identity, with the idea of making
Ireland culturally, if not politically, independent from England.
Stephen recognizes the milk woman as the type of earthy peasant
figure that the Irish Literary Revivalists and other nationalists
would idealize as a symbol of Ireland. Yet, for Stephen, the figure
she represents is barren. Her submissiveness toward Buck and Haines
confirms that she offers no release from Ireland’s servitude. Additionally,
the milk woman’s failure to recognize the Irish that Haines speaks
works to deflate such an idealized personification of national identity.
Stephen, especially through his self-conscious pose as a continental
bohemian, emerges in these opening chapters as a figure dismissive
of this kind of insular Irish self-definition.
Haines’s version of Irishness appears equally unacceptable.
In light of his familiarity with Irish culture and history, Haines’s
passive and self-absolving “It seems history is to blame” seems
particularly irresponsible and is met with disgust by Stephen. Stephen’s remarks
about his own servitude to England and Catholicism are meant to
point out the power-relations that Haines attempts to complacently
ignore. Stephen’s addition of a third master—Ireland—is a somewhat
proud attempt to set himself apart from the Irish masses, who take
their own nationalism as a given. The theme of Stephen’s perception
of himself as a servant will persist throughout Ulysses. As
in this discussion with Haines, fluctuations between perceptive
recognition of and prideful resistence to various authorities define
the progression of Stephen’s day.