Like any great work of art, Ulysses begins by subtly teaching you about itself. Though critics often fixate on the parallels with The Odyssey—Homer’s epic poem about Odysseus’ ten-year journey home following the Trojan War—Joyce makes plain in this first chapter that the connections between his epic and Homer’s will not be tidy, one-to-one correspondences. Like The Odyssey, Ulysses does not begin with the hero but with a young man struggling to become an adult. The Odyssey begins in Ithaca, Odysseus’s home, where his extended absence has left his house badly out of order. His wife, Penelope, is besieged by suitors who have occupied Odysseus’ home, hoping to take his place. She does her best to forestall their efforts with tricks and guile but their patience is wearing thin. Meanwhile, her son Telemachus dreams of his father’s return. Encouraged by Athena (who appears disguised as a beggar), Telemachus sets off in search of his father.
The Telemachus of Ulysses is Stephen Dedalus, the aspiring writer who was the hero of Joyce’s first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen is not looking for his father (Simon Dedalus is all too easily found throughout Ulysses) and his mother has recently passed away—a fact for which Stephen blames himself because he refused to honor her request that he kneel and pray with her as she lay dying. Instead, the parallels are thematic.
Stephen’s living situation will be familiar to many people in their twenties: he’s overeducated (fluent in several languages) and underemployed (teaching at a third-rate private school), he lives in a funky old building (a lookout tower built during the Napoleonic Wars) with a tiresome, mooching roommate (Buck Mulligan, a constantly joking medical student with a nasty sense of humor) and a houseguest who has far outstayed his welcome (Haines, an Englishman from Oxford who is collecting material for a book on Irish folklore). Thematically, however, Stephen’s this situation echoes that of Telemachus. Not only is his home occupied, his homeland is. “I am a servant of two masters . . .” he tells a clueless Haines, “an English and an Italian … The imperial British state … and the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church.” And, though he does not know it, Stephen is looking for a father—for someone who can help him make the transition from young man to man.
Those who have read Joyce’s first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, will find a Stephen markedly different from the one who declared on that novel’s final page: “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” The Stephen Dedalus of the first three chapters of Ulysses is brooding—and he knows it. Tellingly, Joyce associates Stephen with both Telemachus and Hamlet, another thoughtful young man devastated by the death of a parent and prone to brooding. Stephen, who is paralyzed by grief, poverty, and frustration, desperately needs guidance to get back on the path to realizing the potential he showed in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
The excerpt below comes early in the novel (lines 248-279) and introduces many of the themes and devices Joyce uses throughout—in particular his seamless movement between narrative and interior monologue, past and present, consciousness and memory, first person and third:
A cloud began to cover the sun slowly, wholly, shadowing the bay in deeper green. It lay beneath him, a bowl of bitter waters. Fergus’ song: I sang it alone in the house, holding down the long dark chords. Her door was open: she wanted to hear my music. Silent with awe and pity I went to her bedside. She was crying in her wretched bed. For those words, Stephen: love’s bitter mystery.
Her secrets: old featherfans, tasselled dancecards, powdered with musk, a gaud of amber beads in her locked drawer. A birdcage hung in the sunny window of her house when she was a girl. She heard old Royce sing in the pantomime of Turko the Terrible and laughed with others when he sang:
I am the boy
That can enjoy
Phantasmal mirth, folded away: muskperfumed.
And no more turn aside and brood.
Folded away in the memory of nature with her toys. Memories beset his brooding brain. Her glass of water from the kitchen tap when she had approached the sacrament. A cored apple, filled with brown sugar, roasting for her at the hob on a dark autumn evening. Her shapely fingernails reddened by the blood of squashed lice from the children’s shirts.
In a dream, silently, she had come to him, her wasted body within its loose graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, bent over him with mute secret words, a faint odour of wetted ashes.
Her glazing eyes, staring out at death, to shake and bend my soul. On me alone. The ghostcandle to light her agony. Ghostly light on the tortured face. Her hoarse loud breath rattling in horror, while all prayed on their knees. Her eyes on me to strike me down. Liliata rutilantium te confessorum turm circumdet: iubilantium te virginum chorus excipiat.
For all the talk about Joyce as stylist, innovator, modernist, etc it is too easily forgotten that he was, at the root of it all, a humanist. Scholars and critics hunt through Ulysses seeking correspondences to Homer’s Odyssey and allusions to everything from Shakespeare to the popular culture of the day. There are richer rewards awaiting those who read Joyce’s work for his treatment of people and daily life. At the center of Ulysses are human connections, the creation of surrogate families from the remnants of shattered lives–themes that give the novel’s final chapters a ringing optimism. In the meantime, however, the two heroes of Ulysses (Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom) separately wander the streets of Dublin, delayed and lured away from humanity (their own and others’) by a multitude of obstacles and temptations.
In the second chapter we find Stephen Dedalus working as a teacher to make ends meet (though, as he says near the end of the chapter, he is at heart “a learner, rather” than a teacher.) In the Odyssey, Telemachus continues to seek word of his father by visiting Nestor, an elderly king and warrior who was too old to fight in the Trojan War but became a valuable, if long-winded, advisor and leader. Nestor lavishes hospitality upon Telemachus and speaks at length about the war but has no real information.
In Ulysses, Nestor is replaced by the figure of Mr Deasy, Stephen’s employer. Deasy calls Stephen into his study to dispense his pay along with some words of wisdom about saving. At first Deasy seems to echo Nestor by way of Polonius, the platitudinous blowhard of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Yet when the time comes for Deasy to bolster his advice by quoting Shakespeare, he does not supply the expected “neither a borrower nor a lender be” of Polonius. Instead he offers the ill-fitting, and slightly inaccurate, “put but money in thy purse.” Deasy attributes the words to Shakespeare but Stephen more precisely recognizes them as Iago’s, linking Deasy to the calculating treachery of Othello’s villain. Deasy is not merely a windbag, he is a traitor: an Irish-born Unionist and Anglophile (his study is adorned with a portrait of King Edward VII and “a tray of Stuart coins”) who baits Stephen by calling him a fenian and twisting the old proverb “all Irishmen are the sons of kings” to justify loyalty to the British crown. He is also an antisemite who jokes at the end of the chapter that “Ireland . . . has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the Jews . . . Because she never let them in.” Both parts of this statement are shown to be falsehoods in chapter four with the appearance of the hero of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom—Irishman and Jew.
This year’s excerpt (lines 338 – 386) begins with an earlier anti-semitic rant that emerges from Deasy’s request that Stephen use connections with “some of [his] literary friends” to have a letter Deasy has prepared about foot and mouth disease published in one of Dublin’s newspapers. Feel free to read along with a full-cast vocal performance of the excerpt from the unabridged radio production of Ulysses broadcast on RTÉ in 1982 :
—I want that to be printed and read, Mr Deasy said. You will see at the next outbreak they will put an embargo on Irish cattle. And it can be cured. It is cured. My cousin, Blackwood Price, writes to me it is regularly treated and cured in Austria by cattledoctors there. They offer to come over here. I am trying to work up influence with the department. Now I’m going to try publicity. I am surrounded by difficulties, by …. intrigues by ….. backstairs influence by ….. He raised his forefinger and beat the air oldly before his voice spoke.
—Mark my words, Mr Dedalus, he said. England is in the hands of the jews. In all the highest places: her finance, her press. And they are the signs of a nation’s decay. Wherever they gather they eat up the nation’s vital strength. I have seen it coming these years. As sure as we are standing here the jew merchants are already at their work of destruction. Old England is dying.
He stepped swiftly off, his eyes coming to blue life as they passed a broad sunbeam. He faced about and back again.
—Dying, he said again, if not dead by now.
The harlot’s cry from street to street
Shall weave old England’s windingsheet.
His eyes open wide in vision stared sternly across the sunbeam in which he halted.
—A merchant, Stephen said, is one who buys cheap and sells dear, jew or gentile, is he not?
—They sinned against the light, Mr Deasy said gravely. And you can see the darkness in their eyes. And that is why they are wanderers on the earth to this day.
On the steps of the Paris stock exchange the goldskinned men quoting prices on their gemmed fingers. Gabble of geese. They swarmed loud, uncouth, about the temple, their heads thickplotting under maladroit silk hats. Not theirs: these clothes, this speech, these gestures. Their full slow eyes belied the words, the gestures eager and unoffending, but knew the rancours massed about them and knew their zeal was vain. Vain patience to heap and hoard. Time surely would scatter all. A hoard heaped by the roadside: plundered and passing on. Their eyes knew their years of wandering and, patient, knew the dishonours of the their flesh.
—Who has not? Stephen said.
—What do you mean? Mr Deasy asked.
—He came forward a pace and stood by the table. His underjaw fell sideways open uncertainly. Is this old wisdom? He waits to hear from me.
—History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
From the playfield the boys raised a shout. A whirring whistle: goal. What if that nightmare gave you a back kick?
—The ways of the Creator are not our ways, Mr Deasy said. All human history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God.
Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying:
—That is God.
Hooray! Ay! Whrrhee!
—What? Mr Deasy asked.
—A shout in the street, Stephen answered, shrugging his shoulders.
If we could somehow travel the world looking at every copy of Ulysses that has been abandoned in frustration, we would probably find more bookmarks and dog-eared pages in the third chapter than in any other section of the book. Ulysses is famously difficult and while the first and second chapters are far from easy, the third (known as “Proteus”) gives readers a taste of just how difficult Ulysses can be.
The Proteus chapter takes its name from an episode in the fourth book of Homer’s Odyssey. Still seeking his father, Telemachus speaks to Menelaus, one of the kings under whom Odysseus fought in the Trojan War. Menelaus describes his own lengthy journey home, including his struggle to gain information from the shape-shifting sea-god Proteus about the fate of Odysseus. Proteus’ ability to change form—as he wrestles with Menelaus he becomes a lion, a serpent, a leopard, water, and so on—gives us the word “protean.”
In Ulysses, Stephen wrestles a different shape-shifter: his own mind. Stephen is clever, someone who thinks in lieu of acting (one of the reasons Joyce also links him to Hamlet) and in the third chapter we are given a largely unfiltered presentation of his thoughts. To do this Joyce uses the technique for which he is probably best-known: interior monologue (often erroneously referred to as stream of consciousness). The writing recreates the protean nature of thought itself as Stephen’s mind moves from one idea to the next, sometimes following logic, sometimes following the random course of association, and sometimes prompted—even interrupted—by what Stephen sees and hears as he walks along Sandymount Strand, a muddy stretch of beach along Dublin Bay.
So, why all those abandoned bookmarks? Part of the answer can be found by looking at a criticism made by Edith Wharton, author of Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence. In a letter to a friend she had this to say about Ulysses, “It’s a turgid welter of pornography (the rudest schoolboy kind) & unformed and unimportant drivel; & until the raw ingredients of a pudding make a pudding, I shall never believe that the raw material of sensation & thought can make a work of art without the cook’s intervening.”
For now, I will skip the charge of pornography (it was common at the time) and look at the second, more interesting, objection. For Wharton, the “raw material” of life can only become art if it is first shaped by an artist. Of course, it isn’t true that Joyce is presenting “raw material.” Joyce spent nearly a decade laboring over Ulysses and it is a testament to his skill that the depiction of unfiltered thought is so convincing that it seems “unformed.” Nevertheless, I think Wharton articulates a complaint many readers have with Ulysses. Unlike writers of more traditional novels (including Dickens, Flaubert, Austen, and Wharton herself) Joyce refuses to distill the raw material of life in-the-moment into elegant, artful prose that leads the reader along. Instead, the reader must do some of the work, sifting through the raw material him or herself. This makes Ulysses difficult but, for many readers, it also makes it uniquely rewarding: through a work of art, we become more attentive to the texture of daily life and even the patterns of thought itself.
It is impossible to follow all of Stephen’s ideas (especially in excerpted form) so I recommend simply letting the flow of thoughts wash over you as you read. To aid in this, I have included a full-cast vocal performance of the excerpt from from the unabridged radio production of Ulysses broadcast on RTÉ in 1982:
To help you keep your bearings, here is a brief summary of the excerpt (lines 317-415): Stephen roughly interrogates himself about whether he, like his friend Buck Mulligan, would risk his life to save a drowning man. Stephen’s fear of dogs keeps his attention fixed on two cocklepickers (people looking for clams) and their dog. Observing the cocklepickers more closely, he realizes that they are gypsies. Stephen senses the beginnings of a poem in the sounds of word and phrases that occur to him and looks for a piece of paper. Seeing his own shadow he likens the darkness of words on a page to shadows and wonders if anyone will read what he has written.
He saved men from drowning and you shake at a cur’s yelping. But the courtiers who mocked Guido in Or san Michele were in their own house. House of… We don’t want any of your medieval abstrusiosities. Would you do what he did? A boat would be near, a lifebuoy. Natürlich, put there for you. Would you or would you not? The man that was drowned nine days ago off Maiden’s rock. They are waiting for him now. The truth, spit it out. I would want to. I would try. I am not a strong swimmer. Water cold soft. When I put my face into it in the basin at Clongowes. Can’t see! Who’s behind me? Out quickly, quickly! Do you see the tide flowing quickly in on all sides, sheeting the lows of sands quickly, shell cocoacoloured? If I had land under my feet. I want his life still to be his, mine to be mine. A drowning man. His human eyes scream to me out of horror of his death. I… With him together down… I could not save her. Waters: bitter death: lost.
A woman and a man. I see her skirties. Pinned up, I bet.
Their dog ambled about a bank of dwindling sand, trotting, sniffing on all sides. Looking for something lost in a past life. Suddenly he made off like a bounding hare, ears flung back, chasing the shadow of a lowskimming gull. The man’s shrieked whistle struck his limp ears. He turned, bounded back, came nearer, trotted on twinkling shanks. On a field tenney a buck, trippant, proper, unattired. At the lacefringe of the tide he halted with stiff forehoofs, seawardpointed ears. His snout lifted barked at the wavenoise, herds of seamorse. They serpented towards his feet, curling, unfurling many crests, every ninth, breaking, plashing, from far, from farther out, waves and waves.
Cocklepickers. They waded a little way in the water and, stooping, soused their bags, and, lifting them again, waded out. The dog yelped running to them, reared up and pawed them, dropping on all fours, again reared up at them with mute bearish fawning. Unheeded he kept by them as they came towards the drier sand, a rag of wolf’s tongue redpanting from his jaws. His speckled body ambled ahead of them and then loped off at a calf’s gallop. The carcass lay on his path. He stopped, sniffed, stalked round it, brother, nosing closer, went round it, sniffing rapidly like a dog all over the dead dog’s bedraggled fell. Dogskull, dogsniff, eyes on the ground, moves to one great goal. Ah, poor dogsbody. Here lies poor dogsbody’s body.
—Tatters! Out of that, you mongrel.
The cry brought him skulking back to his master and a blunt bootless kick sent him unscathed across a spit of sand, crouched in flight. He slunk back in a curve. Doesn’t see me. Along by the edge of the mole he lolloped, dawdled, smelt a rock and from under a cocked hindleg pissed against it. He trotted forward and, lifting his hindleg, pissed quick short at an unsmelt rock. The simple pleasures of the poor. His hindpaws then scattered sand: then his forepaws dabbled and delved. Something he buried there, his grandmother. He rooted in the sand, dabbling delving and stopped to listen to the air, scraped up the sand again with a fury of his claws, soon ceasing, a pard, a panther, got in spouse-breach, vulturing the dead.
After he woke me up 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.
Shouldering their bags they trudged, the red Egyptians. His blued feet out of turnedup trousers slapped the clammy sand, a dull brick muffler strangling his unshaven neck. With woman steps she followed: the ruffian and his strolling mort. Spoils slung at her back. Loose sand and shellgrit crusted her bare feet. About her windraw face her hair trailed. Behind her lord his helpmate, bing awast, to Romeville. When night hides her body’s flaws calling under her brown shawl from an archway where dogs have mired. Her fancyman is treating two Royal Dublins in O’Loughlin’s of Blackpitts. Buss her, wap in rogue’s rum lingo, for, O, my dimber wapping dell. A shefiend’s whiteness under her rancid rags. Fumbally’s lane that night: the tanyard smells.
White thy fambles, red thy gan
And thy quarrons dainty is.
Couch a hogshead with me then.
In the darkmans clip and kiss.
Morose delectation Aquinas tunbelly calls this, frate porcospino. Unfallen Adam rode and not rutted. Call away let him: thy quarrons dainty is. Language no whit worse than his. Monkwords, marybeads jabber on their girdles: roguewords, tough nuggets patter in their pockets.
A side-eye at my Hamlet hat. If I were suddenly naked here as I sit I am not. Across the sands of all the world, followed by the sun’s flaming sword, to the west, trekking to evening lands. She trudges, schlepps, trains, drags, trascines her load. A tide westering, moondrawn, in her wake. Tides, myriadislanded, within her, blood not mine, oinopa ponton, a winedark sea. Behold the handmaid of the moon. In sleep the wet sign calls her hour, bids her rise. Bridebed, childbed, bed of death, ghostcandled. Omnis caro ad te veniet. He comes, pale vampire, through storm his eyes, his bat sails bloodying the sea, mouth to her mouth’s kiss.
Here. Put a pin in that chap, will you? My tablets. Mouth to her kiss. No. Must be two of em. Glue ’em well. Mouth to her mouth’s kiss.
His lips lipped and mouthed fleshless lips of air: mouth to her womb. Oomb, allwombing tomb. His mouth moulded issuing breath, unspeeched: ooeeehah: roar of cataractic planets, globed, blazing, roaring wayawayawayawayawayaway. Paper. The banknotes, blast them. Old Deasy’s letter. Here. Thanking you for hospitality tear the blank end off. Turning his back to the sun he bent over far to a table of rock and scribbled words. That’s twice I forgot to take slips from the library counter.
His shadow lay over the rocks as he bent, ending. Why not endless till the farthest star? Darkly they are there behind this light, darkness shining in the brightness, delta of Cassiopeia, worlds. Me sits there with his augur’s rod of ash, in borrowed sandals, by day beside a livid sea, unbeheld, in violet night walking beneath a reign of uncouth stars. I throw this ended shadow from me, manshape ineluctable, call it back. Endless, would it be mine, form of my form? Who watches me here? Who ever anywhere will read these written words?