Chapter 1 (Telemachus)
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.
Ghoul! Chewer of corpses!
No, mother! Let me be and let me live.