Saturday, April 6, 2013

James Joyce's Ulysses, Chapter One: Telemachus


The first chapter of Joyce's Ulysses reads as though it's a continuation of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Once again, the main character is Stephen Dedalus, who returned to Ireland because his mother was dying. In the context of Ulysses many parallels to Homer's Odyssey, Stephen represents Odysseus' son Telemachus. Like Telemachus, Stephen seems lost; he's trying to find his own way, to become a man and a poet, but he has no proper guidance. His supposed friend, Buck Mulligan, offended Stephen by calling his mother's dead "beastly" and inviting the Englishman Haines to stay in Stephen's tower without asking permission. Stephen's bitterness and alienation reflect his longing for a true father figure, as Telemachus longed for Odysseus' return.


The chapter opens with Buck Mulligan performing a mock Catholic mass while he shaves. Though Buck seems pleasant in some ways, and he shows concern for Stephen, his mockery and blasphemy indicate his lack of sympathy or understanding for the highly sensitive Stephen. He calls Stephen "Kinch," a reference to the blade of a knife. Like many of Mulligan's comments, the nickname is both flattering and critical, as it likely refers to Stephen's sharp intelligence as well as his harsh demeanor. He casually mentions that his aunt believes Stephen killed his mother because he refused to pray with her on her death bed. Stephen's mother died only a year ago, and his feeling for her are still fresh. He remembers a dream he had where she visited him after her death, "her wasted body within its loose brown graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath...a faint odour of wetted ashes." This dream is significant enough that only two pages later Stephen remembers it again in almost the exact same words.

Joyce's Tower from Ulysses

After mocking Stephen for not praying with his dying mother, Buck offers him his cracked shaving mirror so he can look at himself (presumably so that Stephen can reflect on his actions). Instead, Stephen comments that "it is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked lookingglass of a servant." This statement contains all of Stephen's bitterness for his homeland, a country that he feels stifles him. Buck backs off of his teasing when he senses this bitterness--he responds to Stephen kindly, eventually asking him why they aren't closer friends. Stephen explains that he took offence when Buck called his mother's death "beastly" when Stephen first visited him after the event. Buck justifies his insensitive comment; though he appears light-hearted, he considers that entire human condition, most especially death, beastly. After this surprisingly cynical speech, Mulligan cheerfully walks away, singing "And no more turn aside and brood/ Upon love's bitter mystery." This bit from an Irish ballad reminds Stephen again of his mother's death; he'd sang that song for her and she wept at the words "love's bitter mystery."
Stephen's pulled out of his reverie by Buck Mulligan calling him to breakfast with him and Haines. Mulligan asks to borrow some of Stephen's money, since he's getting paid that day, and Stephen reluctantly agrees. He also carries Buck's shaving bowl down the stairs, instead of leaving it outside as Buck had. He imagines himself as a "server of a servant," just as he was when he served the Jesuits at Clongowes. The milkmaid visits just as they are sitting down to eat, and Stephen resentfully notes that she listens to Buck Mulligan, showing him respect since he's a medical student, but ignores him, a poet.

After breakfast, the three men leave the tower. Buck mentions to Haines that Stephen has developed a theory about Shakespeare's Hamlet, but Stephen refuses to talk about it then, since it's too early in the morning. Stephen knows that Buck is going to ask him for the key to the tower, thus symbolically usurping it from him. He tells Haines he's "the servant of two masters...an English and an Italian," then explains to the obtuse Englishman that he means the English imperialism and the Roman Catholic Church. This continues the theme of Stephen being a servant in his own tower, as well as his own country. It reflects how he feels to stifled to follow his own path, or become his own master. Buck Mulligan strips down to go for a swim in the ocean, and as Stephen expected, he asked for the key to the tower (presumably so he could get in to change his clothes after his morning bathe). Stephen hands the key over, and also loans Buck some money when he asks. His capitulation leave him feeling bereft of his home, so he vows not to sleep there that night. The last word of the chapter is "usurper," which further emphasizes Stephen's feelings of impotence.

In the comparing Ulysses to the Odyssey, it's clear that the "usurper," Buck Mulligan, reflects the boorish suitors who pursued Penelope. Indeed, Stephen's biggest grievance with Buck is his lack of respect for his mother's death, just as the suitors showed little respect for Penelope, her wishes, or her grief for Odysseus. Just as Telemachus leaves Ithaca to escape the suitors and perhaps find his father to help him drive them off, Stephen leaves his own tower to escape Buck. Joyce also makes many allusions to Hamlet--Stephen representing Hamlet himself, while Buck is the usurping Uncle Claudius. Just as Hamlet rejects his uncle's joie de vivre, preferring to dress in mourning for his dead father, Stephen rejects Buck's hardy companionship.

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