Monday, June 10, 2013

James Joyce's Ulysses: Chapter Three--Proteus

In the first two chapters of Ulysses, James Joyce continues to write in a traditional way. These early two chapters are rich in detail and beautifully written, but it's not until chapter three, "Proteus," that Joyce begins using modernist, stream of consciousness techniques that people associate with Ulysses

In the Odyssey, Proteus is a sea-god, the "Old Man of the Sea," who can transform himself into any creature or force that he wishes. Menelaus recounts how he trapped Proteus and held onto him despite his many transformations in order to compel the elusive god to give him answers to all his questions. In the "Proteus" chapter of Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus walks along the beach, the home of the Old Man and the Sea, observing the churn of life and death, the constant changes, all around him. Thus chapter three is a study in contrasts. For example, in the opening paragraph Stephen sees the "signatures of  all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot." The sea is at once a great source of life (seaspawn) and a great destroyer or taker of life (seawrack). Later on, when he spies an older woman, a midwife, coming along the beach, he contemplates his own birth ("one of her sisterhood lugged me squealing into life"), yet immediately imagines that she's carrying a "misbirth with a trailing navelcord, hushed in ruddy wool." Surrounded by these images of life and death, birth and misbirth, Stephen searches for answers and meaning in the chaotic, contradictory world around him, as both Menelaus and Telemachus search for answers in the Odyssey.

As the chapter continues, Stephen considers visiting his uncle's house, where imagines speaking to his ill uncle Richie, a pathetic version of Menelaus. Unlike the Menelaus from the Odyssey, Stephen's uncle is sickly and weak, a drunkard whom his father views with contempt. He realizes his uncle's house and his own are "houses of decay" and that "beauty is not there." His disappointment leads him to reflect on other sources he's searched for answers: the "fading prophecies of Joachim Abbas," the "hater of his kind" Jonathon Swift, his friends including Buck Mulligan, and of course the Catholic church. He remembers his own attempt to devote himself to religion (from Chapter Four in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). He mocks his own pretensions--him praying for foolish or indecent things like non-red nose, or a fubsy widow to lift up her skirts.

Stephen's list of disappointments includes his literary pretensions (Chapter Four of Portrait) and his attempt to escape Ireland by going to Paris (Chapter Five of Portrait)  He remembers his ludicrous plans  to write novels with letters for titles, and practicing his bow in the mirror. His trip to Paris disappoints him too. He was going to be a "missionary to Europe after fiery Columbus," but ended up an ordinary student, even dressing the part with a Latin quarter hat.   

The sea pulls Stephen out of his remembrances, back to the dichotomies of life and death--the bloated carcass of a dead dog that a live dog sniffs and explores. A man and a woman walk along the beach, an archetypal couple like Adam and Eve. The woman from the couple becomes the focus of both Stephen's romantic longings and his disappointments. An ordinary cockle-picker, he imagines this woman "wears those curse of God stays suspenders and yellow stockings, darned with lumpy wool." Yet he also longs for her to "touch me. Soft eyes. Soft soft soft hand. I am lonely here. O, touch me now, soon."  After this romantic reverie, Stephen's mind drifts towards death once more--he thinks about the corpse of a man who drowned in the bay, which they are expecting to drift back to shore with the tide. He imagines that "a quiver of minnows, fat of a spongy tidbit, flash through the slits of [the corpse's] trouser fly." Stephen contrasts sexual eroticism and death in stark terms; the corpse is not only dead, but his penis has been devoured by fish (according to Stephen's morbid imagination). 

At the end of the chapter, Stephen finds no resolution or comfort. Instead, he returns to more humdrum thoughts about his missing handkerchief, before noticing one more strange sign--the crosstrees of a threemaster ship. The three crosses on the ship might reflect the three crosses on the hill of Calgary where Jesus was crucified with the two thieves. If so, does this image represent Stephen's martyrdom or his potential for resurrection? Like Telemachus before him, Stephen searches for answers, yet without a strong father figure to guide him, he seems lost.  

Blogs for James Joyce's Ulysses: 

Blog Posts for James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five

Blog Posts for James Joyce's Dubliners:

"The Sisters" and "An Encounter"

"After the Race" and "Two Gallants"

"A Little Cloud" and "Counterparts"

"Clay" and "A Painful Case"

"Ivy Day in the Committee Room"

"A Mother"


"The Dead" 

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