Melissa over at Avid Reader’s Musings is hosting a read-along of James Joyce’s Ulysses this month, and I promised to post my reading guides/reactions for anyone who might want another perspective on this difficult read. This post covers Episodes 1-6. If you are reading along or want to join, remember to use #FebBloom for social media.
Telemachus: This is the first chapter in part one of Ulysses, part one being concerned with the morning activities (approximately 8am-11am) of Stephen Dedalus. Dedalus was first introduced in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man which, unfortunately, I did not have time to read prior to beginning this book. I think it’s a good idea, for anyone considering this book, to read Portrait first. In any event, Stephen Dedalus seems to be an artistic sort, bright and creative, but also a bit lost – confused, maybe. And a pushover. The link between Dedalus and Telemachus seems weak at this point. In The Odyssey, Telemachus is a young hero, come of age, who leaves home to find his father, Odysseus. Here, Stephen Dedalus is essentially being forced out of his home by a “usurper,” Mulligan. The main point of the chapter seems to be the contrast between Mulligan and Dedalus. Mulligan is a scientist-cynic and an extroverted type, whereas Dedalus is a dreamy idealist who keeps to himself. Stephen seems to be an atheist, yet he can’t tolerate the overt nature of Mulligan’s blasphemous lifestyle. Also, Mulligan seems to be concerned only with “what happens next” – he can’t get his mind to think any farther than the next drink (which he assumes Stephen will be paying for). Dedalus, meanwhile, is mired in the past, thinking constantly about his dead mother and how he might have wronged her by not praying at her bedside.
There might be something, too, about the fact that Stephen can’t see very well. I understand that his near-blindness played an important role in Portrait of the Artist, so I can only assume it will do so here as well. Some of the motifs being established in this first chapter might include father-son themes, the idea of a lost/raped Ireland (a wasteland of sorts), and symbols of “keys” and milkwomen, all of which could be religious symbols of sorts. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is also evoked quite overtly, and that play is perhaps one of the most famous for “false fathers,” meaning Dedalus would be Hamlet.
I don’t know much about Irish history, but certainly this chapter, and the next one, are highly concerned with usurpation and false fathers, and I believe England could be seen as both, by non-Anglicized Irishmen and women. The symbol of the key, then, may be related to Ireland’s future – will it continue to be subjected to English rule, or can it take its place again as its own nation? Who or what holds the key to Ireland’s destiny?
Nestor: In this chapter, we are introduced to Mr. Deasy, Stephen Dedalus’s boss (head of the school where Dedalus teaches). In mythology, Nestor was a Greek soldier and friend of Odysseus. He was a chronicler of history and the first man whom Telemachus met on his journey to find his father. In both The Odyssey and Ulysses, this man has a “talent” for verbosity, a writer/rhetorician who speaks without saying much – Joyce takes Homer’s teasing of Nestor a step further, though, and makes Deasy an anti-Semite, a misogynist, and a bit of a buffoon, who often gets details of history, politics, and religion quite wrong. Deasy is one of the Irishmen who is obsessed with England and with being English himself. There seems to be a critique on capitalism and money in this episode, too. Talk of money, saving, etc. permeate the chapter, and the episode even ends with the word “coins.”
Of course, there is also the issue of Pyrrhus, who in Greek mythology was the victim of a usurper, similar to Stephen Dedalus’s self-described situation (though I think he’s more of a self-made victim than anything). Dedalus teaching his class about Pyrrhus, though, seems to mimic the situation in Ireland – those true to Irish history are somehow fighting for a lost cause, as England has clearly won. This, and Deasy’s tales, bring two main ideas to the forefront of the episode: money (greed) and military conquest (England over Ireland – Rome over Greece). Last, and probably always, is the recurring lamentation over the loss of his mother, whom he is reminded of again in his interaction with one of his duller pupils.
Proteus: This was my favorite episode of the first part, though it was also the most difficult. It was dreamy, as suits, I think, Stephen’s character. It was also the most artistic, though, and some odd parallels between body waste / urination / phlegm and the creative process begin to be drawn (and are later picked up again in part two, with Leopold Bloom). That the episode is titled Proteus might be appropriate, as Proteus is the Greek god of the Seas (the setting finds Stephen wandering the beach of Sandymount Strand).
One of the trickiest bits, and perhaps where I got lost the first time, was in the imagining of Stephen’s visit to the Gouldings. I think, when I first read this section years ago, I thought Stephen actually went to the Gouldings, but it was clearer this time around that the entire trip was just imagined, taking place in his mind.
This episode, and particularly the beginning of it, might be the best, first example of Joyce’s “stream of consciousness” style that is so often lauded and reviled by readers. It’s what most people who cannot read his more difficult material complain about. Here, Dedalus is pondering the question “what is real?” Or, perhaps more accurately, what is real versus what is only “appearance.” These are complex philosophical thoughts, and they are only further complicated for the reader by the narrative style – we are inside Stephen’s head, trying to keep up with him as his thoughts bounce up, down, and all around. But, really, it’s kind of fun! I found myself thinking, “hey, that’s how I think!”
There are a few allusions to Aristotle in this chapter, too. In De Anima, Aristotle ruminated on knowing and being, as Stephen is doing here, and he wrote that humans are aware of their bodies through an idea he called diaphane (transparency), then through their colors. Also, we see in this episode the words maestro di color che sanno which mean “master of those who know,” and this is what Dante called Aristotle. In the first paragraph, Stephen plays with these ideas by first questioning whether what we see is real (nebeneiander – objects as they are perceived in space/proximity), then whether what we hear is real (nacheinander – objects as they are perceived in time/chronology).
There seems to be something going on with the way Stephen perceives himself, and this struggle he has to let go of the path and possibly redefine himself. There’s something to be said for Stephen as a Christ figure, here, with similar parentage and with his need to perhaps be crucified and reborn (arisen) in order to go through the change he needs in order to move on. Interestingly, he is a skeptic and rather hopeless and, like we will see in Leopold Bloom, he is a bit lost – isolated and wandering. Another parallel between the two will be something already mentioned – the act of creativity occurring in relation to bodily functions. At the end of this episode, Stephen begins to write and soon after we witness him urinating.
Finally, is there something to be said about the opening letter of each part? As I move into Book II, which opens with Calpyso, we see the opening words are “Mr. Leopold Bloom.” The letter M could represent Mr., but probably stands in for Molly. Similarly, the first part of the book begins with “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan.” This S, then, is used to describe Mulligan, but it also stands for “Stephen,” whom this first section is about. It could be nothing, but I doubt that… these first letters simultaneously describe one person, but also direct readers toward the subject of the section. Delightful!
Calypso: Here we are, back at 8am again. This time, instead of being with Stephen Dedalus, we are with Leopold Bloom. A couple of things which I noticed immediately were the motifs of food and milk (or milk delivery). This means there is some parallel to be drawn, I think, between Bloom and Dedalus, which is strengthened by the fact that both men leave on their “odysseys” at 8:45am and that the start of this chapter picks up where the end of Dedalus’s last chapter left off, tying the motif of urination/deification to creativity.
What’s more, one might notice that the same cloud that is described in Telemachus and which affected Stephen’s emotions is also described in this episode, and its momentary blocking of the sun depresses Bloom somewhat, too. In both cases, the cloud signifies death – for Stephen, it is the memory of his mother’s death (of course) and for Bloom, the death of something perhaps more spiritual – his Jewish heritage, lost to Irish Catholicism.
Importantly, I think, we see again the symbol of the key, and the loss of it. Stephen willingly parted with his key, making way for the usurper, but Bloom has forgotten his key in his bedroom so goes out without it. Each, then, is perhaps willing himself into isolation and solitude? One difference, however, is that Dedalus seems to be a man of the mind, always thinking about physicality, what is real and what is not, whereas Bloom seems highly concerned with the tactile, and with the sense of taste.
Also, the overarching theme seems to be the subordination of Bloom to his wife, Molly, just as Odysseus was subjugated by the goddess Calypso. Interestingly, Bloom doesn’t seem to struggle against the bond, though – at least, there’s no sign, yet, that he minds being bossed around by his wife, making her breakfast and such. Perhaps they have a bit of a masochistic relationship? If not, then I do wonder what else it might mean when Bloom wonders why mice do not squeal when eaten by cats and then decides that perhaps it is because they like it!
There’s something going on with Molly and Milly (their daughter) and the idea of menstruation, but I haven’t quite figured that out, yet. Perhaps its one of the “hidden” or mysterious elements which this chapter seems littered with – Bloom’s card, hidden beneath his hat, for instance, and Molly’s letter, stuck beneath her pillow. There’s also the kidney Bloom buys at the butcher shop, which he hides in his pocket. On the surface, it’s clear that there is at least one affair, but probably more, being hidden – but the saturation of these hidden items leads me to think there might be more at stake.
The Lotus-Eaters: As its name suggests, this chapter has a drugged, confused atmosphere to it – something almost dreamlike. It is not dreamlike in the romantic sense, but in the sense that Leopold is wandering around, meandering, really, with a sort of vague sense of awareness or purpose, as if conducting himself on a walk in a dream. This is demonstrated well by the fact that his walk takes him in a complete circle, without any indication that this was the intention. I think this is one of the more clear relationships between Ulysses and The Odyssey, as the story of the Lotus-Eaters and Odysseus’s men is perhaps one of the most well-known episodes in that epic. In addition, it also reinforces the political/social ideas Joyce must have had about the Irish at the time – feeling they were drugged captives, of sorts, to their English patriarch. Did Joyce feel the Irish were willing subjects, or that they were, like Odysseus’s men (and like Leopold), simply trapped in some kind of dream, unable to create a reality for themselves?
There’s an odd but funny little joke in this episode, when Bloom realizes that two of his buttons are undone, and is glad that they were not lower (over his crotch). This leads Bloom to start contemplating the bath houses and, rather than dream about clandestine sexual encounters with beautiful women, as most men (?) would, we readers bear witness to this wonderful erotic desire he has to simply masturbate – but then, he finds he is limp and can’t perform. How bizarre! Certainly there’s something to be said, here, about Leopold’s manliness (or lack thereof). He’s ordered around by his wife and cannot even self-gratify (in a daydream, no less). Also not to be missed, probably, are the recurring descriptions of bed posts jingling – foreshadowing something, maybe?
Hades: So far, Hades has been my least favorite episode. I did enjoy the “descent” towards Hades, which included the “heroes” being ferried (in a coach) across the four rivers of Hades (here the Dodder, the Liffey, the Grand Canal, and the Royal Canal). Also, the many other parallels to Greek mythology, such as the mention of Rudolph Bloom’s dog, Athos, which must be an allusion to Odysseus’s dog Argos. Athos, though, is even more interesting in that its root is probably theos, meaning god, which reinforces the whole Joycean quip that “God is just dog backwards.” This is probably not the first allusion made to that particular joke, but it’s definitely the most overt. Carrying on that theme is the dog-like Father Coffey, who must be Ulysses’s answer to Cerberus, the giant, three-headed dog who guards the gates of Hades. There’s even a joke in the episode about dog biscuits!
I think this episode is the most clear, so far, in describing Bloom as an outsider. He is often misunderstood, misheard, or simply ignored by those around him, and he makes some serious fauxs pas when the group is discussing death and he says that it seems dying in one’s sleep, peacefully, would be the best way to go. Of course, for Roman Catholics, this would be horrifying, as sudden deaths do not allow time for one to repent, which is necessary for admittance to heaven. And, when discussing suicide, Bloom thinks to himself about how suicides used to be treated and gives probably one of my favorite lines of the book, so far: “They used to drive a stake of wood through his heart in the grave, as if it wasn’t broken already.” Bloom’s humanism starts to come through, here, and I found it truly touching, especially as the other men are discussing death in such a clinical, “by the rules” sort of way.
Some recurring themes from previous episodes that are revisited in this one include the idea of the “navelcord,” which here describes the coffin band but also recalls Stephen’s wish to telephone (via the umbilical cord) back to Eden. There is also the father-son theme again, which is one of the religious themes already presented, and the contemplation of shape and appearance (here, Bloom is thinking about his wife, Molly, but in Proteus, it was Stephen thinking about the shape of various objects). The parallel between this episode and Proteus is in fact quite strong. One new element I noticed, though, is the motif of the nails – Bloom considering his own nails, Bloom considering the nails and hair of corpses, Bloom wondering if the corpse’s body (Dignam, whose funeral they are at) would bleed if it were cut by a nail, etc. Is Bloom, then, a Christ-figure? Is he, too, being crucified, in a way, through isolation, in order to be reborn as something else later in the story? What else do Bloom and Dedalus have in common?
So, there are my thoughts on the first 6 episodes. Did I miss anything that you found interesting/important/funny, etc?
Book Reviews ∙ Bookish Tags ∙ Book Discussions
For the ink-hearted
an exposition of micro and punk poetry
Dedicated to Emerging Writers
quotes, excerpts and reviews
You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence. Octavia E. Butler
My life as a black, disabled teenager
A bookish blog (mostly) about women writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries