How does Ulysses begin?
A troubled Stephen Dedalus is back in Dublin after the death of his mother.
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:- Introibo ad altare Dei.
Listen a short reading from the BBC Radio 4 version here — Listen
It is early in the morning. Twenty-two year-old Stephen Dedalus awakes in the Martello Tower, where he is temporarily living with a medical student, Buck Mulligan. An Englishman, Haynes, is also staying with Mulligan.
Stephen is edgy and anxious. He suspects he is being ‘usurped‘ by treacherous friends, especially after overhearing Mulligan’s unkind remark about his mother being ‘beastly dead’. Tellingly, Stephen is less concerned about his mother’s memory than the ‘insult to me’.
At the of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen boldly proclaimed that he would leave Ireland to ‘forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race…’ His first attempt at exile in Paris was curtailed by the final illness of his mother. Now he is free to try again but like Hamlet — is paralyzed by indecision. Mulligan calls him ‘an impossible person’.
The three young man have breakfast and then walk along the beach. Stephen and Buck squabble about the key to the tower — Stephen vows not to return to the tower that night. They arrange to meet for a drink later.
Stephen teaches a history class, talks to a student and collects his pay from the headmaster. These conversations contain two of his most famous statements. One is that God is ‘a shout in the street’. The other that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”
A walk down Sandymount Strand leads to stream of consciousness musings from Stephen: about his mother, Paris, fragments of his course and much else.
Notes for new readers
The first three chapters of Ulysses echo the Telemachia in Homer’s Odyssey. They are a difficult starting point for readers new to Joyce with what may appear to be obscure religious, cultural and political references.
Moody Stephen is no fun. He has not yet fulfilled his promise in A Portrait to fly past the nets of religion and race (Irish nationalism) and mistrusts pals like Mulligan (based on Oliver St Gogarty). Stephen’s stay in the Martello Tower is destined to be short with his ‘flight’ triggered by an unnamed incident (some unsavory horseplay with a loaded revolver according to Gogarty’s memoirs).
There is little to cheer Stephen (or the reader) during his teaching gig, either. Mr Deasy’s anti Semitism foreshadowing what Bloom will experience. Stephen rightly recoils from this and from other less serious slights but does not present sympathetically at this point. The reader has some sympathy with Mulligan’s ‘impossible person’ tag. On the broader questions, however, he has right on his side, standing against religious, political and racial intolerance.
The Proteus episode is perhaps best skipped at this stage. It is technically challenging and in essence nothing happens. One to return once you feel securely anchored in the novel.
Many will have abandoned ship by this point. Stay aboard — the finest, funniest character in modern literature about to get up and cook breakfast for his cat and his(physicially) unfaithful wife, the magnificent Molly Bloom.