The Homeric parallels with the first chapter of Joyce’s novel are clear, but inexact: a dispossessed son, living with usurpers, readies himself to seek his unknown father and then drive them out. He is unsure of his ability to oppose these usurpers, who mock and condescend to him, but during the course of the episode, he gains in confidence and begins to see the path he must follow. The chapter’s key themes are the power and control exercised by family, church and state, and the resulting resistance, denial, dispossession and, ultimately, exile. “Telemachus” is thick with allusions that manifest these themes, not only to The Odyssey, but also a variety of literary texts, Catholic Church rites and history and Stephen’s own family history. Telemachus is, of course, Stephen Dedalus; Antinous is Mulligan; and the old milk woman is Mentor, an old friend of Ulysses’. But here the obvious parallels cease. Dedalus has not lost his father; Simon Dedalus is very much alive and present; rather, he has lost his mother to cancer a few months earlier. Except for her nationality, residence and gender, Mrs. Dedalus has little in common with the novel’s Penelope, Marion “Molly” Bloom, wife of Leopold, the novel’s wandering Ulysses. He will become the spiritual father that Stephen seeks, but there is no mention of him in the first chapter. The other important character of chapter one, Haines, has no specific parallel in Homer, unless we consider him to be one of the many usurpers in the home of Ulysses in Ithaca.
“Telemachus” is set in a Martello Tower (named after Martella Point in Corsica where the first such towers stood), built around 1800 to defend the Irish and English coasts against the threatened invasion by Napoleon’s forces. It is seven or eight miles south of Dublin. Recently vacated by British soldiers, the tower is shared by Dedalus with a medical student, Malachi Roland St. John “Buck” Mulligan, and Haines, a visiting Englishman and Oxford graduate. The novel opens at eight a.m. with Mulligan ascending the stairs to the, circular, open tower roof and the surrounding walls cut through with regular gunrests. Bearing a chalice-like lather bowl, a cracked mirror and a razor, Mulligan “intones” (not merely speaks) the opening words of the Latin mass, “Et introibo ad altare Dei,” or “I will go unto the altar of God.” The novel’s first spoken words are spoken solemnly as a priest would, which fits the “stately, plump” and, we later learn, “untonsured” figure who “recalled a prelate” of the middle ages. After blessing “gravely,” and with portentous mockery, the tower, the sea and surrounding land, the false-priest Mulligan calls Dedalus up, using his nickname, “Kinch” or knifeblade (Stephen is painfully thin and sharp-tongued). Mulligan also calls him a “fearful jesuit,” thus continuing what will be hundreds of Catholic correspondences in the novel. (Aside: one of the major characters is Fr. Conmee, a Jesuit and the rector who protected young Dedalus from pandying in Portrait). Mulligan makes throaty noises and rapid signs of the cross after Kinch appears, still sleepy, as if to imply that Stephen, dressed in black, is the Devil.
Stephen observes that Mulligan has white teeth with caps of gold and the word “Chrysostomos,” meaning golden-mouthed in Greek, comes to him. It is the first instance of the stream-of-consciousness in the novel. But Stephen is also thinking of the sainted church father and theologian, St. John Chrysostomos (theology is the chapter’s art), his own decaying teeth and perhaps St. John the Baptist, who preceded Christ as Buck has preceded Stephen to the alter-tower. Mulligan is also, as Stephen reveals in chapter
nine, a “whetstone” for Stephen’s wits, preceded in this role by his brother and Cranley of Portrait. The tense bantering of Stephen’s conversations with Mulligan continues throughout the day, especially in chapter nine, set in the National Library. The fact that Mulligan has brought Haines to the tower to live for an unspecified period, and that the night before Haines sought to fire a gun at a black panther in his dreams, has exacerbated relationships. Mulligan says that Haines is “dreadful” and “a ponderous Saxon,” but shows no inclination to evict him, largely because he has money and connections and Mulligan is always on the lookout for both. Stephen says that if Haines stays, he will go, as Joyce did in September 1904 after Samuel Trench fired a gun while staying with him and Oliver St. John Gogarty, the real-life model for Mulligan, in a Martello Tower. Later, Stephen relents and says Haines can stay.
While shaving, Mulligan borrows Stephens’s dirty handkerchief to wipe his razor, exclaiming, “the bard’s snotrag.” He then comments on the sea view, drawing on the Greeks and late romantic poet Algernon Swinburne. Mulligan is a modern pagan, always paying mock reverence to Stephen as a bard and reiterating his love of things Greek. For example, he refers to the tower as omphalos, the center, or oracle. The idea of the sea as “great sweet mother” leads Mulligan to recall the recent death of Stephen’s mother and his refusal to her request that he kneel and pray. This refusal to validate the power and sway of the Catholic Church, even for a dying and beloved mother, haunts Stephen throughout the entire novel, culminating in his piercing memory of the denial during the hallucinatory Circe chapter. We can gauge the extent of his feeling about his refusal (non serviam, like Lucifer and, more aptly, Hamlet) by remembering that in chapter nine, during his discussion of the relative power of maternity and paternity, Stephen says that mother love, “amor matris,” may be “the only true thing in life.” Stephen may be ready to forge the conscience of his race as high priest of a new art, but he is unable to ignore his own conscience, what he calls in “Telemachus” and elsewhere, “agenbite of inwit,” or remorse of conscience. The Middle English phrase, the title of a 14th century religious work, is another demonstration of the intense intertextuality of the novel, and Stephen’s impressive learning.
Another equally powerful literary reference in “Telemachus” is to “Hamlet,” which may be said to be almost as important as a literary parallel in the novel as The Odyssey. We learn that Stephen, like Hamlet, is dressed in mourning black out of reverence for his mother. The ghost of Hamlet’s father visits him on a high battlement in Elsinore and an image of the ghost of Mrs. Dedalus, “giving off an odor of wax and rosewood,” comes to Stephen while he watches Mulligan shave on the tower roof in Sandycove. When Stephen looks at the “ring of bay and skyline” blessed sacrilegiously by Mulligan, he thinks of the china bowl of green bile she coughed up from her diseased liver. The deathbed image haunts him like the ghost of Hamlet, Sr. Later in the chapter, Haines asks Stephen to give his idea of the play, but Mulligan pours cold water on the idea, saying he needs a few pints in him first. Mulligan then gives a quick preview of Stephen’s theory, fully delivered in chapter nine, “Sylla and Charybdis.” “He proves by algebra,” Mulligan says, “that Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father,” a not entirely distorted summary of what we will hear later. Haines continues the Hamlet riff, saying that the Martello tower reminds him of Elsinore, and quoting from the play. Earlier, when he is called down to breakfast by Mulligan, Stephen recalls that he was a servant of the church as a young altar boy at Clongowes, and still is a servant. He carries down Mulligan’s shaving bowl. “A server of a servant,” he thinks, reflecting on Mulligan’s servitude to England and his to Mulligan. Mulligan borrows his hankerchief, two pence for a drink and takes the key to the tower from him. Like Hamlet under the false king Claudius, Stephen does not immediately resist, but broods on how and when he will. His uncertainty mirrors that of the Danish prince. Yet it is Stephen, we learn later, who has paid the rent, and is the rightful tenant, just as Hamlet is the rightful king of Denmark. Stephen even agrees to lend Mulligan a pound when he gets paid later in the day.
Stephen comes down from above to eat the eggs and tea prepared by Mulligan. The strength of the tea is remarked on by Haines and Mulligan answers with a venerable obscenity: “When I makes tea, I makes tea, as old mother Grogan said. And when I makes water I makes water.” Mulligan is full of music hall jokes, lines of poetry, snippets from popular songs and tags from other languages. His generally obscene merriment is juxtaposed to Stephen’s gloomy detachment. When the old milkwoman arrived with fresh milk for the meal Mulligan mocks and banters while Stephen ponders her mysteries in a run of associations:
He watched her pour into the measure and thence into the jug rich white milk, not hers. Old shrunken paps. She poured again a measureful and a tilly. Old and secret she has entered from a morning world, maybe a messenger. She praised the goodness of the milk pouring it out. Crouching by a patient cow at daybreak in the lush field, a witch on her toadstool, her wrinkled fingers quick at the squirting dugs. They lowed about her whom they knew, dewsilky cattle. Silk of the kine and poor old woman, names given her in old times. A wandering crone, lowly form of an immortal serving her conqueror and her gay betrayer [Haines and Mulligan], their common cuckquean, a messenger from the secret morning. To serve or to upbraid, whether he could not tell: but scorned to beg her favor.
Always weaving associations in his fertile, agile consciousness, Stephen’s thoughts again focus on servants and conquerors, as well as the magical world of myth and the Irish countryside — although it is worth noting that the old lady cannot understand Irish, a sign of how profoundly English hegemony has beaten down the Irish. We should also note that the density of the passage is somewhat greater than the later portions of Portrait, although from “Aeolus” on the prose becomes increasingly fragmentary; thoughts are more truncated, ellipses more common, allusions more difficult to connect with events of the episodes.
The three young men leave the tower and Mulligan breaks away to take a swim at the nearby beach (Stephen refuses to bathe — a rejection of his own baptism? — and has not done so for several months). Before Mulligan leaves he delivers his set piece, the blasphemous “Ballad of the Joking Jesus,” with characteristic gusto. Despite its apparent simplicity, it does, like so much of this chapter, deal with the mysteries of paternity. When he says, “my father was a bird,” we recall the father of Dedalus, Icarus, the winged artificer. Following Mulligan’s exit is one of the few “serious” discussions in “Telemachus,” one in which Stephen stakes out his status as a free thinker opposed to the imperial British state and the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church. After Haines answers condescendingly that “We feel in England that we have treated you rather unfairly,” Stephen breaks into the longest and most complex reverie in the chapter, one dealing with the long line of heretics who rebelled but were excommunicated and cast out by Mother Church, all of which reveals his grounding in Church history and his kinship with a long line of rebels. Mulligan is also linked with those who questioned the Catholic trinity, Photius (a notable usurper), Arius and Sabellius, names ordinarily familiar to ordained priests and theological scholars. Stephen’s knowledge of the history of the Catholic Church is deep, and will come into play many times during the course of the novel. He knows its rites as well as its history and the chapter ends with the Latin hymn that concludes the mass for the dead: Liliata rutilantium, Turma circumdet, Iubilantium te virginum. The hymn’s opening words will come to him more than once in the course of the novel.
On their way to the beach Stephen and Haines meet a boatman who speaks of a drowned man whose body is being sought; the drowned man image, the notion of a lost body recovered, will reoccur. They meet a second man, who is in the water. He refers to a friend named Bannon from Westmeath and his “Photo girl,” who, we learn later, is Bloom’s 15-year old daughter, Milly. Obviously, Joyce has inserted these incidents as foreshadowings. When they catch up with Mulligan, he extracts the key to the tower from Stephen and two pence for a pint and then goes for his swim. Stephen quietly complies and walks off after promising to meet Mulligan at a tavern, The Ship, at 12:30, a meeting Stephen misses. His final thoughts are of his mother, and of Mulligan, the two linked by his last sight of his erstwhile friend, “a sleek brown head,” swimming in the “great sweet mother.” Stephen thinks, “I will not sleep here tonight. Home also I cannot go.” The chapter ends with the thought-word “Usurper.” Stephen may question and rebel, but Mulligan mocks and filches from his own people, while pandering to the British. Stephen sees that he has lost another whetstone and must continue on alone. The dimensions of his dispossession — if not his need for a spiritual father — are more apparent by the end of “Telemachus.”
In the first chapter of Ulysses, Joyce establishes the key themes of parenthood, power and rebellion, and exile, drawing on myriad literary and theological texts, as well as the actual events of the episode. Several important characters are introduced and Joyce’s characteristic rendering of internal monologues is presented. In Portrait, as Bernard Benstock explains, “the reader discerned Stephen’s thought as volitionally selected, carefully edited, literarily patterned. Now the thoughts are presented as they occur to him and in context, within the frame of the experience that stimulated the thought” (4). “Telemachus” establishes both the dominant themes and ruling techniques of Ulysses.