Ulysses: Telemachus

It is May, which means it is time for my annual reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Since I’m back to my blog this year and I’ve removed my personal restriction on Quixote Goes from being a travel blog, I thought I’d spend some time introducing my faithful readers to this amazing book.

Before jumping in to the first episode, I want to introduce you to the cult behind Ulysses. First, it took Joyce roughly 5 years to write this book. He first serialized the beginning chapters in The American Review in 1918 and it was eventually published by an American woman named Sylvia Beach in Paris on Joyce’s 40th birthday, February 2, 1922. It was immediately banned in all English-speaking countries for what was at the time far too explicit content. The history of the book is well documented. In fact, there are plenty of books about the book Ulysses, my favorite of which is The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses. The book is now celebrated around the world. There are round-the-clock public readings in New York City and a full location-to-location reenactment of the story in Dublin, all celebrated on Bloomsday, June 16.

Perhaps the other thing to note about Ulysses is that it is roughly structured on Homer’s The Odyssey and it switches literary techniques from episode to episode, which makes it a challenging read. Joyce intended Ulysses not to be a story for a million readers, but one a single reader could read a million times. This book is densely packed with multiple layers and plenty of plot connections throughout. Finally, a note about the plot. The book is set in Dublin, Ireland and takes place over one 24-hour period set on June 16, 1904. The Gilbert schema is a great reference to keep track of the times and themes of the book. 

Episode One – Telemachus

In Telemachus, who is the son of Odysseus in The Odyssey, we meet several characters – none of which are the main character. We start off with Malachi “Buck” Mulligan, the boisterous, blasphemous, fast-talking “friend” of Stephen Daedalus. We also meet Daedalus, who Joyce introduced us to in an earlier work titled, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. As that book title suggests, Daedalus represents Joyce. He is incredibly well-educated, but pensive and brooding, and certainly not one for hygiene by modern standards, as we learn about his monthly bathing policy. We’re also introduced to Haines, an Englishman who is “hanging out” in Dublin and has latched on to Mulligan and Daedalus for some exposure to Ireland and the Irish. The trio are staying in the Martello Tower on the Sandymount Beach looking out onto Dublin Bay.

This episode is based on real-life events in which Joyce, his compatriot, Oliver Gogarty (note the syllabic match to Malachi Mulligan), and an Englishman stayed in the tower. The book version doesn’t exactly match the facts available, which are well detailed in many other resources available, so I’ll stick to the plot of the book.

Over the course of the chapter, we learn that Stephen Daedalus has harbored an offense that he took when he overheard Mulligan tell his mother that Stephen’s mother was “beastly dead.” We also get introduced to the memory of Stephen’s dying mother and a sense that her death haunts Stephen. Stephen has raised societal eyebrows himself because he refused to pray over his mother when she asked him to do so as she lay dying. Like much of Ulysses, the action here isn’t very action-based. It is a book of dialogue – both outer and inner. We read the spoken words of the characters as well as the unspoken thoughts all without quotations and – as mentioned earlier – it can be a difficult thing for a new reader to sort out. 

The three young men – Daedalus, Mulligan, and Haines – have breakfast, interact with the milk maid, and then go to the bay where Mulligan has a swim. The episode ends when Mulligan demands the key for the Martello Tower and money from Daedalus. Stephen gives up the key and some money and then decides he will not return to stay there. It ends with Daedalus thinking / muttering the word “Usurper.” Several themes come out for me in the opening chapter.

  1. Ireland / the Irish people – There are several references to Ireland throughout Telemachus. Haines speaks the Irish language to the milk maid, but she – a poor Irishwoman – at first thinks he’s speaking French because she doesn’t speak or understand it. Daedalus mentions that the “cracked looking glass is the symbol of Irish art.” And in defense of his infrequent bathing habits, Daedalus remarks, “all Ireland is washed by the Gulf Stream.” Finally, and most demonstrative, Daedalus remarks to Haines about having two masters, and a third “who wants me for odd jobs.” When Haines inquires about the masters, Daedalus quips, “a crazy [English] queen, old and jealous” and “the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church.” There’s plenty of commentary here about Ireland at the time: the politics of language, English rule, and the influence of the Catholic church. 
  2. Mother – I mentioned earlier about Stephen’s mother and her untimely death; as well as Stephen’s refusal to pray over her as she lay dying. This will be brought to the fore in later chapters. Mulligan was speaking to his own mother when the “beastly dead” comment was made. There is also a passage about the sea being “our great sweet mother.”
  3. The Greeks – The chapter title is Telemachus. Stephen’s last name is Greek; in mythology, Daedalus was the father of Icharus, who famously flew too close to the sun. Mulligan mentions that Daedalus “must learn Greek, so he can read the classics in the native language.” For me, the reference to the word “usurper” harkens back to Homer’s The Odyssey, in which several suitors come to Odysseus’ house and effectively usurp his lands and livestock as they set up camp and try to marry his wife Penelope while Odysseus is away.

I’m sure there are more themes than what I’ve called out. I’m sure the academics will say that I’ve gotten the major themes wrong. But that’s what I love about this book. Ulysses is for everyone who is brave enough to have a go. It is written between the lines so everyone will take different things from it and learn a little more with each new read. I hope you’ve enjoyed my take on the first Episode. I’ll continue to share as I make my way through the book with this – my fourth annual reading. I’m hoping to be done on Bloomsday (June 16), but I’m off to a slow start. Now for the questions!

Have you read Ulysses? What are your thoughts about my review of Telemachus?

Is there another book that you can read over and over?

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