TELEMACHUS - An analysis of the first chapter of James Joyce's 'Ulysses'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2007 35 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1. Introduction

2. Telemachus Plot Summary

3. Style of the Narrative

4. Central Themes
4.1. Irish Identity
4.1.1 The old milkwoman – Ireland, a barren wasteland
4.1.2 Haines – the objectionable colonizer
4.2. Religion – Stephen’s self-concept “A servant of two masters”

5. Interrelations between Joyce and Shakespeare

6. The Homeric Parallel

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

At first sight, Ulysses might appear intimidating. The reader’s reaction might vary from confusion to excitement to enthusiasm or even resignation. F. Scott Fitzgerald said the novel made him feel a “hollow, cheerful pain” and remarked: “The book makes me feel appallingly naked.”[1] To Stephan Zweig Ulysses is not just a novel, to him it is a “witches Sabbath of the spirit, a gigantic ‘Capriccio’, a phenomenal cerebral Walpurgisnacht. […] Something evil is its root.”[2] Ulysses is not a novel, it’s an epic. Inspired by Homer’s adventures of the voyager hero Odysseus Joyce expanded a short story to almost a thousand pages and created a one-of-a-kind portrait of Dublin, at the start of the twentieth century. Hence, Ulysses does not actually mirror the ancient epic, neither does it recall Irish history as presented in a history book, solely in terms of social and political events and changes. Ulysses follows ordinary people by presenting one day of their day-to-day lives, their outer and inner conflicts and their struggle to make their way through life’s challenges. Each episode in the novel is a microcosm that conveys a variety of themes. It is the function of my analysis to reveal these themes and observe Joyce’s methods. In order to do so I will examine the first chapter of the novel. My objective is to depict the allusions found in the first episode, bring forward the themes presented and to analyze how meaning is conveyed. Many critics have praised the novel for its extraordinary style and language. I therefore attempt to comprehend and explain the narrative composition of the Telemachus-chapter and how it functions in order to communicate certain themes. Additionally, its effects on the reader are of great interest here. In regard to the Homeric background I will examine how the chapter parallels the ancient epic. Is the parallel obvious or underlying? Does it appear only in the setting of the chapter or can it be found in the narration as well? As mentioned, in Ulysses Joyce did not attempt to solely rewrite the adventures of Odysseus. Therefore, it is in particular interesting to observe other parallels as well. Scholars have noted that in order to understand Ulysses the reader requires a range of additional literature, ranking from mythological dictionaries to history books and works of literature up until the 20th century. Hence, I will observe what historical themes underlie the narration and what other English literary works are necessary in order to decipher Joyce’s codes. How is Joyce perception of the Irish history presented? What literary tradition does the novel follow? I will try to answer these questions through a detailed observation of the main character in the first chapter, namely Stephen Dedalus. In particular, I intend to reveal how the protagonist serves as a reflector figure for the narrative, how his thoughts and his behavior navigate the plot-line and what effect the presentation of the character has on the reader. How does Stephen’s interaction with the other characters proceed and how are the presented themes thereby indicated? Through my observation of the Telemachus-Chapter I want to gain an insight into Joyce’s methods of operation and show why the first chapter is such an exquisite beginning of a novel, a beginning that contains a variety of mysteries which raise the readers’ curiosity and influence him strongly. I regard the first chapter to be more than simply the beginning of a great novel. Telemachus is, in regards to form as well as content, absolutely autonomous and it is my intention to show in this examination how this is accomplished by Joyce.

2. Telemachus Plot Summary

James Joyce Ulysses starts on an early Thursday morning at the Martello Tower, in Dublin bay where the protagonist Stephen Dedalus and two other young men have breakfast and afterwards go to the beach.

Malachi “Buck” Mulligan, an Irishman and a medical student, calls Stephen upstairs to join him on the parapet. There, Buck performs his morning wash in the form of the Christian mess. Thereunto Buck avails himself of holy rituals and Latin set phrases and additionally gives stages directions, to round off his performance. Stephen Dedalus observes the spectacle tacitly. After his mock mass Mulligan makes fun of Stephens exceptional Greek last name. Again Stephen bears the joke and remains unresponsive. He is still angry about last night’s events when Haines, an Englishman and the third of inhabitants of the Tower, kept him awake through his moaning about a nightmare involving a black panther. Buck calls on Stephen to look at the sea and names it “great mother”. Whereupon he reproaches Stephen for being heartless and calls him a murder for having refused to grant his mothers request, to pray at her deathbed. The memory of his dead mother comes to Stephen’s mind while he looks at the sea. Stephen is still dressed in mourning clothes, a circumstance Buck uses to mock him again. In order to make him recognize his miserable appearance Mulligan holds up a cracked mirror to Stephen. However, Stephen does not become concerned with his looks at all but rather suggests that the mirror was a “cracked lookinglass of a servant” which served as a symbol for Irish Art. Afterwards, Mulligan approaches Stephen in a friendlier way and tries to convince him that they should join forces to create a new Ireland, one that is of equal cultural extent as Greek once was. In order to persuade him he promises Stephen to run Haines away from the tower. His then very brutal description reminds Stephen of how Mulligan beat up a former classmate of both. Stephen turns away in disgust telling Mulligan that Haines can stay. This leads to Buck becoming inpatient with Stephen and he asks him what made him so harsh against him. Stephen admits that his averseness against Mulligan results from an event months ago at Mulligan’s house.

There Stephen overheard him refer to his dead mother as a “beastly dead”. Even though Buck tries to defend himself at first, he quickly gives up and expresses his believe that death was a banality and urges Stephen to swallow his disproportional pride.

Mulligan then goes downstairs unknowingly singing the song Stephen used to sing for his mother. Stephen stays at the parapet still looking at the sea and feels haunted by the memory of the dead. He awakes from his daydream when Buck calls him for breakfast. Furthermore, he encourages Stephen to ask Haines for money as the wealthy Englishman is so impressed with Stephen’s intellect, but Stephen refuses. As they sit down for breakfast they recognize that the milk is missing which leads Buck to a joke about “old mother Grogan” making tea and making water. An old milk woman arrives. Haines speaks Irish to her, but she does not understand. She leaves again after Buck paid her, even though he only paid part of the bill. Haines then turns to Stephen to start a conversation. He desires to make a book of Stephen’s sayings, but the topic quickly abandons when all Stephen responses is the question if he could make any money of it. Buck believes it to be extremely impolite of Stephen to have asked such a thing. The men finish their breakfast, dress and walk down towards the water.

On the way, Haines again attempts to start an intellectual conversation with Stephen and asks him about his Hamlet theory, which was indicated earlier by another of Mulligan’s jokes. And again it is Mulligan who interrupts their serious talk, dances and sings “The ballad of Joking Jesus”. While Haines aspires to keep the conversation going Stephen recalls to his thoughts. He anticipates that Buck will ask him for the key to the Tower for which Stephen alone pays the rent. Asked about his religious belief Stephen explains to Haines that he has two masters, England and the Catholic Church. These two preclude his free-thinking. Furthermore, he says there was even a third master which is Ireland that wants him for “odd jobs.”

This explanation leaves Haines with no further comments to add apart from “history is to blame”. They arrive at the Bay and Stephen remembers a man who recently drowned. Two other men, one a friend of Mulligan, are already swimming. Buck gets ready to jump into the water while he talks to this friend about another acquaintance of him who has a new girlfriend, apparently a very beautiful and wealthy girl. Then Stephen announces that he is leaving to pick up his wage and Mulligan demands the tower key and money for drinks. They agree to meet at a pub at half past noon. Walking away in anger Stephen vows that he will not return to the tower, because Mulligan being an “usurper” took it over.

3. Style of the Narrative

The novel opens in medias res. Even though the protagonist Stephen Dedalus appeared in Joyce’s earlier work A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, there is no character description and no direct mentioning of Stephen’s past life. Ulysses opens as a new, independent story with the action being presented in third-person-narrative, intermitted by passages of dialogue and internal monologue, in the style of a stream-of-consciousness-narrative, as well as free indirect discourse. Stephen Dedalus is not only the protagonist of the first chapter, but also serves as a reflector figure for the almost authorial narrator.

Any particular instance not part of the dialogue may be Stephen thinking, Joyce describing Stephen thinking, Joyce describing how Stephen might have thought, or some indeterminate state between these.[3]

In contrast to the later chapters, the course of action is quite comprehensible due to the introduction of the third-person-narrator. Karen Lawrence observed that by the use of this narrator Joyce establishes a narrative norm which is essential for the reader. “What we experience when beginning Ulysses is a novel that promises a story, a narrator, and a plot.”[4]

Rather than offering a very dynamic action yet, the Telemachus-Chapter focuses on the character of Stephen. The reader perceives the world through this figure and is intrigued to learn more about Stephen’s conflicts. To this respect, Ulysses opens with a variety of mysteries, of which some are hinted at only vaguely, while others are expressed explicitly. For instance, Stephen’s conflict regarding his mother’s death is made very clear, as she haunts him in the form of a ghost. The image of the sea, however, is addressed but not fully executed. Furthermore, the sea alludes to multiple meanings, e.g. source of danger (drowned body) or source of life (great mother).

Almost every line of the Telemachus-Chapter functions as an allusion to a certain theme or problem. Therefore, the chapter has to be read extremely carefully. An observation similar to the reading of poetry might even be appropriate. “This is prose that is completely indeed masterfully crafted, precisely and poetically written.”[5] Not only does this richness of literary devices arise the reader’s curiosity in what is going to happen next in the plot-line, but it reveals Ulysses to be more than a narration.

While the chapter contains numerous references to other literary works and themes that range from dealing with the past to the role of religion, the Telemachus-chapter, regarded from a linguistic point of view, presents a high number of very ‘simple’ words. Lawrence points out that the high number of adverbs and adverbial phrases in the first chapter reveal a naïve quality of the writing, a style which is unusual for an experienced writer.[6] “The phrases in the early pages of the novel suggest that something strange is taking place in the narrative.”[7] Concluding from this, in addition to the enigmas introduces on the narrative level, the narrative style serves to enforce the tense atmosphere. While the first references function on the level of conscious – enigmas are hinted at and the reader starts to question what the references allude to and how everything is going to come together – the narrative style strikes the reader on a sub-conscious-level. According to Lawrence, the kind of naïve narration provides an innocence that is independent from the characters. This naiveté was called “narrative young” by Joyce and can be found in other works, e.g. Clay in Dubliners.[8] The third-person-narrator can not be regarded as an objective narrator, but reflects the characters use of language through the use of, for instance, a very simple vocabulary. Also the tenses are shifted to achieve this effect. What might appear wrong grammar at first sight, turns out to be a realistic representation of a characters thoughts.

Stephen, an elbow rested on the jagged granite, leaned his palm against his brow and gazed at the fraying edge of his shiny black coat-sleeve. Pain, that was not yet the pain of love, fretted his heart.[9]

The correct tense of the verb would have been “resting”, the shift of tense indicates the change from an objective narrator to a personal narration. Consequently, the second sentence represents Stephen emotional condition and it is shown in the way Stephen would express his thoughts. Namely, in a very artistic style, with the repetition of the word pain and an extraordinary sentence structure, almost poetry alike.

Joyce did not intend to tell a story using common techniques, but to parody and this way questions the usage of “traditional” literature. He only introduces the third-person-narrator in order to reveal its absurdity. Hence, literature, according to Joyce is not able to represent real life and real human emotions.

“Joyce had made a central theme of a perennial problem – that those who know how to feel often have no capacity to express themselves, and, by the time they have acquired the expressive capacity, they have all but forgotten how to feel.”[10]


[1] John Kuehl, A la Joyce: The Sisters Fitzgerald’s Absolution, [in.] James Joyce: A Critical Heritage Volume Two 1928-1941, ed.Robert H. Deming, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), [p.]420

[2] Stefan Zweig, Anmerkungen zum Ulysses [Observations Concerning (Ulysses)], [in:] James Joyce: A Critical Heritage Volume Two 1928-1941, ed.Robert H. Deming, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970) [pp.] 444-445

[3] Arnold Goldman, The Joyce Paradox: Form and Freedom of his Fiction (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966), [p.] 79

[4] Karen Lawrence, The Odyssey of Style in Ulysses (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), [p.] 38

[5] Karen Lawrence, The Odyssey of Style in Ulysses (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), [p.] 42

[6] Karen Lawrence, The Odyssey of Style in Ulysses (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), [p.] 44

[7] Karen Lawrence, The Odyssey of Style in Ulysses (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), [p.] 45

[8] Karen Lawrence, The Odyssey of Style in Ulysses (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), [p.] 45

[9] James Joyce, Ulysses (London: Penguin Press, 1992), [p.] 4

[10] Declan Kiberd, Introduction to Ulysses, [in:] James Joyce, Ulysses (London: Penguin Books, 1992)[ p.] xli


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TELEMACHUS James Joyce Ulysses



Title: TELEMACHUS  -  An analysis of the first chapter of James Joyce's 'Ulysses'