Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 1


The first three episodes focus on Stephen Dedalus, who is the protagonist in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This correlates with the first four books of Homer’s Odyssey in which Telemachus is the focus. Stephen is a young, aspiring poet who is in mourning over the death of his mother. He is generally considered to be James Joyce’s alter ego.

The first thing to note about this episode is the giant S at the beginning. As with anything symbolic, there can be any number of interpretations, all of which can be equally valid. For example, it could simply imply that Stephen is the focus of the first episode. Possibly, it is an allusion to alliteration that will appear throughout the text, the ess sound being predominant in the name Ulysses. One could argue that it represents the (s)ymbolism found in (s)tories. I personally have my own theory, but I am not going to share it just yet. I will do so at the end of this blog series, since I feel it is part of one of the larger themes in the book. (Note: This was the topic of my college thesis on Ulysses, which I will try to locate in the attic before we finish the book.)

Early in the episode, Stephen says, “I’m not a hero, however.” (p. 4) I see a double entendre here. On one level, Joyce is making it clear that Stephen is not the hero of the book; hence he is not representative of Odysseus. But I think this is also a reference to Joyce’s then unpublished manuscript of Stephen Hero. This was an early version of a manuscript that would later become Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. As the story goes, it was rejected by the publisher and Joyce ended up throwing into the fire. It was secretly retrieved and published posthumously.

Similarities are established between Stephen and Hamlet. Buck Mulligan accuses Stephen of brooding, in the same way that Claudius chides Hamlet.

—Don’t mope over it all day, he said. I’m inconsequent. Give up the moody brooding.

(p. 9)

Stephen is then described as being haunted by his mother’s ghost, similar to Hamlet being visited by the ghost of his father.

In a dream, silently, she had come to him, her wasted body within its loose graveclothes giving off the odour of wax and rosewood, her breath bent over him with mute secret words, a faint odour of wetted ashes.

Her glazing eyes, staring out of death, to shake and bend my soul. On me alone. The ghostcandle to light her agony. Ghostly light on the tortured face. Her hoarse loud breath rattling in horror, while all prayed on their knees. Her eyes on me to strike me down.

(p. 10)

Earlier in the post, I had mentioned alliteration. This is a literary tool that Joyce uses well and there is a great example in this episode where he uses words beginning with the letter “W” to evoke the sensation of waves and water.

Woodshadows floated silently by through the morning peace from the stairhead seaward where he gazed. Inshore and farther out the mirror of water whitened, spurned by lightshod hurrying feet. White breast from the dim sea. The twining stresses, two by two. A hand plucking the harpstraings merging their twining chords. Wavewhite wedded words shimmering on the dim tide.

(p. 9)

Martello tower, the setting for this episode, figures prominently. It is likened to Elsinore, which supports the connection between Stephen and Hamlet.

—I mean to say, Haines explained to Stephen as they followed, this tower and these cliffs here remind me somehow of Elsinore. That beetles o’er his base into the sea, isn’t it?

(p. 18)

I also see a couple other connections with the tower image. First, I suspect it is meant to serve as a reference to William Butler Yeats, whose poem “Who Goes With Fergus” is quoted by Mulligan. (p. 9) While Yeats’ “The Tower” wasn’t published until 1928, after Ulysses, Yeats was residing at Thoor Ballylee (the tower that would become the symbol in Yeats’ poem later on) at the time that Joyce was working on his book. Secondly, I see a connection to the Tower card in the tarot deck. The Tower, for those who know tarot, is about the worst card you can get. It foretells a catastrophic, unexpected event. This seems to be in keeping with Odysseus’ ill-fated journey home, where he faces one unexpected disaster and danger after another. The cards are stacked against him, so to speak.

The very end of this episode really solidifies the connection between Joyce’s novel and The Odyssey, while at the same time reinforcing the connection between Stephen and Hamlet. There is imagery of not being able to return home, of being out at sea. Also, there is an emphasis on the archetype of the usurper, which can be interpreted as both Penelope’s suitors and Claudius, who usurped Hamlet’s throne.

The priest’s grey nimbus in a niche where he dressed discreetly. I will not sleep here tonight. Home also I cannot go.

A voice, sweettoned and sustained, called to him from the sea. Turning the curve he waved his hand. It called again. A sleek brown head, a seal’s, far out on the water, round.

(p. 23)

This is extremely dense text, and I could certainly write much longer, picking apart the minutia. But that’s not my goal. I want to hit on some of the big themes and the symbolism that resonates with me personally. That said, if there is anything you want to add, please post in the comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Next week I will cover Episode 2 which ends on page 36. The last line of that episode is: “On his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins.”



Filed under Literature

21 responses to “Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 1

  1. I have read this part with pleasure but I need to think it over before I can say anything of significance. I particularly liked the elderly lady with the milk.
    I do not think the tower is a dark symbol. It may be a harbinger of destruction of old forms, like Ulysses is a deconstructed novel perhaps. It also somehow reminded me of a lighthouse.
    I am curious about your take on the big S but I will wait patiently.

    • Yeah, the elderly lady is interesting, as is the cracked mirror. Lots of symbols that can be explored. I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts on the tower. I’m intrigued by your idea about the tower being a harbinger of the destruction of old forms.

      • I like Kelsey’s take on the Tower. She says it is her favourite card. It basically means that the ego must die because it has become too rigid. It is connected with the planet Mars in the tarot, as it is phallic, but I read somewhere that the tower is also feminine because it is a round enclosure and provides safety.

      • Wow! What a brilliant interpretation. I love Kelsey’s blog, but have not read her interpretation of The Tower card. I’ll have to search her site for that.

        I am also intrigued by the masculine/feminine symbolism contained in the tower. It’s almost like it becomes a symbol for a unified god/goddess, anima/animus, conscious/subconscious. This is stimulating my brain more so than the morning coffee I’m drinking. 😉

        I know I’ve said it before, but your insight into symbols and archetypes is amazing. I’m grateful for your posts and honored that you take the time to read mine and share your thoughts. Cheers!

        PS–in light of this tower conversation, I now feel like I need to re-read Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse.” The reading list keeps growing.

      • I have also looked at Spark Notes on the first part of Ulysses and there was something about insularity of Ireland, how Stephen rejects it? Tower is a good symbol of insularity of course.
        Kelsey has not written about the Tower yet, but I have seen some of her readings where she interpreted the card like this and said it was her favourite.

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