Telemachus

In Brief

The eighteen chapters of Ulysses have no numbers or titles. Readers sometimes refer to them by numbers, but more often they use the handles that Joyce supplied in his two schemas: names of corresponding "episodes" in the Odyssey. In addition to offering brief introductions to the chapters, then, the headnotes on this website describe how they recast certain elements of Homer's story. Episode 1, "Telemachus," is set in a decommissioned military tower on the rocky coast of Sandycove, seven miles southeast of central Dublin, and it echoes the situation found in the palace on Ithaca at the beginning of the ancient epic. The chapter begins a little after 8:00 AM on 16 June 1904, and concludes at 8:45.

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Some readers have been inclined to dismiss the Homeric correspondences as overblown distractions, but there is abundant evidence to suggest that Joyce's novel is engaged in a serious—though hardly straightforward—intertextual dialogue with Homer's poem. Ulysses evokes the Odyssey opportunistically, in ways that vary dramatically from chapter to chapter. The echoes are quirky, unsystematic, imaginative, and often funny, but they also provoke thought about the commonalities in ancient and modern human life. Sometimes they are so exceedingly subtle that a century's worth of readings have failed to appreciate their extensiveness.

In all print versions of Ulysses, the first three chapters are preceded by a Roman numeral I, signifying that they constitute a distinct section. A Roman II introduces chapters 4-15, while chapters 16-18 constitute section III. Like the first four books of Homer's poem, often called the Telemacheia or Telemachiad, the first three chapters of Ulysses belong to a young man (Telemachus is 20, Stephen 22) struggling to grow into adult confidence and agency.

Joyce's first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, was a bildungsroman, and he continued the story of Stephen Dedalus into Ulysses. But the mature novel shows Stephen far removed from the hopeful sense of purpose that he felt at the end of A Portrait, where he intended to fly by the nets flung at the soul, escape to Paris, and forge the uncreated conscience of his race. In this book Stephen is back in Ireland, immersed again in the misery of his family, living with an Englishman in a tower built by the British empire, tormented by Catholic guilt, overshadowed by a superficially more brilliant and successful companion, hungering for love, drinking too much, and writing only a few impressionistic and derivative lines of verse.

Homer's poem offered a narrative analogue that could give structure to the amorphous mass of Stephen's suffering and striving. Joyce's Telemachiad, however, is anything but a simple rewriting of Homer's. It is instructive to consider what he did not include, or included only in glancing and ironic ways. Homer's Telemachus is holding down the fort for his father—or wishing that he could. The action is centered on Ithaca, whose palace has been overrun by insolent young men seeking to marry Odysseus' widow. Joyce does not really map this story onto Stephen's, though he echoes it in many ways.

Mulligan's not paying the rent for the tower, and his determination to drink away the fruits of Stephen's teaching labors, are almost certainly meant to evoke the suitors' riotous consumption of the palace's food and drink. Likewise, Mulligan's contemptuous and contemptible treatment of his aunt's servant (he steals a mirror from her, and jokes about seducing her) recalls the suitors' corruption of the palace's female servants. The old woman who comes to deliver the milk makes Stephen think that she may be a "messenger" or a goddess in disguise, recalling Athena's disguised embassy to Telemachus.

Least obviously but most importantly, the chapter is stuffed with suggestions of violence. Kinch the knife-blade, Mulligan's razor and surgical lancet, Haines' revolver, a breakfast knife that hews and lunges and impales, references to military barracks and expeditions and defenses, emotional "gaping wounds," thoughts of castration, bodies "cut up into tripes in the dissecting room," ghouls that chew on corpses: all these details recreate the atmosphere of the palace in Ithaca, where 108 young men assault Odysseus' patrimony, threaten the life of his son, and invite the violent destruction that both king and prince rain down upon them at the end of the epic.

But Joyce's first chapter contains no patrimonial homestead, and the allusions suggesting that Stephen might need to protect his wealth, journey in search of his father, and violently defend his home from invaders prove to be red herrings. He may have "paid the rent" on one occasion, but it is clear that he is living in Mulligan's home rather than the other way around, and that Mulligan is supporting him with clothes and money. Violent antipathy may lurk just beneath the surface of the two men's relationship, but Joyce's novel is a deeply pacifist work, and when personal experience gave him material for Stephen to be threatened with bodily injury in the tower, he toned it down. The old milkwoman is no Athena; she does not come to advise Stephen, and he scorns "to beg her favour." The tower lies close to the water, but the hydrophobic Stephen will not be launching a ship; it is Mulligan who plunges into the sea at the chapter's end.

What does survive Joyce's transformations intact is Homer's psychological portrait of a young hero in the making. Mulligan presents himself as Stephen's friend, benefactor, and mentor, but Stephen sees him as a disrespectful, malicious "Usurper" who would, as he says much later in Circe, "Break my spirit." Symbolically, this identifies Mulligan with the chief suitor, Antinous, whose name means "anti-mind." Telemachus' need to assert adult male independence of his mother (he, not she, is the patriarchal heir and presumptive master of the household) takes the form of Stephen's need to overcome the religious guilt associated with his mother's dying. Telemachus' physical search for the father who can help him slaughter his enemies becomes Stephen's need to realize an idea of spiritual paternity that he sees as synonymous with authorship. The book will steer him toward an actual man, Leopold Bloom, who may somehow give Stephen an image of this spiritual ideal, but it will not join the two men in any practical sense comparable to what happens in the Odyssey.

Rather than narrating an existential threat to a kingdom, Joyce's chapter represents a crisis in the psychological development of an individual. Stephen has no Ithaca to restore, but he does need to find a home, both in the literal sense that when he walks away at the end of the chapter he is becoming homeless, and in the larger sense that he needs the familial love and stability that Bloom has found. He needs an artistic purpose, if he is not to reenact the futility of his father's life. He needs a personal strength equal to the forces of British colonial subjection, Catholic puritanical self-denial, Irish political violence, and Dublin's alcoholic fatalism. These desperate needs of a spectacularly gifted young man make Stephen a Telemachus.

Both of Joyce's schemas indicate that Telemachus takes place between the hours of 8 and 9 AM. The first of these times is confirmed, near the beginning of the chapter, by the 8:15 departure of the mailboat from Kingstown harbor, and the second at the chapter's end by the 8:45 sounding of bells from some Kingstown tower.

JH 2017
Cover of the 1922 first edition of Ulysses, which Joyce asked to be designed in blue and white to echo the Greek national flag.
Recent photograph of the Sandycove tower taken from the south, offering a glimpse of the white house built in 1937 by Irish architect Michael Scott, who bought the tower in 1954 and set about restoring it. Source: www.totallydublin.ie.
Statue of Telemachus carved by Ludwig Cauer in 1890, displayed in a niche at the foot of the Trillertreppe in the old part of Saarbrücken, photographed by Anna16 in 2014. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Photograph of Joyce taken by C. P. Curran ca. 1904 and reproduced by Ellmann courtesy of Curran. Ellmann reports that Joyce, asked what he was thinking when Curran posed him, replied, "I was wondering would he lend me five shillings."