Buck Mulligan

Buck Mulligan

In Brief

Ulysses begins with "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan" stepping onto the stage afforded by a former military tower and gaily mocking the Catholic faith. Joyce modeled Malachi Mulligan on his one-time friend Oliver St. John Gogarty, a medical student who said in a personal letter that he rented the tower in order to give Joyce a place to live and write.

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Bernard Benstock remarks that the opening "phrase has a dignity-cum-pomposity befitting the Buck and might well be his own self-descriptiveness at work. In these opening moments, while Mulligan remains alone, narrative tone is maintained close to the character" (Critical Essays, 2). Gogarty was athletic but heavy, and Mulligan jokes about it in Oxen of the Sun when a companion asks if he is pregnant: "For answer Mr Mulligan, in a gale of laughter at his smalls, smote himself bravely below the diaphragm, exclaiming with an admirable droll mimic of Mother Grogan... There's a belly that never bore a bastard." "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan" deploys a device that will figure often in the novel: objective third-person narration that intermittently approximates the subjective attitudes, thoughts, or speech patterns of a character. Literary critics refer to this trick, which Joyce found in the novels of Gustave Flaubert, as free indirect style, discourse, or speech (in French, style indirect libre or discours indirect libre). Perhaps the most famous example before Ulysses comes in the opening sentence of the The Dead: "Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet."

Oliver Gogarty was born in 1878, four years before Joyce. Both belonged to Dublin’s small Catholic middle class, but Gogarty’s family was much better off, much less precarious. In the biography Oliver St John Gogarty (1963) Ulick O'Connor observes that when his mother, "Margaret Oliver, married Henry Gogarty in 1876, the Olivers were prosperous Galway millers. The merchant class were an exception to the general rule in Ireland that Protestants were wealthy and Catholics were not. The Penal Code which had deprived Catholics of advancement had little influence on commerce.... On the other hand, it was extremely rare in Ireland to find a Catholic family with three generations of doctors behind it as the Gogartys could claim" (11-12). Like his great-grandfather, grandfather, and father, Oliver became a physician after attending Trinity College, Dublin, the university of the Protestant elite.

Gogarty was a talented athlete, notably in soccer and cycling, but also cricket and swimming, and Joyce incorporates this aspect of the model by referring to Mulligan's "strong wellknit trunk" and his swimming heroics. He was also a scholar of ancient Greek, a poet, a wit in the outrageous style of Oscar Wilde, a self-styled avant-garde aesthete in the same mold, a patriot who befriended the revolutionary leaders Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, a senator in the Irish Free State after independence, and a writer who befriended many of the literati of the Irish Literary Revival, including William Butler Yeats, George Moore, and George Russell. He produced half a dozen books of poetry, several plays, several impressionistic and essayistic memoirs (As I Was Going Down Sackville Street, Rolling Down the Lea, I Follow Saint Patrick), and various other works while conducting a successful Dublin medical practice as an otolaryngologist.

The remarkable Gogarty was all this and more––O'Connor's biography creates a fascinating and charming portrait––but in creating Buck Mulligan Joyce gave a limited and bilious view of the man. Being older, wealthier, and more socially successful than Stephen Dedalus, Mulligan adopts the patronizing view that he knows what is best for his complicated friend and can save him from poverty and despair. Where Stephen sees no hope for advancement or acceptance from the milkwoman (Ireland) or Haines (Britain), Mulligan sets himself forth as a savior: "From me, Kinch, he said." He tells Stephen, "I'm the only one that knows what you are," and asks, "Why don't you trust me more? What have you up your nose against me?"

The answer to these questions may not be clear to Mulligan, but it is quite clear to readers of the book: modest financial assistance is no substitute for respect. Mulligan's claim to "know what you are" sits ill with his constant urge to disparage and demean his friend. He mocks Stephen's jesuitical training, his artistically portentous name, his appearance, his poverty, his hunger, his bathing habits, his dental hygiene, his mourning dress, his relationship with his mother, his grief, his emotional sensitivity, and even his sanity. Stephen's one real intellectual or artistic accomplishment, the elaborate Shakespeare theory that he will deliver in Scylla and Charybdis, also comes in for mockery. Mulligan praises only one thing in Stephen, the talent that makes him most clownish and most like Buck himself––his talent as a "mummer."

Given this never-ending onslaught of caustic mockery, Stephen's bitter hostility seems quite understandable. And it seems certain that he is referring to Mulligan in Circe when he thinks, "Break my spirit, will he?" Ellmann records the fact that "Gogarty said to Elwood, in a sudden burst of malice, that he would 'make Joyce drink to break his spirit'" (131).

The impression one receives of Mulligan through Stephen’s eyes is not flattering, and the book reinforces that view in many ways. He takes the key to the tower even though Stephen has “paid the rent.” He allies himself with Stephen against Haines in Telemachus, but then gossips unkindly about him to Haines in Wandering Rocks. And between Oxen of the Sun and Circe, having drunk up some of Stephen's monthly earnings, at the end of a long day he gives his inebriated companion the slip before jumping on a train back to the southern suburbs with Haines. Simon Dedalus resents his influence on his son (Hades), Leopold Bloom does not like what little he sees of him (Oxen of the Sun), and as Bloom begins to take a paternal interest in Stephen he warns him not to trust Mulligan (Eumaeus).

However, this slate of condemnations is counterbalanced by a few positive touches. Mulligan has his own relative (“the aunt”) who disapproves of Stephen. (In Oxen of the Sun he says that she is planning to write to Stephen's father: "Baddybad Stephen lead astray goodygood Malachi.") Stephen’s having paid the rent (and in life Gogarty did, not Joyce) must be weighed against the substantial assistance that Mulligan has given him. Telemachus shows that he has lent Stephen clothing and proposes giving him more “in a kind voice." In Nestor Stephen recalls these gifts and also some really sizeable financial loans: “nine pounds, three pairs of socks, one pair brogues, ties.” And Mulligan's sparkling, funny, generous conversation shines by contrast with Stephen's tortured sullenness.

Despite the bitter antagonism between these two men, their deft banter in this episode shows a modicum of mutual pleasure and respect, and respect for Gogarty can arguably be inferred from the fact that Joyce gave him such a prominent position in Ulysses. Mulligan’s wild pagan comedy launches this very funny and deeply anti-Catholic novel, whereas Stephen can manage such comic freedom only in the advanced stages of drink.

John Hunt 2011
1899 photographic portrait of Oliver Gogarty, reproduced in Richard Ellmann's biography courtesy of Oliver D. Gogarty. Source: Ellmann, James Joyce.
Oil painting by Jooce Garrett after a portrait by Augustus John, featured on the cover of Ulick O'Connor's biography.  Source: O'Connor, Oliver St John Gogarty.