Usurper

Usurper

In Brief


Telemachus
concludes with an epiphanic snippet of interior monologue that crystallizes Stephen's thoughts about the man who has just "called to him from the sea." "Usurper" implies that, like Telemachus and Hamlet, Stephen feels deprived of his rightful place by a malicious interloper. He may not be thinking of princes deposed in their royal palaces, but he has reason for feeling usurped at this moment, and readers have reason to think of the Odyssey and Hamlet, because Mulligan has just taken from him the key to the tower that evokes those palaces. The recognition implied by this one word leads to many others.

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Telemachus began with narration that hovered about Mulligan's gaily performative ego, interrupted occasionally by unvoiced grudges from Stephen. This drama persists at the end of the chapter, but much has happened in the interim, including a struggle over living arrangements precipitated by Haines' night terrors. Although Mulligan offers to send his Oxford chum packing, Stephen correctly intuits that it is not Haines who has worn out his welcome: "He wants that key. It is mine. I paid the rent. Now I eat his salt bread. Give him the key too. All. He will ask for it. That was in his eyes." Mulligan gets the key, he chummily disparages Stephen to the new roommate in Wandering Rocks, and he returns to the tower with Haines at the end of the day, having given Stephen the slip. Stephen is homeless on June 16, and he knows it. In a personal communication, Doug Pope notes that he has essentially received an eviction notice: "It is only when Mulligan takes back his house key that Stephen gets the full import of the message: he's no longer wanted, he's been replaced by a new houseguest with better manners."

This physical displacement no doubt focuses Stephen's sense of being coopted and displaced in other ways. Mulligan has insinuated himself into a position of authority in his life (a life whose credo is evading subjection) and uses it to demean and impeach the young artist he purports to be nurturing. In Circe, as Stephen approaches the climax of desperation signaled by his mother's ghoulish return from the dead, he cries out against his "foes," one in particular: "Break my spirit, will he?" He does not name this person, but it can only be Buck. The word "usurper," which typically refers to rulers, offices, and powers, also suggests that Stephen is nurturing political grievances. Haines stands in for the English nation that has usurped Irish autonomy for more than 700 years, and Mulligan, who chooses this patronizing English tourist over Stephen, stands in for a treacherous Irish nation that has always betrayed its leaders.

No doubt more could be said about the psychological and political implications of Stephen's word, but it also implies that Mulligan has coopted the artistic role of one of the three principal characters of Ulysses. So sullen, withdrawn, reactive, and inert is Stephen in the opening chapter, so ebullient, charming, and active is Mulligan, that many readers new to the book must struggle to decide who is the protagonist and who the antagonist. The inversion of roles goes far beyond differences of temperament. At the beginning of this great comic novel, Mulligan is funny and Stephen mostly is not. In an encyclopedic narrative that alludes to everything under the sun, displays vast learning, and finds classic literary archetypes in modern Irish life, Malachi the messenger leads the way in announcing these glad tidings, not Stephen.

In his critical study Ulysses, Hugh Kenner notes these displacements: "So ready indeed is Mulligan with quotations, one would think he, not Stephen, was the littérateur in residence. It is he, moreover, who introduces theme after theme. His first words introduce, at six removes, the Jew in exile. His next quotation is from Homer’s Greek. It is he, not Stephen, who intones the song from Yeats that will attend Stephen like a leitmotif. He invokes Swinburne, mocks Wilde, alludes (in a German word) to Nietzsche. . . . Whether playing Christ as he drops his gown . . . or playing the Fool . . . or conjuring up mock-Gothic spooks to make half-drunken medicals roar with delight . . . always on stage, the stately plump Buck in his primrose vest . . . plays parts like a chameleon and plays onlookers like fish (‘Why don’t you play them as I do?’) in roistering affirmation of Mulligan’s Law, the first principle of Dublin, that all is style, is appearances, is show" (36-37).

Later chapters show that Stephen, although ambivalent about playing audiences for laughs, possesses all of the substance falsely promised by Mulligan's flashy performances. But in Telemachus this capaciousness is scarcely visible in him. Kenner identifies the cause: "Mulligan usurps Stephen’s place, stage-centre; usurps, with his mockery, Stephen’s anguished unbelief; usurps, quoting classroom Greek and facile Swinburne, the office of the Hellenising bard" (37). Mulligan has rented a decommissioned military tower to be the omphalos that will bring ancient literary greatness to birth in modern Ireland; his model, Oliver Gogarty, said the aim was to "house the Bard," James Joyce. But while living there Stephen has watched the cherished materials of his art aped and debased into mere clownery, and now he finds himself turned out altogether. At the end of A Portrait of the Artist he aspired to merit the name of Dedalus. Here, that patrimonial claim appears to have been taken from him.

JH 2020
Craig Schwartz's 2007 photograph of Hamlet (Lucas Hall), Claudius (Bruce Turk), and Gertrude (Celeste Ciulla) in an Old Globe production of Hamlet directed by Darko Tresnjak in San Diego. Source: pressarchive.theoldglobe.org.
16th century oil portrait by an unknown artist of King Henry IV of England who usurped the royal throne from his cousin Richard II, held in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Source: Wikimedia Commons.