SCENE-- The Tower
The first three episodes of Ulysses (corresponding to the "Telemachia" of the Odyssey) serve as a bridge-work between the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the record of Bloom's adventures on the memorable date of June 16th, 1904. The closing lines of the Portrait not only throw considerable light on Stephen's character but also contain premonitions of certain of the motifs which are essential to the understanding of Ulysses. There Stephen invokes Daedalus--the example and patronage of the inventor of the labyrinth, first artificer to adapt the reality of experience to the rite of art, first flying man, teacher of "transcendental mysteries" and of astrology.
A little over a year has passed since Stephen recorded these entries in his diary. During this period he has encountered something of the reality of experience--a taste of Parisian life, the shock of his mother's death and the hard constraint of earning his living by distasteful work (as teacher in a small school). But most "realistic" of all, perhaps, is his daily contact with "Buck" (Malachi) Mulligan, a cynical medical student, deliberately boorish in manners, with an immense repertoire of lewd jests and blasphemous doggerel. Stephen is living with Mulligan in a disused Martello tower, overlooking Dublin Bay; Stephen pays the rent but Mulligan insists on keeping the key.
The opening scene is enacted on the platform of this tower. Mulligan comes forth from the stairhead "bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed," and intones an introit. (Ulysses thus opens on a ritual note, the chant on the summit of a round tower and the elevation of a bowl bearing the holy signature.)
Presently Stephen joins Mulligan who, thrusting a hand into Stephen's upper pocket, asks for his "snotrag to wipe my razor." Then Mulligan hails the sea--"great sweet mother." Abruptly Mulligan swings round and reproaches Stephen for his refusal to knell down when his dying mother asked him to do so. They continue talking and presently Mulligan grows aware that Stephen is nursing a grievance against him and gets Stephen to confess his offense at Mulligan's telling his mother "O it's only Dedalus whose mother is beastly dead." To Mulligan human existence is "a beastly thing and nothing else; . . . it's all a mockery and beastly. . . . Absurd!"
For breakfast in the living-room of the tower they are joined by Haines, a young Englishman who is lodging with them, a literary tourist in quest of Celtic wit and twilight. Mulligan presides ritually at the meal. While they are taking breakfast the old milkwoman arrives; Stephen "watched her pour; Old shrunken paps. . . . Old and secret she had entered from a morning world, maybe a messenger . . . a witch on her toadstool. . . . Silk of the kine and poor old woman, names given her in old times. A wandering crone, lowly form of an immortal serving her conqueror and her gay betrayer, their common cuckquean, a messenger from the secret morning. To serve or to upbraid, whether he could not tell: but scorned to beg her favour."
"Silk of the kine" and "poor old woman" are old names for Ireland; in the milkwoman Stephen sees a personification of Ireland. He refuses to cringe to the narrow patriots who surround him and to exploit the sentimentalism in favor with the Dublin literary group. Thus, watching Mulligan shave holding up a cracked mirror, Stephen bitterly observed, "It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked lookingglass of a servant." Haines, impressed by Stephen's epigram, asks if he may make a collection of his sayings.
After breakfast they walk to the sea and Mulligan bathes. Haines sits on a rock smoking. When Stephen turns to leave, Mulligan asks for the key and twopence for a pint.
Stephen is the central figure in this episode (as in the two following: Nestor, Proteus), but he represents only one side of the author of Ulysses, the juvenile, self-assertive side, unmodified by maturer wisdom. The balance is redressed by the essentially "prudent" personality of Bloom, who is, indeed, as several critics have pointed out, not merely the protagonist of the book, but a more likable character than Stephen. The somewhat irritating intransigence of the latter--his insistence on the servility of Ireland, Irish art, all things Irish, and his fanatical refusal to kneel at his mother's deathbed--is a sign of immaturity, far removed from the tolerant indifference (to all but aesthetic problems) of the author. Contrastively, Leopold Bloom is a lively masterpiece of Rabelaisian humour and rich earthiness. From what we learn of the hero of Ulysses, it is easier to believe that a Leopold Bloom, enlightened and refined by a copious, if eclectic, course of philosophy, logic, rhetoric, metaphysics, and drawing upon the resources of his own prodigious memory, might have been the creator of Stephen Dedalus, his "spiritual son."
[NOTE: Actually the deathbed incident, as Joyce's brother Stanislaus tells us, "has been overdramatized". "The order (to kneel and pray) was given in a peremptory manner by an uncle, and it was not obeyed; the mother by then was no longer conscious."]
We have not yet entered upon the Odyssey proper and the Homeric recalls in this and the two following episodes are less precise than those in later chapters which deal with the adventures of Bloom. Some general correspondences, however, may be noted between the presentation of Stephen's character and circumstances in this episode and the Telemachia, or prelude of the Odyssey.
The first two Books of the Greek epic describe the plight of Telemachus in his father's palace at Ithaca, where the suitors of his mother Penelope are in possession, wasting his substance, mocking his helplessness. "Telemachus," the suitor Antinous says, "never may Cronion make thee king in seagirt Ithaca, which is of inheritance thy right." Thus, too, Buck Mulligan lords it in the Martello tower; Stephen pays the rent but Mulligan keeps the key. The "Buck" is evidently far wealthier than Stephen, yet he makes Stephen hand him "twopence for a pint", and demands that when Stephen gets his pay from the school that morning he shall not only lend him "a quid" but bear the expenses of a "glorious drunk to astonish the druidy druids". In talking with Stephen be usually adopts the patronizing, bullying tone of Antinous with Telemachus.
Stephen in the Portrait declares that be will use for his defense "the only arms I allow myself to use, silence, exile and cunning." Those were the only arms of Telemachus, defenseless among the overweening wooers of Penelope. [Not till Athene gave him heart did Telemachus quit his "moody the silence of despair." When, encouraged by the goddess, he told Penelope that he was at last going to speak "like a man," "in amaze, she went back to her chamber". (Odyssey, 1. 360.)]. And, like Stephen, "Japhet in search of a father" (as Mulligan calls him), Telemachus sets out from Ithaca to Pylos in quest of his father, Odysseus, ten years absent from home.
Each personage of the Odyssey has his appointed epithet and, when he is about to speak, the passage is generally introduced by a set formula. The formula for Telemachus is: "Then wise Telemachus answered him and said." Telemachus, like Hamlet, has a trying part to play. He has acquired, perforce, a wisdom beyond his years and learnt to act and speak deliberately, to take thought before be speaks, and to hide his thoughts beneath a veil of ambiguity or reticence. Thus Stephen's habit (especially noticeable in this episode) of answering people "quietly" and the languid deliberation of his movements are in keeping with his Hamlet-Telemachus role; they are the defenses of a character unable to take arms against a sea of troubles, yet determined to preserve his personality in the face of scorn and enmity.
The old milkwoman, "witch on her toadstool", in whom Stephen saw a personification of Ireland, reappears under the name of Old Gummy Granny in the Circe episode. When a drunken British soldier is about to knock Stephen down, Gummy Granny thrusts a dagger towards Stephen's hand. She is a recall of Mentor, or rather of that other "messenger from the secret morning", Athene, who in the likeness of Mentor in fashion and in voice drew nigh to Telemachus, to serve and to upbraid, and hailed him in winged words, bidding him be neither craven nor witless, if he has a drop of his father's blood and a portion of his spirit.
The symbol of this episode is heir (obviously appropriate to Telemachus) and in it the themes of maternal love (perhaps, as Stephen says elsewhere, "the only true thing in life") and of the mystery of paternity, are first introduced. Haines speaks of the "Father and the Son idea. The Son striving to be atoned with the father," and Stephen muses on certain heresies of the Church, concerning the doctrine of consubstantiality. Like Antinous and the other suitors, Mulligan and his ilk would despoil the son of his heritage or drive him into exile. Thus he is a "Usurper." Finally, the heir is a link between the past and the generations of the future, as this episode is between the Portrait and Bloom's Odyssey which is to follow.
Another theme introduced here is Stephen's remorse for his (averred) refusal to obey the last wish of his mother: "Agenbite of Inwit" [Agenbite of Inwit (remorse of conscience) is the title of a fourteenth-century work, by Dan Michel of Northgate.] The vision of his mother's deathbed haunts Stephen's thoughts by day and his dreams by night. His exclamation "Ghoul! Chewer of corpses!" is characteristic of Stephen, to whom God is the dispenser of death, hangman God, as "the most Roman of catholics" call him. His blasphemy is the cry of a panic fear, fear of the Slayer, whose sword is lightning, which reaches its climax in the episode of the Oxen of the Sun where a black crash of thunder interrupts the festivities at the house of birth.
The sacral bowl of lather, in mockery elevated by Mulligan, becomes a symbol of sacrifice and is linked in Stephen's mind with his mother's death and the round expanse of bay at which he gazes from the summit of the tower.