By Annie Atura and Lee Dionne

“Proteus” is the third episode of James Joyce‘s modernist epic, Ulysses.

Overarching Themes

“Proteus” is the first fully stream-of-consciousness episode of Ulysses, and, while the style itself is perhaps not particularly experimental in relation to the rest of the novel, it nevertheless features some of Joyce’s densest writing, largely due to the complexity and esotericism of Stephen’s thoughts. At the beginning of “Proteus,” Stephen asks, “Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand?” (3.18-19), and indeed, his thoughts frequently gravitate toward the eternal, both in space (the idea of walking into eternity) and in time (the sense of a linear genealogy linking Stephen all the way back to Eden). Even his language reaches towards the eternal in its dissatisfaction with fixed interpretation. Instead, words transform and are often reiterated in different languages, achieving definition only through a plurality of meanings and subtle translations.

This theme of change and transformation is obviously linked to the Homeric character of Proteus, as discussed in a later section. Yet it also pervades language and thought throughout Ulysses. Stephen is obsessed with the changing face of reality and the limitations of his own apprehension of the world through visual and aural modes. The idea that we are “here to read” only the “signatures” of all things lends an inherent mutability to Stephen’s readings, inviting the endless metonymic spirals of thought in which Stephen indulges (3.2). These rabbit holes are often entered by way of the perception of simple, natural phenomena. In that sense, the Protean metaphor comes to inform and to support much of the stream-of-consciousness technique in use throughout the novel.

“Proteus” codifies and introduces many of the themes and ideas that dominate Stephen’s character, providing a unique interior view of themes that Stephen will expand upon later in Ulysses, but which are then available to us only by dint of their external expression. These instances include Stephen’s obsession with paternity (i.e., whether one can ever really identify one’s own father) and extend into questions regarding paternity as authorship (i.e., whether Stephen is the creation of an omnipotent God, or whether Stephen is himself his own creator and the creator of his world).

Aristotle and Shakespeare also come up in the episode as Stephen’s epistemological and creative forebears, and a number of heresiarchs appear as his theological interlocutors. Much of “Proteus,” then, is very abstracted in Stephen’s thoughts, but of course the Protean metaphor is enacted equally through bodily processes. Stephen’s father is at one point an omnipotent God, but so also is the bloated corpse offshore, as it literally fathers new life through its own consumption and decay. The process of cerebral creation itself is reflected in Stephen’s physically creative acts: his urination and nose-picking.

These concerns will be taken up in Bloom’s chapters as well, in his approach to various processes of consumption and in the complexity of his own relationship with fatherhood and paternity.

“Proteus” Synopsis

At 11 A.M., Stephen wanders Sandymount Strand, which extends into Dublin Bay. Having arrived via public transportation, he whiles away the hour and a half before his meeting with Mulligan. He considers the limitations of his own experience, imagining visible reality as something “to read,” and also realizing that he takes note of substance itself before the color that inheres in it (3.2). Stephen “knock[s] his sconce against” materials, experiencing them unintellectually before processing their component parts (3.5-6). Stephen proceeds along the beach, cracking shells as he goes (echoing his recognition of the cycle of life in “seaspawn and seawrack”) (3.2-3). Then he closes his eyes, wondering whether he is “walking into eternity,” and hears the rhythm of the sea, which he likens to an “acatalectic tetrameter of iambs marching. No, agallop: deline the mare.” (3.18, 23-4). He sees language in terms of reality, but he also seems to see the reality of language – language, itself, gallops even as it describes the galloping mare. He opens his eyes again, commanding himself to see anew.

He watches two midwives (that belong to the same group as the midwife that delivered Stephen) coming “down to our mighty mother,” the sea (3.31-2). He imagines that one of them has “a misbirth with a trailing navelcord” in her purse (3.36). The connection with birth and sin is why, he thinks, monks gaze at their own navel when meditating – so that they may “be as gods,” knowing good and evil (3.38). He thinks of Eve, the companion of the second of the Adams in the two creation stories, and of her navel-less belly, which nevertheless becomes a “womb of sin”: childbirth originates with Eve, without precedent, much as speech might (3.44). Stephen imagines the umbilical cord as the cord of a telephone, and asks to be connected to “Edenville.” He thinks of the “made” vs. “begotten” distinction between men and God clarified by the Nicene creed, and laments the absence of the heresiarchs, with whom he wishes he could suss out the truth about the trinity. Finding himself on the beach once more, he quotes Hamlet in his reference to “nipping and eager airs” (as he did with “a cliff that beetles o’er his base”) and thinks of the waves as the steeds of Mananaan (the Irish iteration of Proteus, a sea god with the power of transformation). He remembers that he has to meet Buck at The Ship at 12:30 and considers going to his aunt Sara’s. He imagines his “consubstantial father” mocking Stephen, recalling a malicious Daedalus in his jibing, “Couldn’t he fly a bit higher than that, eh?” Stephen imagines himself arriving at his aunt and uncle’s house, and Richie’s son Walter explaining, “We thought you were someone else.” (3.75). Richie reveals himself to be cruel, demanding “whusky” and saying (appealing to the Devil, Old Harry) “Sit down or by the law Harry I’ll knock you down.” (3.90-2).

Stephen considers the pretensions of his youth. He thinks of the “houses of decay” that are his house, his uncle’s house, and the priests’ house, and thinks, “Come out of them, Stephen. Beauty is not there.” (3.105-7). He thinks of the priests “tonsured and oiled and gelded, fat with the fat of kidneys of wheat,” and regrets the time when he was isolated on an “isle of saints,” praying sanctimoniously for unholy things, like “not to have a red nose.” (3.118-9, 128-30). He knows that he will “never be a saint,” and considers his lust (3.128). He regrets his disdain for the masses, and references Swift’s phobic Gulliver’s Travels, in which the masses are depicted negatively as “Yahoo men” pitted against the Houyhnhnm horses.

Stephen finds that he has passed the turnoff for Sara’s house and abandons his plan to visit her. He thinks about the pigeons, and the midrash (of sorts) that explains that the Virgin insisted she was impregnated by a pigeon. Stephen notes, “My father’s a bird,” and he hopes that his father lends him La Vie de Jesus, in which the story concerning the pigeon and the Virgin Mary is recorded (3.164).

He thinks back to his days as a medical student in Paris. He is reminded of Patrick McCarthy’s murder of his wife Teresa, which was preceded by a long history of violence. Upon entering the hospital, Teresa gave birth to a still-born child and died the next day. (though none of this is explicitly stated in the text, it is referenced by “the night of the seventeenth of February 1904.” (3.181).) Stephen ambiguously imagines, “Other fellow did it: other me,” perhaps in the voice of the assailant (3.182). He remembers attempting to receive his mother’s money order of eight shillings and being shut out by the usher of the post office, and the violent thoughts he harbored toward the official: “Shoot him to bloody bits with a bang shotgun, bits man spattered walls all brass buttons.” (3.187-9). He then recalls the telegram that called him home from France, back to his dying mother’s bedside. Apparently, his father was in too much of a rush to check the spelling: the telegram reads, “Nother dying come home father.” (3.199).

The telegram bearing news of his mother’s death prompts Stephen to think on Buck’s words from episode 1, “The aunt thinks you killed your mother” (3.200). Stephen weaves this idea into a stanza from a popular song, substituting “Mulligan” and “decent” (the aunt’s sense of decency) as lyrics and playing the song over in his head (3.201-4). This brings him back to the present, where he finds himself now marching rhythmically over the sand (ostensibly in time to the song). He notes the boulders forming the south sea wall and likens them to mammoth skulls, yet another image of decay; and his thoughts are also colored with the sudden perception of “Gold light on sea, on sand, on boulders… The sun… the lemon houses” (3.207-8). This, in turn, reminds him of Paris’ “lemon streets,” returning him to his reverie (3.209).

With his thoughts back in Paris, Stephen reminisces on those Irish expatriates he had known. For a time the political undercurrent of the episode takes over, as Stephen recalls sitting with Kevin Egan and his son Patrice at a cafe. Stephen’s mind also wanders to various other expatriates, mostly figures who had escaped Ireland and achieved some sort of celebrity abroad. When thinking of Kevin Egan’s own reminiscences of Ireland, and of his stunted “hopes” and “conspiracies,” Stephen imagines that Egan would engage him as a would-be “yokefellow,” to bind him to his “common cause” (3.228-9). In a way, though, the scenario is actually reversed, with Stephen yoking his fellow expatriates to himself in his judgment of them; there is a bitterness in describing their estranged existence: “Loveless, landless, wifeless,” Stephen thinks of them, and steeped in a kind of debauched state of the bodily, moving always between “three taverns” and a nighttime “lair” of prostitutes (3.251-3). The only innocent one is perhaps Patrice, who drinks milk in place of absinthe, the “milk” from episode 1, described as both an antidote to the “rotten teeth and rotten guts” of decay (1.412), yet also a somewhat pathetic image in its own right (like Patrice), for its also being associated with the “old shrunken paps” of the milk-woman as a symbol for Ireland.

As Stephen recalls Patrice’s “weak wasting hand” and muses on how Ireland has forgotten its wild geese, he realizes that he has come closer to the sea and is now stepping in wet sand (3.263). He thinks back to the tower and the possibility of returning there in the evening, which he rejects, remembering Haines’s dream and Buck’s usurpation. The “barbacans [sic]” recall to him the ramparts of Elsinore and the ghost of Hamlet’s father in “sable silvered” (3.272, 281). In Stephen’s case, it is his own soul who “walks with [him],” and we wonder again on the origin of Stephen’s identity, along with the idea of the “consubstantial” “Father and Son” (3.50) and Stephen’s proof “by algebra that… he himself is the ghost of his own father” (1.555-7).

Back in the present, Stephen clambers up on a rock to watch the coming tide flow past. He observes the “bloated carcass of a dog” amidst the seaweed, along with the “gunwale of a boat, sunk in sand” (3.286-7). He thinks on Veuillot’s description of Gautier’s prose as “Un coche ensablé,” and imagines the “heavy sands” of the beach as “language tide and wind have silted here” (3.287-9). Verse returns in the form of a nursery rhyme, though perhaps all the heavy sand has left Stephen’s mind mired as well, and the verse no longer has the same liberating rhythm as in the lines of the popular song seen earlier in the episode.

A live dog approaches Stephen on the strand, preceding its two human masters. He thinks of these figures as “the two maries” who watch over Christ at the crucifixion, and the image of baby Moses among the bulrushes springs to his mind in association with the dead dog on the beach (3.297). Will it be discovered? At the thought of this decay, Stephen imagines Danish vikings first landing on these same shores, along with his ancestors, the earliest Irishmen, rushing out to slaughter a pod of whales beached in the shallows. The vikings are characterized by their “bloodbeaked prows” and Stephen’s ancestors are seen hacking into the (decaying) “green blubbery whalemeat” (3.301, 305-6).

The dog’s bark jolts Stephen back to the present. He compares himself to the huntsman Aceton, who, having seen Diana bathe, is transformed into a deer and set upon by his own dogs. Stephen sees himself as both a coward and a pretender in this scene, trembling as Aceton did at the dogs’ baying, but also “pining” for the “bark of their applause” (3.313). He recalls past pretenders (to monarchy) as seen by history (they are also usurpers in a sense), then remembers, more recently, the man whom Buck saved from drowning. Many of the historical figures are similar to Buck in that they were pretenders but at the same time men of action who led their country to battle. Stephen lacks that courage. He would have wanted to save the drowning man, but instead imagines himself, a weak swimmer, being dragged “with him together down” (3.329). He also thinks, “I want his life still to be his, mine to be mine” (3.327-8); this gesture by which Stephen reaches out and identifies with his common man is nonetheless extremely isolating in that, even in this moment of life and death, he sees the two lives as fundamentally separate, as they are even set apart by the syntax of the sentence (his as his, mine as mine). Yet, painfully aware of this unique subjectivity of his experience, Stephen still desires to equivocate his life with this “other” of the drowned man.

Stephen now sees the couple approaching, “Cocklepickers” (3.342). As they approach, he observes the dog’s movements and remarks on its examination of its fallen “brother” (3.349). The scene serves as a curious parallel to Stephen’s own juxtaposing of himself beside the drowned man in his mind. In another parallel with Stephen, the dog, too, urinates in this episode, and Stephen imagines that its digging is the fox from episode 2 uncovering its buried grandmother (3.360-1). We then learn of the dream Stephen was having before being woken by Haines the previous night. He imagines himself in the Baghdad of Haroun al Raschid, a caliph noted for his love of “luxury and pleasure” (Gifford 60, 3.366). Perhaps this bleeds over into his sexualized representation of the approaching couple, who we learn are gypsies. Stephen thinks of the woman as a prostitute and the man as her fancyman. In general, the passage falls precipitously forward but is checked, as with Stephen’s Paris musings, by the sudden interjection of a verse. Stephen also remembers Aquinas’ idea of “morose delectation,” to which he attributes these low thoughts (3.385). Overall, in an episode where the narrative is so notably free and unfettered, it is perhaps those few ideas that are able to break or divert Stephen’s stream of consciousness that provide the most insight into his nature. And, while the interjection of verse may speak to a more general human phenomenon of rhythm ordering thought, nonetheless we see Stephen’s own, personal moral hang-ups and lingering sense of piety interfering with his otherwise free and unchecked thinking.

As the gypsy couple passes, Stephen’s mind is flooded with a slew of literary allusions, thinking of Hamlet and also Shelley’s Hellas, fragments of which drift in and out of his thoughts. In Stephen’s adaptation of it, he frames the lines in such a way as to mirror his walk along the strand: “Across the sands of all the world,” and Stephen’s own addition, “A tide westering, moondrawn, in her wake… blood not mine, oinopa ponton, a winedark sea” (3.393-4), not unlike the “molten pewter surf” from his imagining of the Viking ships on those same shores (3.301). Through this process of transformation and adaptation, Stephen gradually moves from the process of recalling references to composing his own lines, though in his case these are merely a “souped-up” version of a well known Irish verse (Gifford 62, 3.397-98), falsely “original” work for a fictitious character. Stephen searches for a paper on which to write these lines, as his lips pantomime the “mouth” and “kiss” from the poem and look to form a kind of oral poetry of their own (3.399-400). Even while writing on the back of Deasy’s letter, though, Stephen muses on the finite nature of his existence and his work: “Who ever anywhere will read these written words.” (3.414-5). He wonders if his “shadow” still would be “[his], form of [his] form,” if in fact it did not end but were “endless till the farthest star” (3.413-4, 408-9). This is the question that has plagued him since the beginning of the episode — “Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand” — and indeed, by the end of episode he is no better able to reconcile the limitations of his subjective, metonymically driven thought associations — that “manshape ineluctable” — with anything resembling the eternal or the “will” of the creator (3.18-9, 413).

Stephen then lapses into remembrance of a girl he had seen looking into a bookstore on Monday. His imagining of her and his subsequent desire culminate in the idea: “What is the word known to all men?” – a question that will follow Stephen through the novel, the answer to which is “love,” though it is not explicitly stated (3.434). While lingering on these amorous thoughts, Stephen feels the laziness of the midday sun, recalling Kevin Egan’s “nodding for his nap” in Paris (3.439). Noon is also the hour of Stephen’s Paris recollections, as well as the hour at which Menelaus was told to seek Proteus in his cave, and even possibly the “l’heure fauve” from Mallarme’s “L’apres-midi d’un faune,” which passes briefly through Stephen’s head. The noontime hour captures the essence of the episode’s Protean frustration, as it is both the hour when the heat of the world is heaviest and most oppressive, reminding Stephen of his existence as it is tied to his physical embodiment, yet also an hour of sleep and dreams, which are the precise escape from that physical form. Stephen’s thoughts dwell on lust and love a little longer, and he recalls both a girl in Paris and Cranly as two such relationships (for Cranly, “Staunch friend, a brother soul,” but also “Wilde’s love that dare not speak its name”) (3.450-1).

As the rising tide recedes for a moment, Stephen lays down his ashplant and urinates amidst the rocks on the beach. Once again the waters rise in response, recalling to Stephen Saint Ambrose’s verse on the waves as expressing their weariness and groaning over the wrongs of the world. This poetic, expressive quality of the waves links them inextricably to the rhythm and poetry of Stephen’s own thoughts, the “ineluctable modality of the audible” and the nacheinander of the tide’s inexorable ebb and flow (3.13). The sea brings Stephen back to his thoughts of the drowned man, “five fathoms out there” (3.470). His language is never far from Shakespeare’s, and “five fathoms” transforms into the “full fathom five thy father lies” from The Tempest (3.470). This also links the decaying corpse to the idea of the father, which recalls Hamlet’s lines to Claudius, “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king,” and “how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar” (Shakespeare 200, 4.3.25-28). Stephen, though, takes this to the point of absurdity with his “God becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes featherbed mountain” (3.477-9).

By this point the Protean theme has fully worked its way into Stephen’s thoughts, but also, in another sense, Stephen has fully embraced the subjectivity of his own authorship. Although the transformations from God to featherbed mountain, in their theological symbolism, follow a unique internal logic of their own, they are almost like Stephen’s riddle in that they are vague or obscure to the point of being indecipherable without a proper codex. Moreover, although in “God becomes man becomes fish” we can see a transformation of God into Christ into Christ symbol, yet there is also an equivocation of God with man that harkens back to Stephen’s earlier thoughts on the consubstantial Father and Son and the God that willed Stephen into existence (3.477-8). Yet Stephen cannot be unwilled by that God and we see Stephen now willing his own transformations. Thus, though God in his divine will and knowledge represents a foil for Stephen’s limited human perspective, nonetheless there is a kind of hubris in Stephen’s aspiration and capacity to see as an artist, along with what the artist’s act of creation might represent.

In a feat of referential virtuosity, Joyce then manages to tie up themes of the drowning man, Odysseus, Paris and Paris; and, upon the arrival of clouds foreshadowing a coming storm, further references to Lucifer, the drowned Ophelia, and Shelley’s poem. While the stream-of-consciousness style is in many ways simply a studied approximation of human thought, the sheer density of the references and the rhythm of their arrangement does leave us somewhat in awe of Stephen’s intellect and perhaps the artistic mind in general. And, although Stephen’s mind is still bounded by these leaps of thought and the inherent nacheinander of perception, we sense that his may be a human mind in a state closest to something resembling divinity.

Yet even in the midst of this climactic lucidity achieved in the passage, Stephen is perhaps closer to death than to divinity, with his rotting teeth and the decaying snot he picks from his nose. The metaphor of creation is enacted on not only an artistic, intellectual level, but also on a much more physical, bodily level with the urination and the snot. Moreover, this inescapable presence of the bodily is the ultimate Protean metaphor for creation, with the boundaries between the dead and the living indiscernibly blurred and the one constantly engendering the other (“Dead breaths I living breathe, tread dead dust, devour a urinous offal from all dead,” 3.479-80). The chapter ends with Stephen sighting a three-masted sailing ship moving silently upstream. In some ways it recalls the ship at the end of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, whose winged sails are Stephen’s only escape from the island. In this case, perhaps it is their silent passage over the otherwise rhythmic waves that allows us to depart, finally, from the prison of Stephen’s thoughts.

Proteus in the Odyssey

Proteus, the “Ancient of the Sea,” is a Greek god incorporated retroactively into the pantheon as the second-in-command to Poseidon. He surfaces in Book IV of the Odyssey in a speech from Menelaus to Telemachus in which the king recounts his journey home from the Trojan War (which naturally calls Odysseus to Telemachus’s mind, as Odysseus’s analogous journey remains a mystery to his son). Menelaus, finding himself on the sandy island of Pharos, doesn’t know how to get home – though he feels certain that the gods are barring his passage because of some deficiency in his offering. Proteus’s daughter takes pity on him, revealing that her father will prophesize the future to anyone that keeps a hold of him even as he takes the forms of beasts, plants, water, and fire. She says, “He’ll try all kinds of escape – twist and turn into every beast that moves across the earth, transforming himself into water, superhuman fire, but you hold on for dear life, hug him all the harder!” Apparently, Proteus’s shape-shifting is his attempt to elude the duty of truth-telling, though his reasons for that aversion remain opaque – perhaps Proteus’s oracular powers are trying; perhaps he regrets knowing the truth. Like Stephen, Proteus has a tortured relationship to knowledge.

Proteus’s daughter Eidothea is presented as something of a shape-shifter herself. She transfers her allegiance from her father, Proteus, to the stranger Menelaus, whose potential role as her lover casts her choice to help him in a sexual light. Like Ariadne, she uses her inside knowledge against her father, even killing her father’s beloved seals in order to trick him: “she came with four sealskins, all freshly stripped, to deceive her father blind.” She changes shape in her relationship to the strangers, too. Eidothea behaves both sexually and maternally toward Menelaus: she describes the travelers’ “bellies racked by hunger,” but as soon as Homer describes her as being “moved to the heart” by their plight, she changes course and playfully mocks Menelaus: “are you a fool, stranger – soft in the head and lazy too? Or do you let things slide because you like your pain?” Sometimes, her dual nature is contained in a single phrase, as in “glistening goddess reassured [Menelaus] warmly.” Eidothea is “glistening,” yet “reassur[ing],” powerful yet nurturing, both youthful and maternal.

The episode posits a world of the divine entirely different from that with which Stephen has been raised. Menelaus refers to the fact that “immortals know it all” – but knowledge is a subjective term. Menelaus’s gods understand what’s happening in real time, and how to correct errors in real time, and may thereby know something that an omniscient, timeless god who lives above life does not. But the “knowing it all” of Homer’s gods doesn’t always include knowing material facts. Eidothea says, “You are a king, it seems” – she doesn’t immediately know Menelaus. Nor does she necessarily recognize herself: “he’s my father, they say,” she says, equivocating as to her genealogy. This distance from her father may enable Eidothea to violate Proteus’s trust. Indeed, the gaps in the Homeric gods’ knowledge may allow them to affirm life over destiny. Proteus urges Menelaus, “No more now, Menelaus. How long must you weep? Withering tears, what good can come of tears? None I know of. Strive instead to return to your native country – hurry home at once! Either you’ll find the murderer still alive or Orestes will have beaten you to the kill.” Here, ignorance may be a boon.

Truth, as we will see, is a major concern of “Proteus” in Ulysses, and the theme is brought up in Homer during the lead-up to the conversation between Telemachus and Menelaus. Telemachus begs, “Don’t soften a thing; tell me, clearly,” and Menelaus responds, “I’ll skew and sidestep nothing, nor deceive you, ever.” And yet, the relationship between lying and truth-telling in the episode is not always clear. Proteus’s epithet is the “old man of the sea who never lies” – and yet he is the master of transformation and artifice. Moreover, a focus on uncovering truth can distract our heroes from proper action. Telemachus begs his leave of Menelaus, saying, “True, I’d gladly sit beside you one whole year without a twinge of longing for home or parents. It’s wonderful how you tell your stories, as you say – I delight to listen!” We might wonder what bearing this theme has on the Odyssey as a whole: at once mythological and holistically honest, its sheen of truth may be as bewitching as Circe’s magic.

Proteus, Change, and Thought

The protean theme has purchase in “Proteus” of Ulysses, in which Stephen is fundamentally preoccupied with uncovering truth by tracing its duplicitous manifestations. Menelaus succeeds in forcing Proteus to reveal the secret to breaking the spell that had kept him in Egypt, far from home, and his presence at table with Telemachus proves his success; perhaps Stephen can find an analogous truth that will allow him to come into an understanding of himself, or an understanding of his understanding of the world.

It is inevitable, to Stephen’s mind, that we should see only a representation of reality, and not reality itself (unless, presumably, we can hold onto reality tightly enough for it to reveal truth to us). “Ineluctable modality of the visible,” with which he starts the chapter, apparently refers to Aristotle’s contention in Of Sense and the Sensible that what is perceived by the eye is not inherent in the subject itself; unlike the ear, which interacts with the sound, or the taste, which interacts with the substrate, the eye does not come into direct contact with the thing it perceives. “Thought through my eyes,” then, responds to two concerns: first, that one’s perceptions are themselves unfaithful to the independent reality from which they arise; and, second, that the thoughts one constructs through an interpretation of the visual world are, perhaps, ill founded (3.1-2). Nevertheless, Stephen thinks that his perceptions are “at least that if no more” – that is to say, it may be that the physical manifestation or communication is, in some mysterious way, reflective of a higher truth, if only by dint of the truth that they accurately reflect themselves, and perceptions are always, in a sense, real (3.1).

Stephen encounters the same problem in the auditory, which is experienced through time, as “nacheinander” implies – “one after another,” as it is translated, is the mode of apprehending sound and also Stephen’s mode of apprehending the crushing shells as he walks on them. The one-after-another, time-based perception inherent in auditory experience and in the experience of self is not different in kind than the side-by-side experience of the visual and sensory fields. Story-telling, then, or stream-of-consciousness, does not provide an escape from the endless transformation of reality; it’s merely a different manifestation of that transformation.

Stephen’s frequent shifts in language, and his awareness of language as a constructed system of representation, reiterate the Proteus theme. He thinks of “aleph” and “alpha” next to one another, the first letters of the Hebrew and Greek alphabets, and connects them in his mind with “being as gods,” recalling the hubris of the builders of the Tower of Babel (3.38). The possibility of understanding – of total translation – is a threat to divinity itself, much as Proteus’s prophecy accesses the minds of the gods and potentially subverts their will. The invention of language is “nought, nought, one,” the creation of something from nothing; logos is a divine power (3.39-40). Stephen pokes fun at Samuel Johnson’s sardonic dictionary with his definition of a gate as that which you can put “five fingers through.” (3.8). He uses different languages for mysterious reasons known only to him and/or in order to allude to a specific author’s idea. Un-translated philosophical terms and arbitrary interjections from another language are used side by side: “maestro di color che sanno,” “nacheinander,” “nabeneinander,” “los demiurgos,” “dominie deasy kens them a,” “basta,” and “frauenzimmer” are all used on the first page alone. Joyce, in inventing words to suit his thought, apes the historical production of literary jargon evident in “nacheinander” and “nabeneinander.” (3.13-7). In Stephen’s case, the materiality of language mandates the creation of a new language, as it did in Portrait: “Crush, crack, crick, crick,” he says, describing his feet playing across the shells, and then makes a pun on “shells” as money in “Wild sea money.” (3.19). Sometimes, as in the case of “basta,” a single concept transforms itself arbitrarily, from its expression in one language to its expression in another (3.26). There, the difference in words is a byproduct of cultural and historical differences. At other times, though, a language must be invented in order to capture an elusive concept, and different languages’ expression of the same concept reflects on those cultures’ understanding of the concept itself. Not only then, do concepts change shape as they take on and cast off the mantles of individual idioms, but the purpose of the languages in which concepts express themselves itself transforms. Sometimes language attempts to mimic its referent and sometimes it acts merely as a “signature.”

Stephen reintroduces the theme of his concern with man as “creation from nothing” in Chapter III, reflecting on the possibility of truth presenting itself metonymically (3.35). Divine life, it seems, constantly manifests in new and unexpected forms, while Stephen is tied to one fundamental manifestation of his being, his singular body. The multifaceted nature of the godhead and of reality seems to pit human life on one hand against inanimate and holy life on the other. Yet the singularity of Stephen’s expression also allows him to see the individual shapes assumed by the world in which he lives, while the united godhead, which itself takes different shapes, necessarily sees space and time in a unified whole. The human and the divine variously engage wholeness and singularity, deceptive form and formless identity. It seems one cannot have a singular framework without seeing a faceted reality, and one cannot be free of framework without neglecting temporal reality.

Stephen also considers that, though he was willed into existence, God “may not will [him] away or ever.” (3.48). He has attained an independent identity, and one that, perhaps, is no longer fully understood by the godhead, as it no longer has the power to undo it. The possibility of an artistic viewpoint as a force independent of and perhaps comparable to that of the Creator is the heretical underpinning of Stephen’s mission. The heresiarchs Stephen recalls pose an interesting question with regard to the Proteus theme: is it possible that all possible views of the religion are the necessary lead-up to the attainment of an actual truth, as Proteus’s various forms are? And, if so, are they reflective of that truth at all, or are they, like our various perceptions, merely evidence of the inexplicability of unperceived reality? Similarly, does Stephen’s unique artistic vision contribute to and/or represent a grander truth, does it comprise its own truth, or does it distract from Truth? In contemplating his fear of the dog that approaches him, and not concentrating on feeling that fear, Stephen may be pursuing a higher life, or he may merely be putting the only life that matters (that is to say, the life he’s living in reality, which enables the life of his mind) in jeopardy.

Stephen reiterates the hope that he may in fact squeeze truth from the rapidly transforming façade of his world in his claim that he is “here to read.” (3.2). Though he may only access the “signatures of all things” – that reality which Boehme posited as the visual experience opposing spiritual identities, the signature to be read – the signature is intended to illuminate truth (3.2). As Wolfgang Iser points out in “Patterns of Communication in Joyce’s Ulysses,” Stephen’s project (and, by extension, the Modernist project) seems to directly invert the Protean theme. Menelaus, by seizing Proteus, is able to get at the unequivocal truth about the world. Yet Stephen’s obsession with reality as such – his deep investigation into the framework of perception – makes impossible an unequivocal embrace of any objective truth. The unimpeachable truth that Stephen wrests from the Proteus of his mind is the nature of apprehension itself, but his understanding of that nature cannot yield an understanding of the outside world, as it did for Menelaus. Indeed, the harder Stephen grips Proteus, the more clearly he alienates himself from the outside world, and the more firmly he nestles into the subjective scaffolding of his own mind. It’s no coincidence that the reader cannot justify the jumps Stephen’s mind makes without resorting to sympathizing with Joyce’s project of interiority.

Rhythm and Nancheinander in “Proteus”

Throughout episode 3 of Ulysses, Stephen’s stream of thought tends toward the organizationally entropic, always moving to a state of increasing fragmentation and disorder. And, while his thoughts are driven largely by allusions and associations, with little preference for one idea over the next, nonetheless the frequency and tempo of the interruptions increase the further Stephen that goes into his own thoughts. This constant accelerando only seems to reset upon his encountering some kind of “real” event in his walk along the beach. An interesting exception to this pattern, however, is when Stephen thinks back to Buck’s line about his aunt and Stephen’s mother: “The aunt thinks you killed your mother. That’s why she won’t” (3.200). Curiously, this prompts Stephen to play in his head a popular tune by Percy French (last name a coincidence or chosen specifically?), wherein certain key lyrics are substituted to make the song relevant to Stephen and Buck’s interaction.

What strikes us about the interjection of the song, though, is its suddenly ordered, rhythmic quality, especially when juxtaposed with the scattered nature of Stephen’s previous recollections. Moreover, it is as if this interjection calls back Stephen’s consciousness to the present, even returning a kind of syntactic regularity to the narrative: “His feet marched in sudden proud rhythm over the sand furrows, along by the boulders of the south wall” (3.205-6). Interestingly, although his gait and his thoughts are both proceeding rhythmically, it is unclear exactly which has prompted the other phenomenologically, further complicating this idea of nacheinander and one’s perception of time as a consecutive entity.

Color in “Proteus”

While the episode begins with Stephen’s attempts to test the “Limits of the diaphane” (3.4), imagining what it would be like to bleed color from the world around him, nonetheless color bleeds back into Stephen’s consciousness over the course of the episode, eventually inundating the language with washes of green and gold. For instance, by the time that the golden colors of the sun striking the beach around him returns Stephen to the “crude sunlight” of Paris’ “lemon streets” (3.209) — as well as the “gold teeth” of the women eating pastries, “their mouths yellowed with the pus of flan breton” (3.213-4) — by that point, Stephen is once again completely immersed in the coloristic world. If he finds himself, though, in a way acquiescing to these limitations of visual phenomena, yet his subconscious seems equally determined to probe the creative limits of such subjectivity, leaping from one coloristic association to the next and exploring their metaphoric potential. Yellow alone, for instance, takes him later to a description of Queen Victoria as an “old hag with the yellow teeth. Vieille ogresse with the dents jaunes” (3.232-3). We can trace this thought back to the “gold teeth” of the women earlier in the passage, but also to Buck Mulligan in episode 1, “Chrysostomos” (1.26), whose association of mistrust for Stephen is echoed in the choice of the word “pus,” lending the sweetness of the pastry the connotation of bodily decay (just as Buck’s perception of the world reduces us all ultimately to “tripes in the dissectingroom” (1.206), though his rhetoric may be superficially gilded with mirth).

Later, the gold, pastry-coated teeth are replaced by the “green fairy’s fang” of absinthe. According to Joyce’s schema, green is the color of the episode, representing the sea, and also the hallucinogenic absinthe that is so suggestive of transformation in its own right. Here, when the color green appears in the absinthe, it perhaps prepares us for the sea to take over at a later point, ushering in its images of decay with the “green blubbery whalemeat” (3.305-6) and the “stench of his green grave,” “full fathom five” out to sea (3.481, 470). Interestingly enough, though, gold and yellow together are represented as many times in the episode as is green (nine times each), and, although the sea takes on a kind of physical prominence in the chapter, it is curious that not even the sea is untouched by gold, as the the green water and the gold sand are seen merging in the “greengoldenly lagoons of sand” brought on by the rising tide (3.454). Perhaps it is fitting that the Protean-styled episode would be the one most defiant of Joyce’s own schema.

Protean Transformation of Language

The idea of tracing motifs through Joyce’s work is particularly fun when applied to Proteus, wherein one sentence may contain the same concept in several different languages, or wherein concepts themselves may evolve over the course of the episode. Thus, even something as basic in the episode as water takes on a plethora of significations within the scheme of Stephen’s uniquely Protean thought process. Of course, water itself always seems to be a loaded term for Joyce, given its associations with the sea, drowning, amniotic fluid, etc. Consider, though, the extent to which it transforms over the course of a short passage from “Proteus”:

“Galleys of the Lochlanns ran here to beach, in quest of prey, their bloodbeaked prows riding low on a molten pewter surf. Danevikings, torcs of tomahawks aglitter on their breasts when Malachi wore the collar of gold. A school of turlehide whales stranded in hot noon, spouting, hobbling in the shallows. Then from the starving cagework city a horde of jerkined dwarfs, my people, with flayers’ knives, running, scaling, hacking in green blubbery whalemeat. Famine, plague and slaughters. Their blood is in me, their lusts my waves. I moved among them on the frozen Liffey, that I, a changeling, among the spluttering resin fires. I spoke to no-one: none to me” (3.300-309).

To begin with we have the sea, but this already transforms almost immediately into a “molten pewter surf.” (3.301). We can imagine the “bloodbeaked” prows set against this red sea, running too with the blood of whales (3.301). The blood is also Stephen’s blood. Finally, we have the waves of the ocean set against the image of the frozen Liffey. The sea, then, is both green and red, blood and water, flowing and frozen. It, too, is a “changeling,” in a constant state of flux that borders on a lack of definition, and it encompasses, in a way, the other opposites that are seen later in the episode: the living dog juxtaposed with its dead brother, Stephen and the drowned man, the “Kish lightship” and the ship sailing offshore — all of these pairings are closely bound up in their seaside setting, and share the ambiguous dual identity of the tides (3.308. 267).

Works Cited

Gifford, Don. Ulysses Annotated. Second edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. Garden City: Anchor Press, 1961.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. Ed. Hans Walter Gabler. New York: Vintage Books, 1986.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Ed. Philip Edwards. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Wolfgang Iser, “Patterns of Communication in Joyce’s Ulysses.” The Implied Reader. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974, pp. 196–208.

All Yale Modernism Lab in-text citations of Ulysses have been formatted in the following style:

(Episode #.Page#). For example, the opening “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan,” which is on the first line of the first episode of Ulysses, would be cited as (1.1). All citations come from the Hans Walter Gabler edition of the text.