By Samantha Terkeltaub
Episode 1 of James Joyce‘s Ulysses centers around the interactions between Stephen, his housemate Buck Mulligan, and Buck’s guest Haines. The episode highlights the ways that Buck, who is in many ways Stephen’s foil and opponent, has encroached upon Stephen, both physically and mentally, and how he has come to take over Stephen’s space in the Martello tower. The episode concludes with Stephen describing Buck as the “usurper,” appropriately encapsulating the events that take place in the episode and Stephen’s actions to follow (1.744).
The episode opens with Buck mocking the actions of a priest at mass, an affront to the previously devout Dedalus, and an image that highlights Buck’s disrespectful and boisterous nature. Buck calls Stephen a “fearful Jesuit” and pokes fun at the Greek origin of his last name, calling it “absurd.” (1.8, 34). Buck nicknames Stephen “Kinch,” meaning knife-blade, which opposes Buck’s own “stately, plump” and “ungirdled” appearance (1.1, 3). Buck’s loud and theatrical gestures as he mimics the priest contrast with Stephen’s slow, weary, and quiet ones. Buck’s “light” appearance—he is wearing a yellow robe, is covered in white shaving cream, has “white teeth glistening here and there with gold points,” and has “light untonsured hair, grained and hued like pale oak” underscores Stephen’s dark, somber appearance (1.25-26, 15-16). Buck mocks Stephen for wearing second-hand clothing, for continuing to wear only black as he mourns his mother’s death, and for his infrequent bathing patterns. The physical contrasts between the two further highlight the alienation and sobriety that define Stephen.
After Buck concludes his performance of the mass, Stephen asks how much longer the Englishman Haines will be staying with them in the tower. The presence of Haines immediately brings forward the tension between English and Irish identities—wherever Stephen goes he cannot escape the haunting force of the Englishman. Buck backhandedly criticizes Stephen by telling him that Haines thinks that he is not a gentleman. Stephen worries about the violent nature of Haines, who screamed about a black panther in the middle of the previous night. “You saved men from drowning. I’m not a hero, however, if he stays on here I am off,” Stephen tells Buck (1.62-3). Haines poses an even greater threat to Stephen, the artist, than to Buck, the strong and ‘heroic’ doctor.
Buck continues to pester Stephen and asks him for his handkerchief to wipe his blade. Buck mocks Stephen’s dirty, “snotgreen” colored noserag, calling it the “new art colour for our Irish poets.” (1.73). Buck then gears the conversation to the “snotgreen sea,” which he deems their “great sweet mother.” (1.77-8). It is at this point in the episode that the reader learns that Stephen’s mother has died and that Stephen refused to kneel down and pray for her in her last moments. The narrator reveals that “[p]ain, that was not yet the pain of love, fretted his heart,”—Stephen is haunted by his decision and is visited by his deceased mother in his dreams (1.102). Buck tells Stephen that an acquaintance believes Stephen to have “general paralysis of the insane,” further evidence of the distance between Stephen and others as well as the psychological repercussions Stephen faces (1.128-9). Buck urges Stephen to look at himself in a cracked mirror that he has stolen from the female servant’s room. As Stephen looks at himself in the mirror, the narrator shifts from third-person to Stephen’s own voice, a break from the seemingly traditional narrative style that has guided the episode thus far. “Hair on end. As he and others see me. Who chose this face for me? This dogsbody to rid of vermin. It asks me too.” (1.136-7). These words of Stephen highlight the gloomy and negative vision he and those around him hold of him. That Stephen calls the cracked servant’s mirror a “symbol of Irish art” underscores his dim view of his country, his own art, and himself (1.146).
Stephen then confronts Buck about something that he said shortly after his mother’s death: “O, it’s only Dedalus whose mother is beastly dead.” (1.198). Buck, though temporarily flustered, brushes off his snide and cruel remark and proceeds to lecture Stephen on the triviality of death and the frequency with which he experiences it each day. Stephen remains offended, “shielding the gaping wounds which the words had left in his heart,” (1.216-7) and thinks again of images of his mother: “Her secrets: old featherfans, tasseled dancecards, a gaud of amber beads in her locked drawer…her shapely fingernails reddened by the blood of squashed lice from the children’s shirts.” (1.255-69). Stephen’s exclamation “No, mother! Let me be and let me live,” reveals even more strongly than before his internal torment (1.279).
Before Haines comes downstairs, Buck urges Stephen to ask him for money. Stephen, however, would prefer to use his own money and tells Buck he will get paid soon. The question of money underscores Buck’s role as “usurper” as well as Stephen’s discomfort with Haines—he would rather use his own money than be ‘paid for’ by an Englishman (1.744). Buck further encroaches upon Stephen by reciting Fergus’s song, the song that Stephen sang alone in his house as his mother was dying.
Haines enters the room with “welcome light and bright air” and the three eat breakfast while discussing the imminent arrival of the milkmaid (1.328). Buck hastily recites prayers as he quickly dishes out the food, further evidence his irreverent, obnoxious, nature. When the milkmaid arrives, she, in opposition to Haines, darkens the doorway. The milkmaid is an image of barrenness and death, an embodiment of all those qualities of Ireland that Stephen despises. The milkmaid pays more attention to Buck and Haines than to Stephen and does not speak Gaelic, a testament to her image as the dying Ireland. Stephen is the one who pays her, though he is two-pence short, a symbol perhaps of the distance he will always feel between him and his country.
As the three men finish their breakfast and get ready to leave the tower, Buck urges Stephen to tell Haines his take on Hamlet after Haines states that he would like to collect Stephen’s sayings. Stephen asks if he will get any money in return, whether from Haines or from the milkmaid. Stephen’s refusal to share his analysis of Hamlet with Haines points to his larger unwillingness to share his art with an Englishman, to give yet another part of himself away to another usurping force. The question of whether to take money from Haines or from the milkmaid, and Stephen’s conclusion that he sees little hope in either, underscores Stephen’s view that neither England nor Ireland can support his livelihood. The presence of Hamlet in the episode recalls the links to be made between Ulysses and Hamlet. As Harry Blamires points out in The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Ulysses, Buck in many ways is like Claudius, the evildoing power who wishes to appropriate power and control, and Stephen is like Hamlet, isolated, possibly mad, seeking to right the wrongful death of a parent (Blamires 5). Stephen, unlike Hamlet, does not need to avenge the murder of his father, rather his own regretful actions towards his mother’s death.
Buck, Haines, and Dedalus exit the castle and walk along the water. Buck continues his theatrical gestures as he taunts Stephen and chants a song, “the ballad of joking Jesus,” before he walks ahead (1.608). Stephen and Haines are left to one another and engage in a calm conversation. Stephen accepts a cigarette from Haines, a friendly, accepting gesture, even though the cigarette case, silver with an emerald is a symbol of the small gem that Ireland is to the dominant England, as pointed out by Blamires (Blamires 7). Stephen realizes that the “the cold gaze which had measured him was not all unkind” (1.634-5) and he discusses the servitude he feels to his English and Italian masters and eventually to the “imperial British state and the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church.” (1.643-4). Haines is understanding of Stephen and concludes, “it seems history is to blame.” (1.649). Haines’s statement cements the English dominance Stephen experiences and separates Haines, though he is an Englishman, from the damage that has been done.
Haines and Dedalus catch up to Buck who undresses and gets into the water. Haines says he will wait to go in. Buck demands that Stephen give him the key to the tower. He also demands an extra two-pence from Stephen. Stephen places the key and money on Buck’s clothing and begins to walk away. Buck tells Stephen to meet them at “The Ship” at noon for lunch. Stephen, however, has already decided that he will not sleep in the tower that night. His statement “Home also I cannot go,” underscores the sense of lostness and aloneness that fills him (1.740). Stephen has no true home to return to. Buck has taken away Stephen’s final scraps of a home life. Buck has seized Stephen’s physical belongings: his handkerchief, his money, his space in the house through Haines’s presence, and finally his key. His disrespectful nature and the abrasive, intrusive way with which he interacts with Stephen forces Stephen to face himself and the actions that haunt him. Through Buck’s usurpation, Stephen must leave the tower and face the world outside.
Blamires, Harry. The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Ulysses. (Routlegde: London, 1996).
Joyce, James. Ulysses. Ed. Hans Walter Gabler (Vintage: New York, 1986).
All Yale Modernism Lab in-text citations of Ulysses have been formatted in the following style: