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They key thing that happens on this page (so to speak) is Mulligan asking for the key to the tower. We know that Stephen has paid the rent, we know that he’s the real intellectual, we know that Mulligan has been overplaying their friendship to Haines for the sake of squeezing some money out of the Englishman, we know that Mulligan’s real interest in Stephen pales in comparison to his more craven or conniving plans.
By giving up the key, Stephen is relinquishing control of the tower to an untrustworthy friend. As he does so, he knows it’s a turning point in his relationship with Mulligan and in his life. By handing over the key, he is freeing himself from the “third master” who wants him for the “odd jobs.”
And of course, Haines, the Englishman, prudently shows himself to be afraid of swimming on a full stomach. Or maybe the sight of naked Mulligan disheartened him.
A small detail that you may want to know about…I’m not sure if I read this in Stuart Gilbert’s study or Harry Levin’s or somewhere else…but the key to the Martello Tower was supposed to be pretty bulky, bulky enough to hold down a pile of clothes from being blown away in the wind. I think if I remember correctly around six inches long. Let the phallus references begin…
Yeah, I actually shortened the key size here as I thought it would look cumbersome and, as you’ve noted, really way too phallic.
Stephen’s walking stick remains “actual size” however, so he need not feel emasculated.