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Would you have guessed that the episode would end with a talking seal?
Professor Gifford is kind enough to remind us that in the Odyssey, seals are connected to the sea-god Proteus–they’re his informants. And Proteus is the title of an upcoming episode–not the next one, but the one after.
So you could say that the seal is telling Stephen that Mulligan is a usurper, or that when Stephen hears the seal’s barking, he imagines that it’s telling him that. Or maybe the seal has nothing to do with it.
A number of the episodes of Ulysses end on equivocal moments like this, where there’s a final word, a closing point, that seems to close the chapter like a well-made box (to paraphrase Yeats), but that leads off in a number of possible interpretive directions. You could even say the final episode, with its famous concluding “Yes,” is the ultimate example of this.
In any event, we’re left with this cinematic image of Stephen heading out into the world, without a home, without a clear path. What would it mean for him to have a homecoming? What kind of father would he seem to be looking for, if any? What exactly does he want, anyway?
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This is an especially marvelous page, and the less said about it the better. But something must be said.
So Stephen, Mulligan, and Haines are eating their breakfast. There being no refrigerator, milk is delivered every day by a milkwoman, who’s presumably just come from the cows. Stephen (or is it Stephen?) imagines her as a messenger in disguise, like Athena. If the milkwoman is Athena, and Stephen is Telemachus, then we can expect that in some way she’s going to send him on his way, wittingly or unwittingly.
Several old women represent Ireland symbolically: “Silk of the Kine and poor old woman,” are two, also the Shan van Vocht or Cathleen Ni Houlihan. So you could say that Stephen and Mulligan’s profanation of Irish culture (and Irish women) has been punctured by the arrival of the symbol of Ireland herself. We will soon find that she’s not a perfect symbol of all things Irish, but we’ll save that for a later panel.
So what’s with the naked lady? It’s all part of Stephen’s notion of her as a goddess in disguise, also a figure of Ireland enslaved, serving her conqueror (Haines, the Englishman) and her gay betrayer (Mulligan). If a messenger from the gods comes to visit your for breakfast, in the guise of a poor old woman, how might that change the way you face your day?
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Back to the Odyssey for a second. Stephen is Telemachus, in a house of usurpers, a little too young and too weak to do anything about it but complain. Mulligan, as head usurper, here is still on his tear about selling fine original Irish witticisms to Haines. Stephen plays along half-heartedly, more enjoying the joke at Haines’ expense than whatever it is Mulligan is up to. Telemachus must have been tempted to just give in to the suitors–his situation is desperate, there’s no reason to think his father was going to return. Stephen is similarly lost.
Stephen is not, we will see, a big fan of the Irish nativist trend that was gaining in popularity at that time. There is so much scholarship on this moment, so much said about it, that I’m reluctant to even sketch it out. Here’s some erudition on the Celtic Revival, as it’s sometimes called. Haines is in Dublin to capitalize on then trend. If you’ve read Dubliners recently, you may remember the word “simony,” one of the three memorable words on the first page of the first story. Simony is the sin of selling holy benefits, sacraments and otherwise, for money. A big sin in the Joycean universe, and part of what we’re seeing here too.
The Mabinogion is a set of early Welsh stories, sometimes characterized as a Welsh national epic. The Upanishads are more of a Hindu religious text than a national myth, but still… you get the point.
So much of what’s going on in Mulligan’s palaver has to do with William Butler Yeats and the role he played in the Celtic Revival, aka Celtic Twilight (the title of a Yeats book), aka, per Joyce “Cultic Twalette.” And yet this critique is put in Mulligan’s mouth–Mulligan wants to take his shots at the Irish revival and eat on it too, and it’s that inconsistency that Stephen can’t abide.
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In the top three pictures, Stephen looks out to sea while Mulligan goes down the stairs, reciting a Yeats poem. In the bottom two frames, a voice–presumably inside Stephen’s head, mashes together the poem and his perception of the sea. It’s another example of the “Uncle Charles Principle,” where a voice that is ostensibly the narrator’s takes on the personality and knowledge of an individual character.
Also important to note that if we are inside Stephen’s head here, at least partly, that Stephen is beginning to work on a poem. His mind has left the conflict with Mulligan and has begun to shape, to try to capture in words, a visual impression.
The reference to “lightshod hurrying feet” sounds like a reference to the god Mercury, who, in the Odyssey, is described several times as running over the surface of the ocean with his winged sandals, on his way to deliver messages to mortals.
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View this Page of the Comic
Reader’s Guide for I: Telemachus
Dramatis Personae for I: Telemachus