Ulysses is patterned on Homer’s Odyssey, with each chapter corresponding to its respective counterpart in the ancient epic poem. The opening of the novel mimics the opening of the Odyssey in which Telamachus bemoans his missing father and the suitors come to usurp his place with Penelope.
Stephen Dedalus lives unhappily with the brash and charming, Buck Mulligan, and the condescending British man named Haines. While Buck Mulligan shaves he chats with Stephen about money, religion, Stephen’s dead mother, and why Stephen doesn’t seem to like him anymore. Stephen mostly broods. They go down for breakfast where they meet up with Haines. A milkmaid arrives to deliver the milk for their tea. They go out to the water for a swim, and Stephen abandons them, but only after leaving them money for a drink.
Stephen Dedalus occupies the role of Telamachus and also is a literary counterpart to Joyce himself. The narrative presents him as possessing a formidable knowledge of literature, making references to Oscar Wilde, Matthew Arnold, and Shakespeare. It also presents him as brooding and unhappy, much like Telamachus. There are some differences. Instead of being haunted by the loss of his father, he is instead haunted by the loss of his mother. He keeps having a dream in which his mother’s dead ghost visits him. Hamlet is also mentioned in this chapter as well, creating an additional symbolic connection. These dreams of his mother’s ghost not only invert Telamachus’ yearning for his lost father, but also the dreams mimic the ghost of Hamlet’s father haunting Hamlet. Joyce uses these foreboding dreams to connect his narrative content to two major literary works. Stephan Dedalus is not just Telamachus’ counterpart, but his brooding nature and this symbolic connection with the dream suggests he also has elements of Hamlet.
Haines represents a usurper (a suitor figure in the original Odyssey). He is British and in Ireland to study it anthropologically. In the beginning when Stephen and Buck are talking in private it is clear that both Irish men dislike him because of his British origins. Britain was the historic oppressor of Ireland, and Joyce symbolizes this oppressor figure in Haines who attempts to understand Irish culture, and consequently define it, as an outsider. When the milkmaid shows up Haines begins to speak Gaelic to her, which she doesn’t understand and initially mistakes for French. The narrative describes her in such a way that implies that this quaint milkmaid is a symbol of the true Ireland. Haines not only speaks Gaelic, but believes that the Irish should speak Gaelic too. Very few of the native Irish know Gaelic anymore. Joyce is suggesting that culture is much deeper than just a language; to reduce a culture down to its language is superficial and condescending. Indeed, understanding the language in the original isn’t the same thing as understanding the culture. Indeed, the fact that the oppressor knows their ancient language and demands they return to their ancient language is another way of controlling and defining the culture. Despite knowing Gaelic, Haines doesn’t seem to recognize this symbolic face of Ireland standing before. This section then suggests Haines’, and consequently Britain’s, knowledge of Ireland is superficial. For him this milkmaid is only a servant in the process of serving him milk, which itself has symbolic overtones. There is further irony here as the reason nobody speaks Gaelic anymore and instead everybody speaks English is due to Britain’s domination.
This idea about language and culture is explored earlier in the chapter when Buck insists he will teach Stephen to read Greek so he can read the works in the original. But right before this statement Buck describes the water as: “the snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea,” a playful parodying of Homer’s poetics, but also suggestive that Buck is incapable of truly appreciating the beauty of Homer because of his superficial personality, one that tries to be clever, but isn’t. Stephen, with his understanding of literature and beauty, but unable to read Greek, probably understands Homer better than Buck who can read it in the original.
Buck Mulligan also is a usurper (a suitor figure). Joyce has a lot of fun playing with narrative structure by opening his novel, not with Stephen Dedalus, but with “stately plump Buck Mulligan [coming] from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” Buck Mulligan literally usurps the narrative from Stephen. He is a charming, friendly guy, but seems to take advantage of Stephen and wants to transform him to a light-hearted fun-loving guy like himself instead of a serious brooding literati. As evidenced by the earlier mocking of Homer’s language, also another example of Joyce’s playfulness since the larger narrative is structured around said narrative, Buck mocks other literary figures, and by extension the deeper transcendental qualities of literature that Stephen values. For example, while getting dressed Buck remarks, “I want puce gloves and green boots. Contradiction. Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.”
This is a line from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass talking about the many selves, and thus the depths, we have in ourselves. We are all complex beings. However, the way Buck Mulligan uses it in connection to unusual pairings of clothes suggests he is making a mockery of the famous line by using it to refer to something superficial. He drains it of its meaning and beauty, transforming it into a quick quip instead and conveying a false sense of wittiness.
The opening line when Buck first appears also reveals the plethora of the symbols found in chapter 1; and I suspect, will be found in the rest of the book. The mirror and the razor on the bowl of lather represent the crucifix; instead of “cleaning” the grime from our souls, the superficial Buck, and the superficial modern era, is more interested in removing the unsightly stubble from his face. In other words, his interest is in outside appearances, suggesting the spiritual nature of the cross has been usurped by the material world.
Another important symbol in the first chapter occurs when Stephen remarks that Buck’s “cracked lookingglass of a servant” (the mirror) is a symbol of Irish art. This an interesting image on a number of levels. It suggests incompleteness to Irish art, a fractured reflection of a fractured people underneath the yoke of British rule. The mirror and its association with a servant suggests that the art they produce is a reflection of their servitude and distorts the real image of Ireland, meaning the art they produce is poor copies of English art and can never be as good as the art of their British masters, at least not while they attempt to produce poor imitations of English art instead of a more authentic Irish art. Perhaps we might also see in this Joyce giving a justification for Ulysses as a true type of Irish art.