Ulysses by James Joyce: Chapter 3

While the first two chapters weren’t so bad, chapter three proved a real challenge and redefined the word difficult! To see why here are the first three sentences of the opening:

“Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs.”

This chapter is patterned on the episode where Menelaus mentions Proteus in The Odyssey, a shape-shifting sea-god, and thus it is about the ephemeral nature of reality, both in the ways our individual lives change from birth to death and how nature is constantly changing around us.

Stephen is walking alongside the water considering the transient nature of reality (the water makes him consider this nature, hence the connection to Proteus). He explores the way his senses create his reality. Along the way, he comes to consider his own birth, his time spent in Paris, and ponders a dog exploring the dead body of another dog, which then leads Stephen to imagine a dead man drowning in the water.

I guess the best way to approach this chapter is to force yourself to get through it, despite its overwhelming difficulty. To make things more difficult, there are also large chunks in other languages (French, Greek, Latin that I noticed) interspersed with the already confusing English. Stephen also makes some moderately opaque allusions to historical personages. The best bet for the average reader might be not to try to understand everything, but rather get a sense of the general impression all of this leaves in the end. The shift of languages, the obscure allusions, and deep philosophical thoughts does a good job at characterizing Stephen as highly educated. The internal monologue that jumps from one idea to another, sometimes nonsensically and difficult to comprehend, gives the sense that Stephen is in existential turmoil. Stephen is suffering an existential crisis, considering the transient nature of reality and life in general.

In my comments on the first chapter, I said that I see Stephen not only occupying the role of Telamachus, but I get the impression he also is meant to be patterned off Hamlet based on allusions in the first chapter. With this in mind, I see this chapter as the equivalent of the “To be or Not to be” Speech. Hamlet suffers an existential crisis that sets this speech off in Shakespeare’s play. Stephen, too, suffers an existential crisis, which leads him to call into question the very nature of reality. Is reality a product of our individual subjectivity or does something objective exist beyond our autonomous perceptions? And if so, can we ever truly separate the two anyway? What is the nature of birth and death? What is the very nature of human existence in this world defined by history and the past and yet one that simultaneously changes all the time?

Stephen witnesses a midwife carrying a miscarried fetus (on the beach? In his imagination?) early in the chapter. The image of an umbilical chord leads him to picture a universal umbilical chord stretching back to the beginning of time of which all humans are a part. This image connects back to his earlier statement from the previous chapter about wanting to escape from the nightmare of history.  This seems like a major theme of the novel. We cannot escape history, either personal or political. It controls our present and future. Or to put it another way, what happened in the past controls who we are today! We see this in the way British interference in the history of Ireland affects the social, cultural and political sphere in the present narrative, Stephen’s troubled relationship with Christianity continually comes up in each chapter (although I haven’t spent much time exploring this sub-theme), his troubled relationship with his dead mother continually haunts him, and even the way the novel itself is patterned on an Epic Narrative from the ancient past. The past controls the present in both content and structure of the novel!

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