“Stately, plump”: the first line of ULYSSES

“Stately, plump”: the first line of Ulysses
by M. Thomas Gammarino

(author of the novel BIG IN JAPAN: A GHOST STORY)

First a caveat:

Ulysses is my favorite novel. I’d just as soon it be something else—I dislike bandwagons as much as the next serious reader—but Ulysses, which routinely tops the best-novel-ever lists, happens to be the one book which has most provoked and inspired me, and it’s one of very few novels I intend to reread regularly until I die. By way of evidence, I’ll cite the pilgrimage I made a few years back to the Martello Tower so that I could better feel the first chapter. And I might mention also that my own first novel, Big in Japan, pays homage to Ulysses throughout.

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And so Stephen walks away from Mulligan and Haines, ostensibly going off to work, but also having determined that he cannot come back.  He is no longer comfortable there, and really no longer welcome.

As he walks away the prayer for the dying comes back to him (“Liliata rutilantium…”),  the prayer his mother wanted him to say at her bedside while she was dying . Why?  Perhaps because of the priest he saw swimming, and Mulligan’s sign of the cross… or perhaps his decision to not return to the tower is a decision to not submit to Mulligan, in the same way that he refused to submit to his mother’s or his family’s will.  The latter reason would also explain why he thinks that he also can’t go home, to his family’s home.

In the Odyssey, Telemachus knows exactly why he’s leaving Ithaca, and he knows what he needs to do, and he knows where to go.  He doesn’t know where his father Odysseus is, but Athena has told him how to go about learning what happened.  He has a plan… where Stephen’s plan is less clear. He has a job to go to, he has a date for drinks later (he won’t go, by the way). What can we say Stephen is leaving to find?

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Well, alright. More Nietzsche, then, as Mulligan closes the loop on his Zarathustra-inspired teaching.  One of the ways Friedrich’s term “ubermensch” has been translated is “superman.”  Whether Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had the German philosopher in mind when they invented the noblest superhero of them all is a matter of debate, but I think Rob might be having fun with it here.  Certainly our stately, plump Buck Mulligan is quite a spectacle in flight.

Stephen’s thoughts, in the black boxes, come from an old Irish proverb (according to the great Gifford): “Beware of the horns of a bull, of the heels of a horse, of the smile of an Englishman.”  Stephen has been sensing trouble throughout the chapter, and things are no different here.

Mulligan proposes meeting at “The Ship,” which was a Dublin pub, but also has a nice overtone of the ship Telemachus uses to leave Ithaca, and the ship Antinoos uses to try to catch him.  Joyce must have liked the tidiness of the reference.

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The unwanted suitors in Ithaca (in Homer’s Odyssey) are described as eating and drinking up all the wealth of the household, as they wait for Penelope to make a decision about whether to remarry.  Mulligan has no compunction about living off the charity of others, which is even more galling when you consider that he’s clearly from a higher social class and greater family wealth than Stephen.  That Stephen is asked for the key and the two pence for a pint is his final indignity of the chapter.

For any of you interested in money, rest assured that Joyce keeps careful track of it throughout the novel.  Whether it was part of his quest for verisimilitude or just his own cash consciousness, the novel frequently mentions prices charged and amounts paid. There’s even a (more or less) complete budget of Leopold Bloom’s spending at one point.  In this chapter, we’ve seen the milkwoman already perform an elaborate calculation of the tower’s milk bill.

Mulligan’s priestly quote is a travesty of Proverbs 19:17 “He that hath pity on the poor lendeth unto the Lord,” done in the manner of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.  By taking Stephen’s money, Mulligan is, in a sense, stealing from the poor indeed.

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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.

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