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If you know anything about Ulysses, you might know that it bears a strong family resemblance to Homer’s Odyssey. Joyce transposes elements of the ancient story to one day in the life of Dublin, a warm June day in 1904. Telemachus is the son of Odysseus (that’s Ulysses to you, if you’re Roman), and when you meet him, he is desperate to do something about the horde of suitors that is waiting to marry his mother and despoiling his home. He doesn’t remember his father, who’s been gone for a very long time.

But if you just pick up Joyce’s novel, you have no idea that the first episode is called “Telemachus.” [Nor, for that matter, do you know that it’s June 16, 1904, 8:00 a.m., or a Thursday. It takes hundreds of pages to figure this out. But we bring it to you on a platter!]

The word “Telemachus” appears nowhere in the book. Joyce had Homeric titles for all of the 18 episodes, however, and he used them regularly when talking about the book with his friends. In 1920, he created a “schema” for his friend (and writer and critic) Carlo Linati, which would quickly become the first of many tools for reading the book.

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Reader’s Guide for I: Telemachus

Dramatis Personae for I: Telemachus

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Leopold Bloom

The everyman hero of Ulysses, Joyce’s reworking of Odysseus.  Bloom is 38 years old, Hungarian Jewish from his father (Rudolf Virag) and Irish Catholic from his mother (Ellen Higgins).  He currently works as an ad canvasser for the newspaper The Freeman’s Journal, but he’s had other odd jobs throughout his life.  He spends the day of June 16 wandering around Dublin:  going to a funeral, checking in at the office, visiting the National Library, walking on the beach.  He’s a deeply human and compassionate character, and carrying around with him two heavy emotional burdens:  grief over the death of his infant son Rudy 11 years before the action of the novel, and anxiety over his impending cuckoldry by his wife Molly, with whom he has not had full sexual relations since their son died.

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[cf. 1922 5.18, Gabler 1.85]

A moment ago, Mulligan was quoting Swinburne when he referred to the sea as our “great sweet mother.”  He’s modulated into George William Russell a/k/a AE, who often referred to nature as the Mighty Mother. Russell was a preeminent literary figure in turn of the century Dublin, and in 1904 he became the first person to publish a short story by Joyce–in a newspaper he edited called The Irish Homestead.  Russell has a prominent part in Episode 9–“Scylla and Charybdis”–and we’ll certainly talk more about him then.

Back here in “Telemachus”, Mulligan’s comment will lead, a moment from now, into a discussion of Stephen’s mother’s death.  There’s a lot to be said about the different roles of mothers and fathers in Joyce’s world–especially in Episode 9.  Very briefly–mothers are associated with ultimate, undeniable truth–truth beyond language.  They may be the one true thing in life (a paraphrase). Paternity, however–especially in the days before genetic testing–was uncertain.  This uncertainty creates an intolerable vacuum, that has to be cemented over with legal, verbal certainties. In “Scylla,” Stephen talks about paternity as a “legal fiction,” (and you should put as much emphasis on the fiction as on the legal here).  You should also be thinking about Hamlet again, and always!

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View this Page of the Comic

Reader’s Guide for I: Telemachus

Dramatis Personae for I: Telemachus

____________________________________________________________

You can buy copies of the works mentioned by clicking on the links below.