I am now writing a book based on the wanderings of Ulysses. ‘The Odyssey,’ that is to say, serves me as a ground plan. Only my time is recent and all my hero’s wanderings take no more than 18 hours. – James Joyce, 1918
For a discussion of this topic, check out our podcast episode here.
Welcome to the first post in an occasional series in which I read The Odyssey, break down the references in each of Ulysses’ eighteen episodes and pull out the ancient Greek parallels. Ulysses has its basis in Homer’s ancient Greek epic, so exploring the journeys of Leopold Bloom and Odysseus side by side seems like an obvious route. However, a word of caution: while The Odyssey is present in the text of Ulysses, knowing and understanding the Homeric parallels in Ulysses will only take you so far and will sometimes present you with “false friends” – apparent parallels where there are none. It’s kind of like the Spanish word embarazada. It looks a lot like a familiar English word, but using it to mean embarrassment might lead to… well, embarrassment.
Just so we’re clear on terms – “Homeric parallels” are the ways in which Ulysses is modeled on Homer’s Odyssey. “Ulysses” is the Latin name for the main character (Odysseus in Greek) after all. If you’ve used a reading guide or annotation to Ulysses, you’ve likely noticed that each episode in the novel is given a title corresponding to The Odyssey. The first chapter about Stephen and the boys in the tower is called “Telemachus,” for instance. Although these designations are common coin amongst Ulysses enthusiasts, they never appeared in any published edition of the book. They were popularized by Stuart Gilbert after they appeared in his 1930 book Ulysses – A Study. Joyce provided Gilbert with a schema outlining his novel as well as prominent themes and parallels in each episode. If you use an annotation that lists the corresponding organ, color, art etc. for each chapter, these also have their roots in Joyce’s schemata.
The organization of the schema proved popular in the ensuing decades of Ulysses criticism because it adds order to a novel that is frequently opaque and (seemingly) disordered. While the Homeric parallels correspond thematically to each episode, they are not one-to-one correspondences narratively. Some of the connections are, in my opinion, a bit tenuous, and there is plenty in the novel that has nothing to do with Homer or ancient Greece. Let’s be honest here – Ulysses would be a much less compelling novel if it were merely a “modern retelling” of The Odyssey.
Joyce himself said after the fact that he introduced the schema via Gilbert as a marketing angle. Imagine giving an elevator pitch of Ulysses without mentioning The Odyssey. It’s way easier to drum up support for a book that can be boiled down to, “It’s basically The Odyssey, but it’s set in 1904 Dublin and takes place in one day.” The schema is much easier to talk about than the text of Ulysses. Also keep in mind Ulysses was banned in the United States as an obscene work in 1930. Linking it to one of the most important works in Western literature was a way to make it seem less like a tawdry bit of pornography.
Having said all that, having a working knowledge of The Odyssey can inform your Ulysses reading experience in some meaningful ways. Let’s take a look at the first episode of Ulysses, “Telemachus,” through the lens of The Odyssey.
The Odyssey, Book 1 & 2:
Telemachus is the son of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, who disappeared after the Trojan War. Telemachus’ mother, Penelope, is beset by suitors who are basically camped out in their house eating all their food and drinking all their booze. Enter Athena, who shows up in disguise and persuades Telemachus to make a rousing speech to muster support to go looking for Odysseus. The suitors shout back. Telemachus is discouraged. Athena (in disguise) lifts his spirits while he broods on a beach. Telemachus and supporters take to the high seas. Adventure!
So, this sounds nothing like the first chapter of Ulysses. I hate to be the one to say I told you so…
What The Odyssey can help us understand about Ulysses is its characters’ personalities and motivations. Let’s start with Stephen Dedalus. In Joyce’s schema, Stephen corresponds to Telemachus. Both are naïve, young men (Stephen, the “jejune Jesuit”) who gain wisdom over the course of their journey. There are many surface level differences (Stephen lost his mother, not his father, and Simon Dedalus isn’t exactly beset by lady-suitors), but the main thing to take away is that both Telemachus and Stephen are characters guiding the opening moves in a story that is not their own. Canadian literary scholar Hugh Kenner says, “Stephen thinks he is in a book called Hamlet and never discovers it’s really called Ulysses and that he is a supporting actor, not the lead.” Stephen acts as a son-figure to Bloom’s father-figure at the climax of Ulysses, so placing Stephen in the Telemachus role primes the reader for this eventual meeting, along with a boatload of other father-son metaphors in the first chapter alone.
Buck Mulligan’s correspondence to Antinöus, one of the more boisterous suitors of Penelope, is a little more direct. Mulligan has taken up residence in a tower on which Stephen pays the rent, mocks and patronizes Stephen, eats the food and then has the gall to demand the key from Stephen. Of course, Stephen directly refers to him as “usurper” at the close of the chapter as well.
In fact, Mulligan is the character mostly closely tied to ancient Greece in this episode, if not in the entire novel. He states outright his goal is to “hellenise” Ireland – to make it more Greek. He insists Stephen must learn Greek himself and visit Athens with him. He even drops a few Greek words and phrases to drive this point home (“thalatta” means “the sea” and the phrase “”Epi oinopa ponton” means “over the wine dark sea” which is from, you guessed it, The Odyssey; Joyce’s version is the “snotgreen sea”). He mentions the Greek origins of the name “Dedalus.” Mulligan also refers to the Martello tower as the “omphalos,” or navel, of his artistic movement. In The Odyssey, Athena refers to the island where Odysseus is stranded as “the navel of the sea.” Certainly not a coincidence. One final detail in this Greece Mega Mix of Homeric parallels – Stephen refers to Mulligan as “Chrysostomos” while Mulligan performs his mock mass atop the Martello tower. There is more to this reference than just Greekness, but it does establish Mulligan’s connection to all things Greek.
And Haines? Telemachus confronted more than one usurper, so why shouldn’t Stephen? Haines also primes Stephen (and the reader) to think about history’s role in Stephen’s life (“I suppose history is to blame,” says he), which sets the reader up for the historical ideas Stephen ponders in the next episode, “Nestor.”
And finally, there’s ol’ Gummy Granny. Joyce ties the milkwoman to Athena (disguised as Mentor) in his schema. I find this parallel the most difficult to interpret. Mentor is a goddess-in-disguise who gives Telemachus the push he needs to be a courageous man, but the milkwoman is humble and obsequious. In his collection of essays on Joyce called ReJoyce, Anthony Burgess posits that the milkwoman mirrors Athena in that “the sacramental potion of the day’s beginning cannot be taken without her.” The hellenised Mulligan and his follower Haines imbibe milky tea, while Stephen takes his black, rejecting Mulligan’s hellenisation.
Burgess, A. (1968). ReJoyce. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Gifford, D., & Seidman, R. J. (1988). Ulysses annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Homer., translated by Palmer., G.H. (1912). The Odyssey. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications.
Frank K. (2013, April 2). Stephen and Telemachus. Retrieved from: http://ulyssesetc.blogspot.com/2013/04/stephen-and-telemachus.html
Kenner, H. (1987). Ulysses. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=Ajlz5rzPBOkC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA19#v=onepage&q&f=false
Lennon, J.M. (2015, Feb. 18). Telemachus: The first chapter of Ulysses. Retrieved from https://medium.com/world-literature/telemachus-ba574b16f304