I haven’t let this young man off very lightly, have I? Many writers have written about themselves. I wonder if any one of them has been as candid as I have? – James Joyce to Frank Budgen
This is a post in a series called Decoding Dedalus where I take a passage of Ulysses and break it down line by line.
The passage below comes from “Proteus,” the third episode of Ulysses. It appears on page p. 50 in my copy (1990 Vintage International). We’ll be looking at the passage that begins “Five fathoms…” and ends “We enjoyed ourselves immensely.”
Before we leave the shores of Sandymount at the end of “Proteus,” we should dive into one last motif just a bit deeper. We’ve previously focused on drowning in relation to the death of Stephen’s mother and as a manifestation of Stephen’s hydrophobia, but at the end of the episode, the image of a drowned man in Dublin Bay resurfaces once more. As we’ll see, Stephen fear of drowning extends beyond his memories of his mother coughing up bowls of green phlegm.
Moving his focus from the sand, stones and seaweed on Sandymount Strand, Stephen begins to contemplate the waters of Dublin Bay. He has attempted to categorize and order the scattered people, creatures and detritus of the shore through Berkeleyan idealism and the fixed language of heraldry, but the sea is still a wild place, shifting and protean. The sea contains mysteries yet untamed, the ninth wave out from land a portal to the otherworld. It is not confined to the restrictions of solid forms like those found on the shore. It is a place of possibility, and ultimately, change.