Episode 1: Telemachus

I hope you have all had a chance to read the first episode. Check the project’s introduction for an explanation and links.
My primary copy of Ulysses.

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. (1.1–2)

My main copy of Ulysses (of course I have more than one) is rather heavily annotated at this point. The first marginal notation I come across here says “State-cross: Locate S [Stephen] w/in historical/political terms—G.B., HR Church.” I don’t know where this insight came from, probably the professor who gave the course in which I first read this book[1], but it’s a very interesting idea. Look at the sentence again:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

Lest you think this is grasping at straws, Stephen later reiterates it in conversation: “I am a servant of two masters . . . an English and an Italian. . . . The imperial British state . . . and the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church” (1.638–43).[2]

Ireland in 1904 was a colony of Great Britain. It’s not the sort of colony we usually think of when we talk about colonialism, because nowadays the Irish are seen as white and colonialism is something that white people do to non-white people (for example, the French in Algeria, the Belgians in the Congo, the French in Indochina, the British in India, the British in Burma). But the British have very much colonized Ireland and were governing them. On the other hand we have the Roman Catholic Church (or Holy Roman Apostolic Church, as Stephen Dedalus would refer to it), which exercised at the time (and for most of the 20th century and on into the 21st) enormous power over the people of Ireland. One thing I’m going to argue in this essay is that there are strong colonialist themes running through this book. This is not a controversial claim—a cursory search of the internet provides a number of papers, such as Roghayeh Farsi’s “James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Post-Colonial Text,” which argue essentially this. Worth noting is that Joyce began writing in 1918, shortly before Ireland declared its independence (January 1919) and began the Irish War of Independence with Britain; this war concluded around the time Ulysses was published in full (1921 versus 1922). Where is the line between a colonial novel and a post-colonial novel? We must be very close to it.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Let me back up a bit. The first three episodes of the book make up the “Telemachiad,” which is to say their focus is on our Telemachus, Stephen Dedalus.

Stephen Dedalus is one of the main characters in the book; in this section we meet two major supporting characters, Buck Mulligan and Haines. They are all three staying together in a Martello Tower, which is one of a bunch of towers put up in Ireland to look out for the possible invasion of Napoleon.[3]

Buck Mulligan is a medical student who is witty, quick to make up songs and ditties, and who holds nothing sacred, as he tells Stephen: “And what is death . . . your mother’s or yours or my own? You saw only your mother die. I see them pop off every day in the Mater and Richmond and cut up into tripes in the dissectingroom. It’s a beastly thing and nothing else” (1.4–6).

Haines, on the other hand, is “a ponderous Saxon [i.e., British] . . . [who is] bursting with money and indigestion” (1.51–2). He is every inch the colonial Brit, although he would no doubt claim himself enlightened. Tellingly, Mulligan observes that Haines’s father “made his tin by selling jalap to the Zulus or some bloody swindle or other” (1.156–7). This is a reflection of British colonialism[4]—the Zulus lived in Southern Africa and were defeated in the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879, which led to the fall of the Zulu empire. Haines is writing about Irish folklore (a book, I believe, possibly related to his degree) and has come to Dublin to do research. It is interesting that he is in fact living with two Irish men, neither of whom is exactly interested in serving as a native informant to him, but both of whom really want something from him—Mulligan wants money, and Stephen wants him to go away[5]. In fact, Stephen and Mulligan’s attitudes toward Haines are well, if unintentionally, summarized by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth, when he writes of how native intellectuals are taught by colonialist bourgeois to believe in the ideals of Western civilization, which he describes as existing on a “Greco-Latin pedestal” (46). During the course of the decolonization process, the native intellectual begins to understand how indoctrinated into the ideology of his conquerors he has been, and eventually “he turns himself into an awakener of the people; hence comes a fighting literature, a revolutionary literature, and a national literature” (223).[6] So on the one hand we have Stephen the bard who wants to be rid of the British, and on the other hand Buck Mulligan the medical student who wants to Hellenize Ireland (1.158). What a pair. Haines’s attitude is typically apathetic, saying “An Irishman must think [that he is a servant of the imperial British state], I daresay. We feel in England that we have treated you rather unfairly. It seems history is to blame” (1.647–9). This is, implicitly, the viewpoint Jean Paul Sartre is raging about in his introduction to Fanon’s aforementioned text.[7]

The presence of the Catholic Church should also be regarded as a force for colonization; as Fanon puts it, “The Church in the colonies is the white people’s Church, the foreigner’s Church. She does not call the native to God’s ways but to the ways of the white man, of the master, of the oppressor” (42). And indeed, the Catholic Church’s oppressiveness in Ireland has been well documented (see for example Christopher Hitchens’s article(s) on Mother Theresa, or any of the millions of things written about the Magdalena asylums).

I’m nearly seven hundred words into this section and I have covered about a page and a half of the text. Seems about right. That aside, I think I have begun to make my point about the colonial/post-colonial themes in this episode. This is something that took me very much by surprise when I began re-reading this section, as it happens—in between my previous reading of the book and this one, I spent a great deal of time studying post-colonialism and post-colonial literature, so it really jumped out at me in a way it didn’t before. I will not discuss the next episode here (spoilers!), but suffice to say that these themes continue there in several ways.

In the rest of the episode, the boys have breakfast, get milk from the milk woman, and walk down the shore. They make plans to meet again later for drinks—Mulligan promises Haines that “[Stephen] proves by algebra that Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father” (1.555–7). Then Mulligan and Haines go to bathe in the ocean and Stephen continues on to work, which takes us to the next episode. Tune in next time!


[1] I’ll do him the honor of not giving his name here. He probably wouldn’t want to be associated with this kind of project. Also, he was kind of an asshole.

[2] The basic rule of Joycean scholarship is assume everything is intentional, because it generally is. At least, this is my interpretation; I can’t claim to be deeply immersed in the academic side of Joyce at this point.

[3] I recall being told that the Irish were hoping that Napoleon would help to liberate them from the British, but I cannot find a citation for that. However, Gifford does note that the French made four attempts between 1796–8 to provide assistance to the Irish during a revolution (23). For a picture of a Martello Tower and more on their history than is strictly necessary, see their Wikipedia page. Hope that was fun for you.

[4] Edward Said often looks at the small mentions of colonialism that mostly live in the background of British literature, such as the very brief discussion of the slave trade in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Which is to say, this is a brief but important mention.

[5] As with many things in Joyce’s works, this is evidently drawn from an experience he had in which one of the other guests in the place he was staying had a nightmare and fired several shots from his gun into the wall above Joyce’s bed in the night. Joyce noped out in the morning, which is why Stephen expresses to Mulligan that he wants Haines to leave and refers to Haines ranting during the night.

[6] Fanon characterizes this as the phases through which a native intellectual passes,[+] however within a single society it does seem possible to see intellectuals who are in different phases simultaneously—for example, see the letters of non-fictional people Mohandas Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. (Note to self: add a citation when this book is published.) I have borrowed some of this terminology from Spivak, who discusses the epistemic violence the education of the non-Western intellectuals causes and the tendency of the Western intellectual to overlook the influence of ideologies in critiquing the position of the subaltern AT LENGTH in her amazing article “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

[+] Just as an aside, I swear I had a really good quote about this but I’ve lost it. I guess I am reading too many things at once.

[7] Sartre writes, “You know well that we are exploiters. . . . With us, to be a man is to be an accomplice of colonialism, since all of us without exception have profited by colonial exploitation” (The Wretched of the Earth, 25). His entire introduction is a stirring excoriation of European imperialism and is well worth a read.


Farsi, Roghayah. “James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Post-Colonial Text.” The Criterion: An International Journal in English, vol. 4, no. IV (2013): 1–8.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press, 1961.

Gifford, Don, with Robert J. Seidman. Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses. 2nd ed., rev. and exp. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds.) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. London: Macmillan, 1988. Found online at http://www.mcgill.ca/files/crclaw-discourse/Can_the_subaltern_speak.pdf. (Online version is the referenced pagination.)
Thing I cannot cite yet, Routledge, 2014.

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