Literature Study GuidesUlyssesPart 1 Episode 1 Summary

Ulysses | Study Guide

James Joyce

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Ulysses | Part 1, Episode 1 : The Telemachiad (Telemachus) | Summary



The first episode begins at 8:00 a.m. on Thursday, June 16, 1904. The action takes place on the outskirts of Dublin. Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus talk on the rooftop of a Martello tower, a coastal fort no longer in use for defense. They live there together. While shaving, Buck mockingly pretends to say Mass like a priest. Stephen's thoughts drift to memories of his mother, who died a year before following a difficult illness. He recalls seeing his dead mother in a dream. Buck has brought in a third roommate, Haines, an Englishman. Buck is boisterous and talkative on this morning, while Stephen is tired after being kept awake by Haines, who had nightmares.

Buck says he must get Stephen some shirts and handkerchiefs ("noserags"). He proposes loaning Stephen a pair of trousers, but Stephen says he can't wear gray because he is in mourning for his mother and should wear black. Buck laughs about Stephen's observing customs so carefully even though he "killed' his mother. (Buck's aunt thinks Stephen killed his mother, perhaps by going to Paris. At his mother's deathbed Stephen refused to kneel and pray with her, which Buck jokingly claims did her in.) Stephen compares Buck's cracked shaving mirror to "a symbol of Irish art." Buck tells Stephen that Haines wants to collect Stephen's sayings for a book. Stephen reveals Buck insulted him not too long ago; he overheard Buck say, "O, it's only Dedalus whose mother is beastly dead."

Buck makes breakfast for himself, Stephen, and Haines. As they sit down to eat, an old Irish woman drops by to deliver their milk. Haines the Englishman speaks Gaelic to her, but she can't understand him. Discussing history, politics, and religion, Buck, Stephen, and Haines walk to the shore to swim in the sea. Buck borrows some money from Stephen. Haines calls himself "a Britisher" and says he does not want his country to be overrun by "German jews" (the novel does not capitalize the word Jew). Buck asks Stephen to give him the key to the tower, and Stephen, feeling put out by Buck and Haines, resolves to sleep elsewhere that night. Stephen leaves to teach a class at a boys' school.


The first three episodes are called the "Telemachiad," a Greek word that means "the story of Telemachus." These episodes focus on Stephen Dedalus, who plays a role akin to that of Odysseus's son, Telemachus, in Homer's Odyssey.

Joyce uses a flexible style of third-person narration in "Telemachus." Sometimes the narration is omniscient, and sometimes it is stream of consciousness. Stream of consciousness is a style of narration that gets very close to a character's thoughts and sense impressions. In this episode the stream-of-consciousness narration presents Stephen's thoughts without quotation marks or the words Stephen thought. For example, Stephen thinks "agenbite of inwit," but the words are not presented as "'Agenbite of inwit,' Stephen thought to himself." However, the narration is not consistently limited to Stephen's perspective. It can also be omniscient, all-knowing. At the beginning of the episode when the narrator describes "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan," Stephen is not yet on the rooftop, so Buck is not seen from Stephen's perspective. The style of giving only fragments of Stephen's thoughts also lends intrigue to his character—his thoughts are alluded to without being fully explained.

When Stephen asks Buck about the day Stephen visited him after his mother's death, Buck claims, "I can't remember anything. I remember only ideas and sensations." Joyce may be drawing on the ideas of 18th-century English philosopher David Hartley, who claimed that memory does not contain records of events, only ideas and sensations. Joyce may not have believed Hartley's theory, but when he presents his characters' ideas and sensations, their experiences come alive for readers. For example, Stephen often remembers the basin into which his dying mother vomited. He looks at the green sea and thinks "Bowl of bitter water," alluding to the basin of green bile. The presentation of allusions, fragments, ideas, and sensations is compelling in a way that the statement "I remember the event of my mother's illness" might not be.

In Stephen's dream his mother is ghost- or ghoul-like; she wears the winding sheet or "graveclothes" a corpse is buried in. In popular lore a ghost appears when the dead person has unfinished business or was killed unjustly. Stephen is be haunted by guilt and seems on some level to agree with Buck that he killed his mother. Guilt over his mother's death, or over his refusal to pray with her, would explain why Stephen thinks, "Agenbite of inwit. Conscience. Yet here's a spot." "Agenbite of inwit" is an obsolete phrase for "remorse of conscience." It contains the word wit, referring to the mind. Stephen also quotes Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare's play Macbeth: "Yet here's a spot." Lady Macbeth feels guilty over a murder she urged her husband to commit, so she constantly imagines blood ("a spot") on her hands.

Stephen feels oppressed and constrained by his living situation, and Joyce uses this to mirror Ireland's situation. Buck is overbearing, and Haines is condescending. When Stephen picks up Buck's shaving bowl, he recalls carrying incense during Mass at his Catholic school and he reflects on the fact he is in the same position now: "A servant too. A server of a servant." As an altar boy he served a servant of God. Now he serves Buck, who is himself somewhat subordinate to the rich Englishman Haines. There is also dramatic irony in Stephen's realization of his servitude. In Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a priest declared the devil's sin was that he said, "Non serviam," Latin for "I will not serve." Stephen used this idea when he declared to his friend Cranly that he would become an artist: "I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church." Now Stephen is back home in his "fatherland," Ireland, mimicking the serving he once did in the church.

Haines is condescending and views Stephen as a curiosity and a source of Irish witticisms. Haines also knows how to speak Gaelic, the language advocated by Irish nationalists, unlike Stephen or the old Irish milkwoman. Stephen expresses the theme of Irish subjection to England when he remarks on Buck's mirror. The mirror has a crack and was borrowed from Buck's maid. Stephen calls it "a symbol of Irish art. The cracked lookingglass of a servant." Art reflects life, like a mirror, and Irish art, the art of a nation subservient to England, distorts reality.

Stephen's remark about the cracked mirror is also a response to what Buck says. Alluding to a witticism by the Irish writer Oscar Wilde, Buck says, "The rage of Caliban at not seeing his face in the mirror." Caliban is the non-European servant to a European sorcerer in Shakespeare's play The Tempest. Wilde wrote, "The 19th-century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. The 19th-century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass." Wilde meant that unsophisticated people dislike realism in literature because it reflects them just as they are. Romantic literature, in turn, does not necessarily document reality, and so angry, unsophisticated readers dislike it because they do not find themselves reflected there. Joyce was an ambitious writer. With Ulysses Joyce may have aimed to surpass "Irish art," the art of an unfree, oppressed people, and also to surpass both realism and romanticism.

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