Literature Study GuidesUlyssesPart 1 Episode 3 Summary

Ulysses | Study Guide

James Joyce

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Ulysses | Part 1, Episode 3 : The Telemachiad (Proteus) | Summary



Stephen walks on the beach at Sandymount, his streams of thought rambling over time, philosophy, his youthful literary ambitions, sex, a poem he writes, Irish history, death by drowning, and his mother's death. He contemplates the world as a text to be interpreted, recalling a phrase from the 17th-century German theologian Jakob Boehme: "Signatures of all things." He also thinks about time, which has been called the nacheinander, German for "one after another"; and he thinks about space, the nebeneinander, German for "next to each other." He considers Christian theology, such as the doctrine of transubstantiation and remembers visiting his Uncle Richie and Aunt Sara, but he does not visit them this day. He comes upon a dead dog and a live dog and imagines seeing corpses of the drowned, pulled from the sea. He recalls his school days, his time in Paris where he met the Irishman Kevin Egan, a nationalist in exile.

Stephen then remembers his ambition, when younger, to write books with letters for titles. He imagined people would talk excitedly about them: "Have you read his F? O yes, but I prefer Q. Yes, but W is wonderful." He also recalls excitedly shouting "Naked women! Naked women!" when he was younger.

He has not changed much in that respect; he looks with desire and longing at a woman who has pinned up her skirts to walk on the beach. He aches to be touched and asks himself, "What is the word known to all men?" (Many readers believe Stephen is talking about love.) He resolves, again, not to sleep in the Martello tower that night and writes a darkly romantic poem about the kiss of a vampire lover on a scrap torn from Mr. Deasy's letter. He wonders if he will be seen and if his writing will be noticed. Finally, about to end his walk on the beach, he urinates, picks his nose, and imagines a drowned man fished out of the sea.


The "Proteus" episode is named after a Greek sea god who was able to change forms. In Homer's Odyssey Proteus changes into a serpent, a leopard, a pig, a tree, and even water. (His name is the source of the adjective protean.) The first words of the episode: "Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes" allude to an idea from Aristotle that we see the pure form of objects mediated through the thought processes of our mind but not the thing or "substance" itself. In this episode Stephen's thoughts and visual perceptions change rapidly. Looking down the beach, he sees "a point, live dot" become a bounding dog. This same dog also becomes a buck and a fox in Stephen's imaginative vision. Seeing a pair of midwives, Stephen's mind moves from a miscarried child to its umbilical cord to a long, wrapped-together series of umbilical cords which become a telephone line linking Stephen back to Eden. Stephen is aware of himself as the thinker and perceiver of all these changes: "My soul walks with me, form of forms." He also realizes that what he perceives is just the "signature of all things," not the thing itself.

As befits the shape-shifting sea god, Joyce's language is particularly protean in this episode. He invents new words. When Stephen imagines the linked umbilical cords, they are called "strandentwining." The separate umbilical cords, or strands, entwine or wrap together. But strand is also a British word for a beach. Stephen's mystical telephone line links the shore he stands upon to the Garden of Eden. With the composite word contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality, Joyce jams more ideas and meanings into the term consubstantiality. Stephen is thinking about the Arian heresy in which Arius, a Christian priest in 3rd-century Constantinople, denied God the Father was "consubstantial" with the Son, meaning Father and Son were the same substance. Instead Arius claimed God the Father was superior to the Son, a doctrine that came to be known as Arianism.

This heresy has some meaning for Stephen as he meditates on fathers in this episode. His own father's scornful voice erupts as Stephen thinks about his uncle Richie Goulding: "Jesus wept: and no wonder, by Christ!" Stephen also thinks about the mention of a drowned father in Shakespeare's play The Tempest: "Full fathom five thy father lies." These thoughts about heresies and fathers, sons and mothers, leads Joyce to invent the comical "contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality" to emphasize the confusion and contradiction inherent in Catholic theology. (In its goofiness the word has been compared to that of the eponymous children's book character Mary Poppins's invented word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.) Like Stephen, Joyce uses language in a playful, protean way. His next book, Finnegans Wake, consists almost entirely of just such invented words.

Drowning has several meanings for Stephen in this episode: as a test of heroism, an occasion for mourning, and a mode of transformation. Stephen thinks of Buck, who has saved men from drowning. The character of Buck is based on Joyce's real-life friend and one-time roommate in the Martello tower, the Irish writer Oliver St. John Gogarty. Gogarty saved several men from drowning in Dublin's Liffey River. Buck's heroism becomes a test for Stephen: "Would you do what he did?" a group of harsh interrogators seems to ask Stephen. His answer is less than heroic: "I would want to ... I am not a strong swimmer. Water cold soft." Stephen imagines the opposite scenario: not saving the drowned man and instead being pulled under by him.

Not being able to save the imagined drowning man reminds Stephen of his mother's death: "I could not save her. Waters: bitter death: lost." There is blame behind these words; he feels he should have saved her. His mother also returns in the form of the riddle about the fox. Watching a dog dig up sand on the beach, Stephen imagines: "Something he [the dog] buried there: his grandmother." When Stephen thinks about his own conception, the image of his mother as a ghoul returns, as though his father had mated with a ghost: "Wombed in sin darkness I was too, made not begotten. By them, the man with my voice and my eyes and a ghost-woman with ashes on her breath." The image of his mother as a ghost has replaced his other memories of her, a sign his mourning is far from over.

Stephen also considers the way drowning transforms a person. In a song he recalls from The Tempest, the sprite Ariel sings about a drowned man who "doth suffer [undergo] a sea-change." People today use the phrase "sea change" to mean "a really big change," but in Ariel's song it means a transformation into something "rich and strange," something bejeweled and valuable: "Of his bones are coral made; / Those are pearls that were his eyes." Stephen considers a different description of the imagined drowned man: a "bag of corpsegas sopping in foul brine." The transformation doesn't end there. Fish eat the dead, and Stephen eats the fish: "Dead breaths I living breathe, tread dead dust, devour a urinous offal from all the dead." (Urinous means "urine-soaked," and offal is organ meat or the kind of meat that is sometimes discarded, like kidneys and liver.) In so far as the imagined drowned man becomes part of Stephen's soul, that "form of forms," the drowned man really does become something "rich and strange."

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