Buck Mulligan is my kind of guy: Chapter 1 of Ulysses

The edition of Ulysses I’m reading is, as I noted a bit indirectly in my previous post, the Penguin Modern Classics Annotated Student Edition. I figured that a student edition would be ideal for a naive reader like me, plus it was the only one available in the used book store when I went to go buy a copy.

And when Penguin tells you that they’re annotating a book, apparently they don’t mess around. This version — which is of a book that, keep in mind, is already upwards of 900 pages of the actual novel — has a lot of front- and back-matter. 89 pages of Introduction. 260 pages of end notes.

After some consideration, and an initial attempt to grapple with the Introduction and finding it unengaging, I essentially said, “Oh, the heck with it. Into the breach!” I skipped the rest of the Introduction, jumped right into Chapter 1 and read it mostly without recourse to the notes (except for the Latin, which I have no understanding of and knew was going to be significant). I read the notes afterwards, to see what I’d missed — the answer, unsurprisingly, was “rather a lot”.

My friend Rachel warned me before I started on this mad enterprise that I’d probably want to pick up a reader’s guide to Ulysses, and particularly recommended The New Bloomsday Book. Which, yes, I am for sure going to have to do. Because this is a very dense and rich book, and without some guidance I am going to miss some things, or possibly everything.

And the idea of a companion book appeals to me. While the notes in the Annotated Student Edition are very clear and thorough, I just don’t like end notes. When I’m reading a book, I want to continue reading it, not flip back and forth to and from and appendix.

But also, and more importantly, I have a feeling that my understanding of Ulysses will benefit from exposure to more than one interpretation. Because I’m already having some gentle disagreement with the Introduction and Notes by Prof. Declan Kiberd, and what they suggest I should think about Chapter 1.

Chapter 1 is entitled Telemachus, which of course continues Joyce’s deliberately paralleling of his novel with Homer’s Odyssey, and specifically equates Stephen Dedalus, our protagonist for the first several chapters (I gather that will change) with Telemachus. Telemachus is the son of Odysseus, and as the Odyssey opens, he’s an increasingly frustrated but powerless young man with an absent father who’s losing everything his dad worked to build to a gaggle of moochers — who are hanging around eating him out of house and home while scheming to marry his mother because Odysseus is missing and presumed dead after the end of the Trojan War.

(Yes, Homer put it more eloquently. Go read the Odyssey for the details and the poetry — you should anyway, it’s one of the foundational texts of Western literature.)

Anyway, tangents aside, Stephen Dedalus is being explicitly equated with Telemachus, who suffers from not having his father around and is frustrated and desperate for a chance to prove himself. The text hints, and the notes explicitly tell me, that Stephen Dedalus has a father who is also not there for him, but for rather less admirable reasons.

There are disparities, though. All Telemachus needed was a little encouragement, via a visit from a god disguised as an old family friend (which, by the way, is where we get the word mentor — the Odyssey is that kind of pervasively ingrained in our culture). Stephen Dedalus just seethes. There are a lot of images of bodily decay and rot in this chapter — the ravages of age and Stephen Dedalus’s rotting teeth and bile. And it’s clear that the bile and rot that he perceives all around him is mirrored in Dedalus himself. Not only physically, but in the seething poison of the anger that he keeps mostly in check, but lets slip now and again via passive aggressiveness and sarcasm.

All Telemachus’s unexpressed hatred is at his enemies. Stephen Dedalus seems to hate his friends, too.

The text, in other words, leaves it up to me whether or not I should like Stephen Dedalus, and leaves unanswered the question of whether and to what end the juxtaposition of Dedalus and Telemachus is echoic, ironic, contrasting, or some combination of those factors. The notes take a more direct approach. They certainly bear out the ambiguous view of Stephen Dedalus (in comparison with the novel’s upcoming other protagonist, Leopold Bloom) but they’re rather more direct about what I should think about everyone around Dedalus.

Specifically, the notes tell me that I’m supposed to disapprove of Buck Mulligan, Stephen Dedalus’s friend and roommate. The problem with that is that currently, I like Buck a lot more than I like Dedalus.

The novel opens with Buck, with Dedalus looking up a flight of stairs at his friend. The opening sentence of the novel, which is only slightly less famous than the last sentence, is “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. ”

This, it must first be noted, is an absolutely fantastic bit of writing. Those first four words — “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan” — give us so much information, so much character, so clearly, so economically. And the whole first chapter is like that. I mean, yes, it’s dense with references and allusions, but the prose itself is marvelous. It’s vivid, clear, direct. I gather that things get a lot more challenging going forward, but this first chapter was not only a pleasure to read, it was easy to read.

And, of course, it’s can’t be anything other than significant that this novel, famed for its use of symbols and imagery, opens with Stephen Dedalus literally looking up to Buck Mulligan. This makes the question of what we’re supposed to make of Buck particularly important. The notes tell me, quite clearly and leaving no real room for ambiguity, that despite them being peers, Buck is being set up as a failed model for Dedalus (much like Stephen Dedalus’s own father is a failed model for him). Buck, the notes tell me, apes English mannerisms while despising the English, schemes with Dedalus to get as much money as he can out of their English houseguest, Haines, while currying favour with Haines to his face. He is an archetype, Prof. Kiberd, states, of the colonized who apes the colonizer while despising him, and at the same time acts as an intermediary trying to enrich himself and simultaneously exploiting the colonizer (Haines) and his fellow colonized (Dedalus, and the elderly woman who sells them milk).

Now, I am clearly not going to be as sensitive to a reader of Joyce’s day to the issues of Irish nationalism and the different responses of individual Irish people to being colonized by the British (the novel, interestingly enough, is set in 1904, before Irish independence, but was mainly written after independence). But I also think that announcing Buck Mulligan up front to be — and to only be — an example of a particular moral failure, of being intellectually and ethically colonized is an example of a perhaps overly redactive view of the narrative.

To be clear, I am not someone who is opposed to literary analysis, to criticism, to using a particular prism to form and share a particular interpretation of a text. I think that’s extremely valuable. It enriches our understanding of individual works of literature and of literature as a whole. My only caveat is that one critical viewpoint, no matter how brilliant, can’t and shouldn’t limit the process of reading, interpreting and engaging with a book myself.

Prof. Kiberd’s notes use his prism to focus on Ulysses as a response to different currents of thought in the interweaving streams of Irish nationalism and Irish literature. In that context, Buck Mulligan represents a negative element — one that decries overt colonization while seeking to profit from it, and decries the colonizers but has become indistinguishable from them. As Orwell wrote of pigs and men at the conclusion of Animal Farm, so are we to see Buck and the English.

This is obviously an extremely well-thought-out analysis based on a close reading of the text and consideration of its context. It would be ridiculous to suggest this interpretation is invalid, or valid but unimportant. And needing to consider and address this interpretation and how it relates to my own experience of the novel has already made reading Ulysses a more profound experience for me.


Look, I’m no James Joyce, and never will be, but I am a writer. And one thing I can say, as a writer, is that a character is never just one thing, not in a novel that’s any good. The academic and critical perspective, the process of analyzing a novel, tends to define secondary characters in particular in terms of their relationship to the central ideas of the novel. It is perhaps natural that an academic looks at a novel in terms of its thesis.

But a character is never only what they symbolize, or the representation of an idea — no more than another person is only what they mean to you.

When I read Chapter 1 of Ulysses, when I encounter Buck Mulligan, I see a flawed young man, too impressed with himself and his own cleverness. Too willing to use the situation of Ireland and Irish people as a whole to justify his treatment of others. But also funny, intelligent, socially adept and active. And if he’s willing to take from others, he’s just as happy to give to them.

Indeed, this entire chapter hits me with a tremendous shock of recognition — the sense of seeing my own life and experience clearly and honestly expressed. That usually only happens in stories written and set in times and places much closer to my own — Microserfs is one example.

But I see rather a lot of myself in stately, plump Buck Mulligan, and I see in his life and his relationship with his friends Haines and the sarcastic, Jesuitical Stephen Dedalus a remarkably vivid portrayal of the life my friends and I lived as young people on our own for the first time. Sarcasm, jokes, intellectual wrangling for its own sake and to conceal our anxieties and pain. Living cash-poor and leaning hard on one another’s generosity. Loving one another, depending on one another, and at the same time resenting one another. Being totally enmeshed in the lives of people who are your dear friends but who you aren’t sure you like very much.

That was my twenties in a nutshell, and it’s Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus’s life too.

The point of this isn’t that Prof. Kiberd is wrong, that Buck Mulligan, because I like him and identify with him, can’t be colonized in his soul, or can’t be someone who exploits others. He can be, and I think he is. (And having written that, I find myself thinking about what that means in terms of own treatment of others, in my twenties and now).

But “colonized in his soul”, “negative example of Irish nationalism” — these aren’t, can’t be, all that Buck Mulligan is. He’s a person. A fictional one, of course, but no less a person for that. And like anyone, like all of us, he is more than what he means to Stephen Dedalus, or Prof. Kiberd, or to me.

Everyone contains multitudes, and no one prism can convey everything that we are.

Regardless of what we think of Buck Mulligan — stately, plump, vivid and complex Buck Mulligan — we leave him, going for a morning swim. It is Stephen Dedalus, our seething, bilious Telemachus, who we follow as he hurries off to his job. Spoiler warning: He isn’t forging in the smithy of his soul the uncreated consciousness of his race just yet.

Next on the blog: Chapter 2 of Ulysses. Plus, adventures in Twitter: What happens when you get retweeted by Neil Gaiman?


One thought on “Buck Mulligan is my kind of guy: Chapter 1 of Ulysses

  1. Yes to nothing is just one thing in literature. Irish nationalism is a big thing in this book, however. I suspect there is a tendency for lit crit to oversimplify because there is just SO MUCH.

    Good for you, though, finding the human under all the literary frippery. I have to admit, this is a book where I sometimes get distracted by the words themselves and can’t find the humans (well, except Bloom; Bloom is easy to spot).

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