It is around 8:00 in the morning, and Buck Mulligan, performing a mock mass with his shaving bowl, calls Stephen Dedalus up to the roof of the Martello tower overlooking Dublin bay. Stephen is unresponsive to Buck’s aggressive joking—he is annoyed about Haines, the Englishman whom Buck has invited to stay in the tower. Stephen was awakened during the night by Haines’s moaning about a nightmare involving a black panther.
Mulligan and Stephen look out over the sea, which Buck refers to as a great mother. This reminds Mulligan of his aunt’s grudge against Stephen for Stephen’s refusal to pray at his own mother’s deathbed. Stephen, who is still dressed in mourning, looks at the sea and thinks of his mother’s death, as Buck mocks Stephen for his second-hand clothes and dirty appearance. Buck holds out a cracked mirror for Stephen to see himself in. Stephen staves off Buck’s condescension by suggesting that such a “cracked lookingglass of a servant” could serve as a symbol for Irish art. Buck puts a conciliatory arm around Stephen and suggests that together, they could make Ireland as cultured as Greece once was. Buck offers to terrorize Haines if he annoys Stephen further and Stephen remembers Buck’s “ragging” of one of their classmates, Clive Kempthorpe.
Buck asks Stephen about his quiet brooding, and Stephen finally admits to his own grudge against Buck—months ago, Stephen overheard Buck referring to his mother as “beastly dead.” Buck tries to defend himself, then gives up and urges Stephen to stop brooding over his own pride.
Buck goes down into the tower singing, unknowingly, the song that Stephen sang to his dying mother. Stephen feels as though he is haunted by his dead mother or the memory of her. Buck calls Stephen downstairs for breakfast. He encourages Stephen to ask Haines, who is impressed with Stephen’s Irish wit, for money, but Stephen refuses. Stephen goes down to the kitchen and helps Buck serve breakfast. Haines announces that the milk woman is approaching. Buck makes a joke about “old mother Grogan” making tea and making water (urine), and encourages Haines to use it for a book of Irish folk life.
The milk woman enters, and Stephen imagines her as a symbol of Ireland. Stephen is silently bitter that the milk woman respects Buck, a medical student, more than him. Haines speaks Irish to her, but she does not understand and thinks he is speaking French. Buck pays her and she leaves.
Haines announces his desire to make a book of Stephen’s sayings, but Stephen asks if he would make money off it. Haines walks outside, and Buck scolds Stephen for being rude and ruining their chances of getting drinking money from Haines. Buck dresses and the three men walk down toward the water. On the way, Stephen explains that he rents the tower from the secretary of state for war. Haines asks Stephen about his Hamlet theory, but Buck insists it wait until they have drinks later. Haines explains that their Martello tower reminds him of Hamlet’s El-sinore. Buck interrupts Haines to run ahead, dancing and singing “The Ballad of Joking Jesus.” Haines and Stephen walk together. As Haines talks, Stephen anticipates that Buck will ask Stephen for the key to the tower—the tower for which Stephen pays the rent. Haines questions Stephen about his religious beliefs. Stephen explains that two masters, England and the Catholic Church, stand in the way of his free-thinking, and a third master, Ireland, wants him for “odd jobs.” Trying to be conciliatory about Irish servitude to the British, Haines weakly offers, “It seems history is to blame.” Haines and Stephen stand overlooking the bay and Stephen remembers a man who recently drowned.
Haines and Stephen walk down to the water where Buck is getting undressed, and two others, including a friend of Buck’s, are already swimming. Buck talks to his friend about their mutual friend, Bannon, who is in Westmeath—Bannon apparently has a girlfriend (we learn later she is Milly Bloom). Buck gets in the water, while Haines smokes, digesting. Stephen announces that he is leaving, and Buck demands the tower key and two pence for a pint. Buck tells Stephen to meet him at a pub—The Ship—at 12:30. Stephen walks away, vowing that he will not return to the tower tonight, as Buck, the “Usurper,” has taken it over.
The first three episodes of Ulysses center upon Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s autobiographical protagonist from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. We left Stephen at the end of Portrait, an ambitious and slightly arrogant young poet who was just finishing college and leaving Dublin for Paris in the Spring of 1902. Ulysses picks up just over two years later. In Paris, Stephen lived a bohemian-intellectual lifestyle after abandoning medical school. Stephen was called back from Paris by his mother’s illness, probably in the summer of 1903. Almost a year later—June 16, 1904—we see Stephen in “Telemachus,” unresigned to life in Ireland and still dressed in mourning for his mother. He is as yet unrealized as an artist.
The novel’s epic in medias res (“in the middle of things”) opening begins, however, not with Stephen, but with Buck Mulligan, who appears as a contrast to Stephen. Whereas Stephen is nearly silent and very reserved, Buck is boisterous and physically active. Buck and Stephen’s relationship is fraught: Buck seeks to establish superiority over Stephen through mockery, yet he also trots out his cultural and intellectual knowledge to impress Stephen. Buck is associated with the consumption, recycling, and marketing of art, not the creation of it—he is likened to a medieval patron of arts and encourages Stephen to market his witticisms to Haines. Buck serves to reveal Stephen’s stubborn pride. Buck’s jokes that imply that Stephen is a servant, and Buck’s eventual acquisition of the house key and Stephen’s money lead to Stephen’s final, frustrated thought of the chapter—“Usurper.”
An early parallel between Stephen and Hamlet is set up in “Telemachus,” through Stephen’s brooding presence and the Elsinore-like setting of the Martello tower. In the context of this parallel, we can begin to understand Buck’s joking references to Stephen’s supposed madness and Stephen’s resentment of Buck, the “Usurper,” as related to Hamlet’s seething, silent resentment of Claudius. However, no single parallel can be used to match a corresponding character in Ulysses. For example, while Hamlet is famously haunted by the death of his father, Stephen is haunted instead by the death of his mother. The complication of a direct relation between Stephen and Hamlet is also disturbed by the fact that Stephen himself is well aware of this relation—Buck informs us that Stephen has his own “Hamlet theory,” which Haines mistakenly, though not insignificantly, thinks will connect the play to Stephen himself.
Episode One introduces us to Stephen’s struggle with the ins and outs of Irish identity. The poet Yeats wrote “Who Goes with Fergus?,” the poem that Buck sings, and that Stephen sang to his dying mother. Yeats is evoked in Episode One as a representative of the Irish Literary Revival, a movement of Irish writers contemporary with the setting of Ulysses who, in part, intended to define an insular sense of Irish identity, with the idea of making Ireland culturally, if not politically, independent from England. Stephen recognizes the milk woman as the type of earthy peasant figure that the Irish Literary Revivalists and other nationalists would idealize as a symbol of Ireland. Yet, for Stephen, the figure she represents is barren. Her submissiveness toward Buck and Haines confirms that she offers no release from Ireland’s servitude. Additionally, the milk woman’s failure to recognize the Irish that Haines speaks works to deflate such an idealized personification of national identity. Stephen, especially through his self-conscious pose as a continental bohemian, emerges in these opening chapters as a figure dismissive of this kind of insular Irish self-definition.
Haines’s version of Irishness appears equally unacceptable. In light of his familiarity with Irish culture and history, Haines’s passive and self-absolving “It seems history is to blame” seems particularly irresponsible and is met with disgust by Stephen. Stephen’s remarks about his own servitude to England and Catholicism are meant to point out the power-relations that Haines attempts to complacently ignore. Stephen’s addition of a third master—Ireland—is a somewhat proud attempt to set himself apart from the Irish masses, who take their own nationalism as a given. The theme of Stephen’s perception of himself as a servant will persist throughout Ulysses. As in this discussion with Haines, fluctuations between perceptive recognition of and prideful resistence to various authorities define the progression of Stephen’s day.