Joyce, of course, did not divide the novel into numbered or titled chapters, but for the sake of reference and clarity, these Commentaries have been labeled according to the standard divisions of Stuart Gilbert.
At about eight o'clock in the morning of June 16, 1904, on the stairhead of the Martello Tower on the beach bordering Dublin Bay at Sandycove, about seven miles south of Dublin, Stephen Dedalus has just awakened. He is living in the Tower (which he rented from the government) with Buck Mulligan, a Dublin medical student, and with Haines, an Oxonian, who is residing in Ireland while studying Irish folklore. Stephen is about to leave the Tower, and Joyce will liken Stephen's leaving to that of Homer's Telemachus, the son of the Greek hero Odysseus (Ulysses). Parallels with the Greek Odyssey are loose throughout Joyce's novel, but they serve as structuring devices which permit Joyce to carry through his mock heroic purpose in Ulysses. In the Odyssey, Telemachus decides to leave Ithaca to seek his long-lost father so that he and Odysseus (Ulysses) might return to drive away the suitors who are despoiling the kingdom while courting Penelope. In "Telemachus," Stephen Dedalus feels that he is being forced out of the Tower by Haines and Mulligan; and, in the last word of the chapter, he sees Mulligan as a "usurper."
Some important differences, however, emerge between Joyce's Ulysses and the Odyssey. Stephen does not leave the Martello Tower with the intention of searching for a father, even though his thoughts are about paternity, both physical and spiritual, and he voluntarily surrenders the key to the Tower to Mulligan. Also, his purpose is less firm than is that of Telemachus; when Stephen leaves Sandycove at the end of the episode, he has decided not to return to the Tower, but it is only after an argument late that night with Mulligan at the Westland Row Station, in which he almost certainly came to blows, that Stephen realizes the impossibility of going back. When Mulligan deserts him, Stephen ends up in the brothel district at midnight, shepherded by Bloom.
Central to this chapter is the contrast between Mulligan and Stephen: the cynic vs. the idealist, the scientist vs. the artist, and the robust extrovert vs. the contemplative introvert. Buck offers Stephen the temptation of an enjoyably physical but conventional existence, but Stephen treads deftly between such a life and its opposite, a labyrinthine maze of self-doubt, self-examination, and unhappiness. For example, Stephen is a nonbeliever in traditional Catholicism, but he is unable to tolerate Mulligan's blaspheming lifestyle, although in many ways it is attractive to him.
From the start of Ulysses, Mulligan's treatment of Stephen is brutal. He speaks to Stephen "coarsely," he ridicules Stephen's Greek name, and he reminds Stephen constantly of his refusal to pray at the bedside of his dying mother (who died a little less than a year before the opening of Ulysses); thus Mulligan augments the guilt from which Stephen suffers throughout the novel. In addition, Mulligan takes Stephen's money without qualm; while patronizing the old milk woman (whom he feels superior to), Mulligan says that if Irish people drank such good beverages regularly, they wouldn't have rotten teeth — which Stephen has. In contrast, Mulligan's teeth are solidly white and gold edged; he chides Stephen further for not washing frequently, while he, Mulligan, enjoys diving into the cold sea, and once he even saved a person from drowning (Stephen, metaphorically, could not even save his own mother from "drowning"). Mulligan also scolds Stephen for querulously discussing money in front of Haines, although he himself dislikes the bland Englishman and although he himself is unable to pay the old milk woman's entire bill.
In contrast to Mulligan, who can think of little else than the immediate future — that is, sharing Stephen's pay-day salary for drinks at The Ship pub — Stephen is mired in the past, chained to memories of his mother's death. It is not until Stephen smashes the symbolic chandelier in the brothel in "Circe" that he begins to take a small, first step to rid himself of his obsession with the past. The details of Mary Dedalus's death, both in Stephen's recurrent dream and in actuality, are indeed horrible and naturalistic, but they are balanced against such delicate pictures as Stephen's singing William Butler Yeats's "Who Goes with Fergus?" to his mother on her deathbed and also with his memory of how much his mother enjoyed, long ago, the Dublin version of Turko the Terrible's pantomime.
To emphasize Stephen's inward turnings, Joyce brilliantly explores one detail about Stephen, which he withholds from the reader until the "Circe" chapter: Stephen broke his glasses on June 15, and on this climactic day of June 16, he cannot see very well — particularly, physically. Besides reinforcing the role of Stephen as a visionary and as a "blind prophet," in contrast to the outer-oriented Mulligan, Stephen's myopia continues as a motif from Joyce's earlier novel (also dealing with Stephen), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which, while a small boy at Clongowes Wood College, Stephen was unjustly punished by the clergy after he accidentally broke his spectacles. In the earlier novel, Stephen's physical near-blindness helped him to gain inner vision — that is, it assisted him to ultimately break from traditional Catholicism.
Yet before we can completely grasp the contrast between the two youths and fully comprehend Mulligan's deprecating treatment of Stephen before, during, and after breakfast, we must be aware of some facts about Catholicism, Joyce's personal background, and Irish history (the nightmare from which Stephen is trying to awaken).
To do this, we should be aware of several motifs that are developed throughout Ulysses. Some of the more important of these are religious symbols: the lost (and also the false) father theme, the image of Ireland as a desiccated wasteland, seen in the visit of the old milk woman, and the image of the key. These motifs are often blended, and one must never forget that Ulysses is a vast symphony of symbols and recurring images.
Most of the religious symbols are clearly and easily discernible. As examples, consider Mulligan's role as a false priest; Malachi Mulligan's shaving bowl is a chalice, and his quotation from the Introit ("Introibo ad altare Dei" — I will go to the altar of God"), spoken from atop the stairs, suggests the traditional Catholic Mass (common to Joyce's day), in which the celebrant ascends a number of steps at the beginning of the service; here, Joyce assigns the role of a high priest to the Jewish Malachi, and thus Mulligan metaphorically places Stephen in the inferior position of an acolyte; the allusion shortly afterwards to "Christine" again suggests the Eucharistic ceremony.
The religious imagery surrounding Mulligan suggests, also, that even this liberated medical student, for all his profanity, cannot rid himself of his theological training. For instance, the appearance of the Catholic priest near Mulligan's forty-foot "swimming hole," besides implying the ubiquitousness of the clergy in Ireland, implies that Buck's immersion into the waters of joyful paganism can result in only a partial cleansing from his Irish Catholicism.
Other religious allusions, however, are more subtle. Mulligan's gesture of turning his shaven cheek over his shoulder to speak to Stephen resembles the gesticulations of a priest at the altar during Mass, when celebrants officiated with their backs to the acolytes and the congregation. Mulligan calls Stephen "poor dogsbody," foreshadowing an important confrontation with an actual dog in "Proteus" and reminding the reader of the famous Joycean adage that God is dog spelled backwards. Stephen's reference to himself as a "server of a servant" spells out his relationship to Ireland, a country which is itself a servant to two foreign tyrants, England and Rome; and it also suggests one of the Pope's titles, "Server of the Servants of God," and thus is part of the mock heroic tone of Ulysses. Consider also the old milk woman's "Glory be to God"; it is the start of an ironic Gloria, another prayer used in masses during certain joyful times of the year.
Religious allusions are used, as well, to express the false father theme of Ulysses. Haines has nightmares about being attacked by a black panther, and one apocryphal tradition holds that Christ's father was a Roman centurion named Panther or Pantherus (Joyce uses this legend in Finnegans Wake). Mulligan recites his irreverent "Ballad of Joking Jesus," with its parody of the Virgin birth ("My mother's a jew, my father's a bird"), after he has flung his towel around his neck as if it were a priest's stole ("stolewise"). In a similar vein, the heretics Arius and Sabellius long ago debated the procession, or order, of the members of the Trinity.
Stephen is clearly alienated from Mulligan; he is also condemned to remain apart from Haines, whom he dislikes. Haines has been to a good school, Oxford; Joyce (if we read Ulysses autobiographically) resented the fact that he was forced to attend University College, Dublin, which he considered inferior to Trinity College (Dublin), which has reciprocity with Oxford and Cambridge. Haines has money; the Dedalus family lives in dire poverty. Haines is part of the British tennis set. He is also a bit of a fascist — an anti-Semite who, in addition, excuses England's barbarous treatment of the Irish throughout history. Added to these problems for Stephen is the irony that he is being virtually forced out of a place for which he — not Mulligan — pays the rent, and, in addition, he is still brooding over his part in his mother's unhappiness on her deathbed. What nightly surcease from his difficulties which Stephen might find is hampered by Haines's noisy nightmares, a situation which occasions Stephen's ultimatum to Mulligan about Haines's having to leave.
The false father theme is reinforced in this chapter by the many references to Shakespeare, especially to Hamlet, and these are developed at length in "Scylla and Charybdis." Already in "Telemachus," Stephen emerges as a Hamlet figure, and Mulligan as a false Horatio. Symbolically, the top of the Martello Tower becomes the heights of Elsinor, and both overlook abysses of figurative madness that both Hamlet and Stephen are facing.
After Mulligan's shave (Stephen himself detests washing and water generally), after breakfast, and after the visit of the old milk woman, the three young men go outside of the Martello Tower: Mulligan takes his plunge into the water, Haines sits on a rock watching him, and Stephen (taking up his "prophetic" ashplant) begins to walk along a path. Stephen, half in pique and half in despair, has surrendered the key to the Tower to the usurper Mulligan, and Stephen is now both symbolically and literally homeless. He has been victimized by the tyrant Mulligan, just as his country has been spiritually "usurped" and plundered by England (Haines).
Clearly, the emptiness of Irish Catholicism and the desperate lack of clear ideals and leaders are joined with Joyce's depiction of the futility of the Irish Renaissance, a literary movement which turned for inspiration and subject matter to the country's roots, here personified in the arid old milkwoman. The old lady is a parody of the Shan van Vocht, the Poor Old Lady of Irish lore, who will turn into a beautiful young queen when Ireland begins to take her place among the nations of the world. Her most prominent appearance in Irish Renaissance literature is in Yeats's play Cathleen ni Houlihan, in which she arrives to inspire a young man to take up arms against the British during the Rebellion of 1798.
Joyce's symbolic Shan van Vocht, however, has little ability to inspire anyone. She delivers milk but, in her, the milk of life has dried up; she arrives late; she prefers the loud, posturing medicine man, Mulligan, to the withdrawn intellectual, Stephen. She is not bothered very much by the fact that an Englishman, Haines, can speak Gaelic while she cannot, and although she admits that she is ashamed of her deficiency, she accepts the judgment of those who can speak the tongue that Irish is a "grand language." By picturing the old milkwoman as a "witch on her toadstool," Joyce is excoriating the folklore excavations of such writers as Yeats and Lady Gregory, who went from cottage to cottage recording the tales of western Irelanders. Joyce, who looked to Europe for artistic inspiration, thought such renderings to be empty exercises, products of senile minds, inventing a false past to evade present responsibilities. This escapism is seen in the wretched life of Mary Dedalus, another victim of rote acceptance of the status quo, and Stephen cannot help but see the similarities between the old crone and his own mother.
In one sense, then, "Telemachus" asks the question: "Who will hold the key to Ireland's future?" Will it be Mulligan, who at the end of the chapter has the large key to the Martello Tower, using it to press down his clothing? Or will it be Bloom, who spends the entirety of the novel trying to negotiate an advertisement with the House of Keyes and who neglects, on the morning of June 16, to bring with him his own key to his house at 7 Eccles Street and must, in "Ithaca," find another way to get into his own home (like Homer's Odysseus)? Is the key to Ulysses to be found in the brash physicality of Mulligan, the solipsistic intellectuality of Stephen, or the passivity and humanitarianism of Bloom? Although Joyce never does answer these questions, the novel depicts and suggests many possibilities.