"Proteus" takes place at about 11:00 a.m. on Sandymount Strand, which is approximately nine miles from Mr. Deasy's school. Stephen wanders along the beach to spend time before he meets Mulligan at The Ship pub at 12:30 p.m. He considers visiting the home of his Aunt Sara and his Uncle Richie Goulding (his mother's relatives), but then he thinks of the ridicule that his father, Simon, has heaped upon Uncle Richie in the past and what Simon might say about today's visit, and he decides not to make the trip. Thus the lengthy description of his visit to the Gouldings concerns only an imagined event.
The first two paragraphs of "Proteus" are especially difficult unless one realizes that Joyce, through a stream-of-consciousness technique, is recording the complexity of Stephen's thoughts as he muses upon the question of what is real, and what is not merely appearance. Stephen is a well-read young man, conversant in philosophy as well as in literary theory, and the first two paragraphs mirror his preoccupation with the processes of knowing and being. Although there is probably no exact source that Joyce used for the opening words of the chapter ("Ineluctable modality of the visible"), opening words of the chapter ("Ineluctable modality of the visible"), the subject matter of the following allusions is found in Aristotle's De Anima. Aristotle taught that we are first aware of bodies through their translucence or transparency (diaphane), then through their colors. Dante judged Aristotle to be bright and called him maestro di color che sanno, "master of those who know."
The first paragraph questions whether what we see is real; the second, the reality of the audible, as Stephen closes his "eyes to hear." The nacheinander refers to objects as they are perceived in time — that is, one after another; the nebeneinander, as they are perceived in space — that is, one beside the other. The latter deals with visual appearances; the former, with auditory ones. In Ulysses, Stephen must disentangle the reality of his past (in Paris as well as in Dublin) from obfuscating memories; he must discover who he really is, as opposed to the person that others, such as Mulligan, perceive him to be.
The parallels in this chapter with Homer are very general. In the Odyssey, Menelaus tells Telemachus how he had to deal with Proteus, the god of the sea who could change forms at will. Here, Joyce reveals the changes that are beginning to take place within Stephen, and, through an "interior monologue" technique, Joyce mimes Stephen's shifting thoughts as being like the ever-fluctuating, "protean" nature of reality. The reference to the "winedark" sea pins the chapter to its Greek prototype with its use of a favorite Homeric "epic simile."
Stephen's initial problems in the chapter are philosophical: because all things are bound up in inescapable change ("ineluctable modality"), what is the nature of reality? Does an object exist if no one sees it? Does a sound exist if no creature hears it? Walking along the beach, wearing boots borrowed from Mulligan, Stephen thinks of the many philosophers whom he has read who treated this problem of permanence and change. Aristotle is central among them, as is Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753), who supposedly denied the objective existence of matter and whom Samuel Johnson purportedly "refuted" by kicking a rock. The capricious nature of reality is epitomized in Stephen's reference to the waves as being the "steeds of Mananaan," the Irish god of the sea, an archetypal jester, who represents change. Once Mananaan resurrected a man from death but put the man's head on backwards, turning his face to the rear — an event which typifies this god of the altered lifestyle.
It is not surprising, then, that in a chapter which concerns the origin and nature of reality, Joyce would insert two women who Stephen pretends are midwives, and these two "midwives" would then make an appearance on the beach, "our mighty mother." These two women are probably from the "liberties," a lower-class section of Dublin, and they are "Florence MacCabe," the widow of Patrick MacCabe, and a lady friend. Mrs. MacCabe carries a heavy bag, and Stephen wonders if it contains a "misbirth." Although this gloomy thought is probably occasioned by Stephen's having been reared in a poor environment, it is soon followed by a variety of witty and humorous associations, as Stephen's emotions rapidly fluctuate. Stephen thinks of certain "mystic monks" whose sashes apparently link them together in the present and trace a path back to God. He envisions all navel cords as extending from Eve, and he wonders whether he could place a call on this "telephone connection" back to "Edenville." His reference to "belly without blemish" is descriptive of Eve, who, as a product of Adam's side, did not have a navel; it also suggests the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the Second Eve, who did not have a mortal blemish in her purity.
The antithesis of this birth imagery is seen in the bloated carcass of the dog sniffed by Tatters and in Stephen's vision of the leprous corpse from the sea. The last, like Milton's Edward King, was sunk beneath the watery floor, but, unlike King, he undergoes no kind of transformation.
Neither does fatherhood escape unscathed in "Proteus," as Stephen wonders who his real father is: Simon Dedalus, whose act of love was blind, drunken copulation — or God Himself — Whose "coupler's will" Mary and Simon were simply carrying out, and about Whom there is the command of a lex eternal — that is, an eternal law. Stephen, looking towards Dublin's electric power station, the Pigeonhouse, thinks of the blasphemous lines from Leo Taxil's La Vie de Jesus (Paris, 1884) , in which Joseph asks the pregnant Mary who has put her in this "fichue position," or tough situation; there, Mary answered that it was the pigeon (dove, Holy Ghost, etc.). Thus, Stephen, by implication, shares (symbolically) the nebulous parentage of Christ and of many epic heroes. He is a Telemachus who wonders at this point not where his father is, but who his true father is.
Stephen's psychological dislocation, then, his ability to see only the "signatures of all things," to hear only their sounds, and not to know their essential selves or noumena, leads him to think of his many difficulties, past and present. He remembers the lies that he told about his ancestors at school at Clongowes. He recalls that, while others predicted a fine future for him as a religious man (Stephen was ostensibly a saintly lad), he was really thinking about naked women. He also remembers his ostentatious displays of erudition and his wish to send copies of his early, short prose poems, his epiphanies, to all the major libraries of the world.
The present offers little solace for Stephen. His return from Paris was occasioned by his father's telegram announcing that his mother was dying, and he thinks again of the reason that Buck Mulligan's aunt has forbidden Buck to remain as Stephen's friend: Stephen's refusal to pray at his mother's bedside. He recalls Mulligan's present possession of the key to the Tower. Stephen was afraid of the gypsies' dog, Tatters, and he contrasts himself (again) with Mulligan, who saved a man from drowning. Stephen is supremely sensitive (once again) of his teeth, which he sees as mere shells, an effective image which recalls both Deasy's shell collection in "Nestor" and the beach setting in this chapter. Stephen wonders whether he should use his school pay to see a dentist; then he thinks of the comment made by the anti-Semitic journalist Edouard Adolphe Drumont about Queen Victoria: "Old hag with the yellow teeth."
Stephen's dilemma is defined by Joyce's use of several analogues: (1) Stephen's Uncle Richie sits in bed, calls for whiskey, and "drones bars" from Verdi's Il Trovatore; in this opera, the faithful Ferrando is a contrast to the deceiver Mulligan;
(2) Jonathan Swift, Stephen feels, was driven mad by the unappreciative rabble and was led to venerate his famous horses in Part IV of Gulliver's Travels, the Houyhnhnms; and (3) Kevin Egan, the Fenian whose plans led to disaster; even today, he waits as an exiled "wild goose" in Paris for the resurrection of his native Ireland while trying to enlist assistance for his ideas of revolution.
The original of Kevin Egan, one should note, was Joseph Casey, an Irish Nationalist, who, in 1867, was involved in a tragic attempt to free several Fenians from Clerkenwell Prison in London by using gunpowder. Stephen thinks of Egan (whom he met in Paris) several times in the episode, and Egan fits into several major motifs of Ulysses. He is an example of a leader who is abandoned and forgotten by the Irish people. His brand of patriotism, the cause for which he tries to enlist Stephen's help, is a temptation that Stephen must avoid if he is to become a detached, objective artist. In Paris, Egan told Stephen tales of disguise and wild escapes, appropriate to this episode ("Proteus"), which deals with illusion. Finally, Kevin Egan fits into the father theme of Ulysses, when he tells Stephen to find Patrice, his son, and let him know that Stephen saw him (Kevin Egan). Patrice is Egan's son by his estranged French wife, and one thinks, in contrast, of the less than febrile passion between Bloom and Molly.
It is no wonder, then, that one of the major analogues for Stephen's plight is the via crucis. Two shirts are "crucified" on a clothesline, and in the last paragraph of the episode the spars of the three-master ship, the Rosevean, recall Christ's death between two thieves, only one of whom was saved.
Change, to Stephen, is a crucifixion, for he must learn to become mature or be drowned by life, to balance the conflicting forces that define him. As a boy, he was full of dreams and secure, despite belonging to a poor family; he accepted his church's teachings and was scholastically successful, confident of his ability to write fine poetry. Now, after living in Paris, a sojourn that accentuated tendencies towards blasphemy and skepticism which had been present in his personality for a long time, he feels lost. Cut off from the old verities, yet unable to slip into Mulligan's glib, atheistic cynicism, Stephen finds himself defenseless and no longer possessed of a belief in the spontaneity of his genius; he must now walk his deeply troubled Way of the Cross.
Still, however, the chapter is also about hope, and the prognosis for Stephen is not as bleak as some critics have maintained. It is true that there will be no Tempest-like "seachange" for the drowned and swollen body, but for Stephen there is at least the strong possibility of renewal; and this rebirth is suggested by two crucial actions. In the first, Stephen, realizing the pretentiousness of his earlier literary endeavors, tears off part of Deasy's letter and begins to write. In the second, he urinates, an action that in much of Ulysses is associated with creativity.
With Stephen teetering between solvency — both emotional and monetary — and insolvency, hope and despair, sanity and madness, creativity and waste, the first part of Ulysses comes to an end. The capital letter S began Stephen's section in "Telemachus"; a capital M, for Molly, will begin Bloom's journey in the next section, "Calypso."
The fact that the S is used to form part of Mulligan's description ("Stately") and the fact that the M is used to form part of "Mr" Bloom's name refer to the interrelatedness of all things. Stephen, even at the start of his own section, needs the gruff masculinity of Buck, and Bloom and Molly heavily (and perhaps ultimately) depend upon one another.