Ulysses, by James Joyce, is structured by three main chapters. These chapters will be adhered to in this summary. Further to this, this summary will also depend on Stuart Gilbert's framework (which was devised in collaboration with Joyce) in James Joyce's Ulysses (1930). This framework points out that there are eighteen episodes which are loosely based on Homer's The Odyssey. These episodes are accepted by literary critics when referring to sections of the novel, although, again, first time readers must remember that Ulysses is essentially divided into three main chapters.
This novel is set on one day, June 16 1904, in Dublin, Ireland. It begins in the morning with Stephen Dedalus (previously seen in Joyce's autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) and Buck Mulligan, a medical student, on Martello tower. Mulligan is shaving whilst mimicking the actions of a priest. He refers to Stephen as Kinch and tells him there is 'something sinister' in him because he would not pray for his dying mother when she asked him to. He goes on to say ironically that Stephen killed her.
They then discuss art and Stephen, drawing on Hamlet and Oscar Wilde, says that the cracked looking glass of a servant is a symbol of Irish art. Stephen also tells Mulligan that he was offended by him the first day he went to his home after his mother died because Mulligan told his own mother that Stephen's was 'beastly dead'. Stephen recalls his mother and remembers the dream of her in her grave clothes.
Mulligan, Stephen and Haines (an Oxford-based English man) have breakfast and Mulligan claims that Haines thinks Irish should be spoken in Ireland. They switch to discuss Hamlet (which is one of the many recurring motifs in this novel) and Mulligan explains, ironically, Stephen's theories of this play: 'He proves by algebra that Hamlet's grandson is Shakespeare's grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father.'
On their way down to the strand, where Haines and Mulligan wish to bathe, Haines and Stephen discuss religion and Stephen says that he has two masters: the English and the Catholic Church; Haines reveals his anti-semitism. This is made evident when he says the following: 'I don't want to see my country fall into the hands of German Jews either. That's our national problem, I'm afraid, just now.' Whilst swimming, Mulligan asks Stephen for the key to the tower (as Stephen knew he would) and they arrange to meet at The Ship at 12.30 pm. As Stephen leaves to go to work, the word usurper (referring to Mulligan) finishes this scene.
This first episode of Ulysses demonstrates the typical qualities of a modernist text in that the readers are offered no introductions or exposition of the characters or place. Further difficulties arise for the first-time readers as it becomes clear that there are no explanations or obvious links from one action, speech or thought process to the next. Stephen, along with Bloom, is one of the main characters of this novel and Stephen is an impoverished 'artist' (writer) who teaches to gain an income. Mulligan and Haines are of less importance, but their interactions with Stephen at this early juncture are noteworthy for the readers as they allow us to glimpse Stephen's preoccupation and guilt concerning the death of his mother, and his fair-mindedness compared to the other two men.
It is worth remembering for the future that Stephen gives Mulligan the key to the tower as this is repeated later when Bloom also leaves his house without a key. Another connection with Bloom arises when he thinks of Mulligan as a 'usurper' (that is, Mulligan betrays him). This concept of betrayal is re-worked later when Bloom worries about his wife's affair with Boylan. Further to these points, the anti-semitism, which Haines reveals, also sets the scene for Bloom's entrance as the outsider as he is Jewish.
Finally, this first episode also prefigures later events, where Bloom and Stephen meet up, as there are references to Hamlet and the father. The accepted connection between Bloom and Stephen by literary critics is that Bloom becomes Stephen's surrogate father. This also ties in with the title of this episode, Telemachus, as Telemachus is the son of Odysseus (this is Ulysses, who is re-worked as Bloom here) of The Odyssey on which this novel is loosely based.
Ulysses: Novel Summary