First Word; First Person

I’d like to start out small here, looking at two words from the first chapter: the first word of the novel, “Stately,” and the first-personal pronoun, “I” (as well as its objective-case, “me”). Obviously, this isn’t a lot, but  for me the richness of Joyce has always been how much you can do with a little of what he gives you. 

“Stately” has always intrigued  me as an opening word. Much has been made of it, of course, from the fact that it contains the novel’s final word (spoiler alert: “Yes”) backwards (thanks to M. Thomas Gammarino over at Ulysses “Seen” for reminding me of this in his excellent post about opening lines), to the possibility that it was chosen (at least in part) for its first letter: Gifford points out the the first letters of each of the novel’s three sections (S-M-P) could represent the initials of the three main characters (Stephen, Molly, and Poldy), or perhaps the three parts of a syllogism (Subject, Middle, and Predicate), thus “suggest[ing] a logical and narrative structure, which the reader can grasp but of which the characters in the fiction are essentially unaware.”

All this playing with letters as codes is well and good, but what about the word? Why “stately”? I like the way its grammatical sense is ambiguous: is it an adjective or an adverb? Initially I read it as the former: Buck Mulligan is both stately and plump. This is the way it is generally taken, I think. But what if you read it as an adverb, describing the manner in which Buck “came from the stairhead”? Does that make any less sense? On a certain level it actually adds something: the earliest definition in the OED of “stately” as an adverb reads “With splendid ceremonial or surroundings; in state.” Given that the first thing we see Buck do is intone the opening of a Mass, “splendid ceremonial” doesn’t seem too far off. Also, the use of adverbs is part of the narratorial style of this chapter, as one of our commentors noted, which Bernard Benstock attributes to the focalization of the narrative through Buck Mulligan’s point-of-view (in Hart and Hayman, James Joyce’s Ulysses: Critical Essays [U of California P, 1974]). Does it make a big difference which way you read it? No, I suppose not. But I like that Joyce gives us a little taste of verbal ambiguity right out of the gate. There’s more where that came from.

(As an aside, here are the opening words of an early French translation [Auguste Morel with Stuart Gilbert and Valerie Larbaud, assisted by Joyce]: “Majestueux et dodu…” Nice, right? Though [and I know too little French to be sure of this] I think it loses the adverbial possibility. And in German [Georg Goyert, again with the author’s assistance]: “Gravitätisch kam de dicke…” Which sounds like just the kind of polyglottal pun that Joyce would have relished [another opening-line word to watch out for, “relish”]). 

Now what about the use of the first-person? This is one of the most fascinating aspects of Ulysses: the use of various narrative modes (third-person omniscient, free indirect discourse, internal monologue) leaves the reader with the challenge of trying to figure out where various words and statements are coming from (like the oft-discussed “Chrysostomos” on the first page). This first chapter has two main modes: “objective” narration (perhaps focalized though Buck, for the most part) and Stephen’s internal monologue. It is the slide between the two that can be tough to keep up with. (A good rule of thumb for this episode: if it’s gorgeous, confusing, or both, we’re probably in Stephen’s head.) We first hear Stephen’s inner voice (with the possible exception of “Chrysostomos”) on page 5 (line 100 in Gifford):

Stephen, an elbow rested on the jagged granite, leaned his palm against his brow and gazed at the fraying edge of his shiny black coatsleeve. Pain, that was not yet the pain of love, fretted his heart. Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body within its loose brown graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes. Across the threadbare cuffedge he saw the sea hailed as a great sweet mother by the wellfed voice beside him. The ring of bay and skyline held a dull green mass of liquid. A bowl of white china had stood beside her deathbed holding the green sluggish bile which she had torn up from her rotting liver by fits of loud groaning vomiting.   

We aren’t yet in true internal monologue: the pronouns are all still “he,” not “I.” We’re sort of toeing the line between focalized narration and free indirect discourse. It makes sense: Joyce starts us out slow. We have to learn how to read Ulysses, and while he won’t necessarily make it easy, he is here to teach us. However we label it, this paragraph jumps out of the page: clearly we are in a different mode. And we learn right away to associate this mode with memory (not a very pleasant one, in this case).

But we haven’t hit first-person yet, and that’s what I claimed to be talking about here. (I just wanted to lead up to it with a little narratology, sorry about that). On the very next page we get our first bit of true internal monologue, which interestingly enough comes with our first description of Stephen’s appearance:

Stephen bent forward and peered at the mirror held out to him, cleft by a crooked crack. Hair on end. As he and others see me. Who chose this face for me? This dogsbody to read of vermin. It asks me too. (1.135-8)

 This paragraph, like so many in these early chapters, starts out in the third person with a character doing something before slipping inside to show us what they are thinking. Here we have our first (narrative, at least, as opposed to spoken) use of the first-person: “As he and others see me. Who chose this face for me? This dogsbody to read of vermin. It asks me too.” It seems important that the passage is about identity: throughout the book we will see both Stephen and Bloom (and perhaps Molly and others) struggling with identity and its relationship to memory, and we are seeing these themes invoked in very strategic ways right from the start. Gifford tells us that “As he and others see me” alludes to Robert Burns poem, “To A Louse”:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An foolish notion:
What airs in dress an gait wad lea’es us,
An ev’n devotion!

So, crucially, even Stephen’s first bit of internal monologue, a reflection on identity, is relying on the words of others. We will see this throughout: Stephen’s thoughts, however self-absorbed, are presented through allusion and academic philosophical argument, rather than anything direct and, well, human (as opposed to the very human thoughts of Bloom).  The choice of a poem about a louse is fitting, of course, as Stephen hasn’t washed his “dogsbody” in some time.

But what about “It asks me too”? What asks him? Asks him what?

Stephen’s next reveries are triggered by Buck: first he mentions Clive Kempthorpe, causing Stephen to imagine a scene at Oxford, and then, cruelly, he sings some lines from Yeats’ “Who Goes With Fergus?” (a poem so important to Ulysses that William York Tindall used to make his Joyce students memorize it before they even began the novel). At that moment a cloud passes over the sun (watch out for the same event in chapter 4) and Stephen’s thoughts return to his mother:

Fergus’ song: I sang it alone in the house, holding down the long dark chords. Her door was open: she wanted to hear my music. Silent with awe and pity I went to her bedside. She was crying in her wretched bed. For those words, Stephen: love’s bitter mystery. (1.249-253).

Love: another word to watch out for. (Remember Stephen’s first thoughts of his mother: “Pain, that was not yet the pain of love” (1.102): what’s that supposed to mean?)

This is our first encounter with “I”: but Joyce wants the word to trouble us, as it troubles Stephen. In his next reverie he thinks of his school days: “So I carried the bowl of incense at Clongowes. I am another now and yet the same.”(1.310-12). Throughout the book we will be asked to wonder, with Stephen and Bloom: was “I” then the same as “me now”?

And sometimes it’s just not clear who the “I” refers to:

He walked on, waiting to be spoken to, trailing his ashplant by his side. Its ferrule followed lightly on the path, squealing at his heels. My familiar, after me, calling, Steeeeeeeeeeeephen! A wavering line along the path. They will walk it tonight, coming here in the dark. He wants that key. It is mine. I paid the rent. Now I eat his salt bread. Give him the key too. All. He will ask for it. That was in his eyes. (1.627-32).

Here we are in Stephen’s mind: so who paid the rent? Stephen, right? Well, maybe. Historically we know that it was in fact Oliver Gogarty, the basis for Buck Mulligan, who paid the rent. But that’s not conclusive: obviously this is a work of fiction, and Joyce is free to change whatever details he wants (especially if it serves to make him [as Stephen] appear more persecuted). But what about “Now I eat his salt bread”? Gifford tells us this is an allusion to Dante, in Paradiso, where his great-great-grandfather predicts Dante’s future exile: “Thou shalt make trial of how salt doth taste another’s bread,” e.g. you will see how hard it is to live in a home that is not your own. This allusion seems to indicate that Stephen is already an exile. So who pays the rent? One way to read it is that within Stephen’s interior monologue, he is imagining the direct discourse of Buck: “He wants that key. ‘It is mine,’ [he will say]. ‘I paid the rent.’ Now I eat his salt bread.” But there’s really no way to know for sure.

Complicated? Yes. Beyond what Joyce expects of his readers? By no means.

8 thoughts on “First Word; First Person

  1. Nick Maniatis July 12, 2010 / 2:06 am

    Great start, Judd! I knew it would be a good idea to read along so as to have access to such excellent supporting material.

    Re: the spoiler. Total spoiler for me, this is an effort to actually finish Ulysses this time… As per the schedule I know to expect spoilers for the first three episodes, but any chance there are spoiler tags that can hide spoilers and reveal them on a click? Or at least give warning that there a spoilers beyond the current section rather than right next to the spoiler text my brain has already parsed?

    That said, I know there are always issues with spoilers during online reads, I guess I’ll have to put up with it – and there’s no single solution seeing as you’re clearly catering to a range of readers.

    …I am one of those readers that will now be thinking about the final word right the way through…


    • Judd Staley July 12, 2010 / 9:20 am

      Hey Nick:

      Man, sorry about that. I was actually joking when I put that spoiler tag up: I assumed everybody knew about the last word/line of the book, since it’s so often referenced (most memorably in “Back to School”). I will try to be more diligent about hiding spoilers in the future, though I don’t anticipate there will be many.

      Glad to have you along: hope I haven’t completely comprimised the experience for you!


  2. robberry July 12, 2010 / 9:20 pm


    Jeez, how do I get you guys to contribute more at the ULYSSES “SEEN” site. This is a great start.

    I don’t want to cloud up the reading group by commenting on EVERYTHING, but there’s some great stuff here.

    “Stately”. This is particularly interesting and lends itself to the audible experience of this novel (something not to be underestimated in it’s importance to the author). I love the idea of “stately” as an adverb and can quite easily hear it delivered that way for a completely different reading of that first sentence. But “stately” is followed by a comma (always a tricky clue with Joyce) which implies it’s part of a string of adjectives. You could use a comma after the word here as an adverb, but it’s less common and a bit cumbersome and we do know that Joyce disliked cumbersome punctuation and preferred to strip it out whenever possible. Had he left that comma out, Judd, I think I’d be more inclined to see it as an adverb. It’s certainly a pretty way to begin the novel as an oral; a single slow word begins and describes the procession of all the rest. Thanks again, man. That’s another new one for me.

    Most of my own exercise in adapting the novel to comics requires a LOT of reading it aloud. It’s funny how the narrative voices start to sort themselves out a bit through that method. I often think of it like directing a stage or radio play and figuring out how many actors I’ll need. Your comments about “I” and “he” speak to that.

    For Telemachus I believe we’ve got a cast of six;
    1)Stephen, 2)Mulligan, 3)Haines, 4)the milkwoman, 5)the man at the 40-foot hole, and 5)the omniscient narrator.

    The narrator, however, if we we’re doing it on the radio, blends her voice directly into Stephen’s quite often as if they’re completing or illuminating one another’s thoughts, doubling them sometimes to send them further home as in “loose brown graveclothes”.

    So here, in the first chapter, Joyce tells us to be careful with who you might be listening to and that while the information characters may have might seem the same, they’ll be bringing their own baggage into the story.

  3. Jeff Anderson July 15, 2010 / 9:21 pm

    This is my second read of Ulysses, but it’s been…seven or eight years, I guess, since the first one, so I’m having to relearn how to do it. I got the first-person/third-person thing figured out off the bat, but I had to take a second crack at “Proteus” before I twigged to the distinction in tense. I developed early in my reading career the forbearance I think Matt Cheney has mentioned that comes from reading SF–“It will come to make sense; if I continue reading, this thing I don’t get will fall into place”–but I was awfully confused about how we got to Paris.

    As for “stately,” I think we almost have to take it as an adjective. In the whole episode, I find very, very few prenominal adverbs. The most prominent counterexample to the trend comes just four paragraphs after “stately”: “Solemnly he came forward.” There’s your non-comma, Rob.

    • Jeff Anderson July 15, 2010 / 9:36 pm

      (I said “prenominal” when I meant adverbs that come before their verbs, not their nouns. In the words of the great Willy Wonka: “Scratch that, reverse it.”)

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