An Odyssey through Ulysses: Proteus

Gaze in your omphalos. 3.38

Proteus, the shape-shifting god
Proteus, the shape-shifting god.

“Proteus,” the last episode of  the Telemachiad (the name assigned to the opening section concerning the younger protagonists of both Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses) finds Stephen gazing deeply into his own omphalos (the Greek word for navel) as he walks along the Dublin coastline killing time between his morning classes and his 12:30 appointment with Buck Mulligan and Haines at the pub.

Thus, much of the text captures Stephen’s train of thought as it trundles along, examining subjects such as arcane as Artistotle’s treatise Sense and Sensibilia and as mundane as whether he should go visit his aunt Sarah, whose house is on the way to the pub.

Joyce delves deep into Stephen’s mind, going so far as to detail meticulously an imagined meeting between Stephen and his uncle Richard, Sarah’s husband; therefore, it can be tricky to understand what’s actually occurring in the novel and simply what Stephen is thinking.

Included in Stephen’s torrid stream of consciousness is a momentary examination of the word omphalos itself, during which Stephen considers the fact that Eve had no navel. May we consider our navels as an outward manifestation of our original sin? After all, Eve’s womb became sinful, and from her offspring on down, humankind has been marred by her and Adam’s original sin against the Lord. Stephen then considers his own conception, which occurred between a “man with [his] voice and [his] eyes and a ghostwoman with ashes on her breath,” twisting the moment into the precursor for an Oedipal tragedy (3.42-43).

The episode’s title, Proteus, refers to a minor Greek sea god (and brother of Poseidon, the god who torments Odysseus on his journey back to Ithaca) who was capable of shape-shifting or changing forms. Although we can control some elements of our being, we still owe a good deal of it to the involuntary functions of the brain. Thus, our brains change forms in that they automatically respond to stimuli regardless of whether we want them to or not, as evidenced by Stephen’s internal monologue bouncing from internal forces (such as omphalos) to external stimuli (the dogs he sees on the beach, for example).

Because of how little actually happens in the text and the depth at which Joyce captures Stephen’s thoughts, Proteus is the most difficult chapter in the book so far. I had to read it twice just to understand what was occurring on the beach and what was transpiring in Stephen’s mind.

Something that helped me through the text the second time was this site, which color-codes internal monologues and external action, making the text much easier to follow. The site also contains glosses on most of the foreign-language phrases and passages, so I don’t have to rely on the annotation text as heavily. The site does not have any on-site navigation, so if you choose to use it when reading the text, you will have to change the URL for each episode manually.

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