You behold in me, Stephen said with grim displeasure, a horrible example of free thought. (1.25-26)
James Joyce opens Ulysses by introducing a handful of characters: Malachi “Buck” Mulligan, a medical student and renter of the Martello tower, a former military outpost and principle setting of the first chapter; Haines, a bigoted Englishman staying with Buck; and writer and teacher Stephen Dedalus, hero of Joyce’s prior novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Told from a limited third-person perspective, the first chapter only allows the reader into Stephen’s inner monologue, which appears between exchanges of dialogue between Buck and him.
Stephen has a grudge with Buck because the medical student had spoken lightly of the death of Stephen’s mother, to which Buck counters by explaining his numbness to death, on account of his studies in medicine:
And what is death…your mother’s or yours or my own? You saw only your mother die. I see them pop off every day in the Mater and Richmond and cut up into tripes in the dissectingroom. It’s a beastly thing and nothing else. It simply doesn’t matter. (1.204-207)
For Stephen and perhaps the rest of us outside of the medical profession, that’s a harsh truth to swallow. Add to this Stephen’s modernist views on religion, which precluded him from praying for dying his mother after she had asked him to do so, and it’s no wonder why the teacher wears a sullen face. Having crossed her as she crossed into death, Stephen knows that he will never receive the chance to make amends for the shame he feels.
This was the moment from “Telemachus” that resonated with me the most; I can relate to Stephen’s mixed feelings regarding his mother’s death, although his self-designation as a “a horrible example of free thought” is a bit strong for me. His guilt for disobeying his mother belies his religious agnosticism, but don’t we all carry some sort of regret for those loved ones that pass before us, regardless of creed? If you’re agnostic or atheistic, how should you cope with those feelings? Is prayer the only answer?