Episode 3

A brief guide to “Proteus”

Prepared by Danis Rose

2021 edition Ulysses pages 42-57
2017 edition Ulysses pages 36-48
1922 edition Ulysses pages [37]-50

Thursday 16 June, 1904: 11.00 to 11.45 a.m., Sandymount strand.

He dreaded the sea that would drown his body and the crowd that would drown his soul.
He desired to be not a man of letters but a spirit expressing itself through language because shut off from the visible arts by an inheritance of servitude and from music by vigour of the mind.c1


TITLE and SENSE: Proteus. Primal Matter.
SCENE: The Strand
HOUR: 11 a.m.
ART: Philology
TECHNIC: Monologue (male)

Stephen Dedalus, in philosophic mood, reflects abstrusely on the nature of space and time as he strolls aimlessly a protean Sandymount Strand. He is separated from France and freedom only by the sea before him.

He seems to have set out with the intention of calling on his aunt Sara Goulding in Strasburg Terrace in Irishtown, a place close to where he is walking, but he has decided against it. Meanwhile, through the distorting lenses of his weak eyesight. he observes cockle-pickers, a man out walking his dog, Tatters. He is in borrowed clothes and has no spectacles.

Despite his youthful erudition and his knowledge of the writings of Aquinas, Ambrose, Abbas, Aristotle and others, Stephen articulates no particularly original insight into the nature of the world. At the end of his empty meditations, he urinates, musically to his mind, onto some heaped rocks. He also scribbles a light verse (about a vampire kiss) on the bottom of the letter on cattle hygiene that Deasy had earlier given him. He is on his way to meet Mulligan at the Ship pub in Abbey Street, lower, at twelve thirty: a meeting he subsequently avoids.

It is no longer possible exactly (pari passu) to retrace Stephen's steps, as much of the stretch of sand he walked upon has long ago been built upon. What remains, however, is more than sufficient to give one a feel for his trek. The sea is exceptionally shallow here so that when the tide is out one is afforded a vista of immense stretches of sand: a sense of space. Gulls, turnstones, and other quick-flighted birds of the seashore abound. The fabled cockles and shrimps of which the strand was once rich are long gone; the shrimps indeed since 1741. A whale was beached here once, long ago, and the hungry locals who devoured it were thereby temporarily enriched.


Stephen = Telemachus
Proteus = Primal Matter
Kevin Egan = Menelaus
Megapenthus = the Cocklepicker
Sandymount Strand = Egypt

The setting for Proteus is the low-lying strand at Sandymount. Stephen, bayed about, walks along it. He had initially set out to visit his aunt Sara who lives in the neighbourhood.

Lost in his own world, he walks farther than he intended before deciding against the visit to the aunt and turning back. He meets no one, speaks to no one. He has lost his glasses and all that he sees (old women, a man with a dog, a bloated carcass of a dog, patterns in the sea-wrack) he sees through weak and deceptive eyes.

He contemplates (with great literacy) the ever-changing forms of the world and its shifting substance: the “all things” that he and others are “here to read.” His root question is: What is reality? And he reaches no answer, despite appealing to the appearance-saving logic of old Aristotle. The appearances are real, yes: but are these not deceptive? And underneath? Atoms, ever-shuttling; or the soul, form of forms?c2

According to Joyce's schema, we are to understand the old sea-god Proteus as “primal matter:” the substances that form the world and are formed by it. Stephen (as a transposed Menelaus) grapples with Proteus intellectually, as one would with shifting symbols, whereas the braver Kevin Egan, of whom he thinks, did so physically with dynamite.

Joyce identifies Menelaus (whose wife Helen eloped with Paris, son of Priam) with the spurned lover Egan who Stephen/Joyce visited whilst in Paris. Egan had left the disguises, plots and betrayals of his Irish homeland to live there as a disappointed and tired man after the shattered conspiracies of his wild youth. Not despairing, he lives on, working as a type-setter, smoking his rolled cigarettes and drinking absinthe. Spurned by his family, he resides in the seedy rue de la Goutte-d'Or in Montmartre. Egan's involvement in the Nationalist struggle (“for her sake”, that is, for his lover's sake), especially under the walls of Clerkenwell prison, parallels Menelaus' struggle outside the walls of Troy.

Menelaus' wife, Helen, returned from her two affairs with Trojans, recognises Telemachus even before he says who he is. Although Joyce numbers her among the players in the saga, she does not seen really to appear anywhere in Proteus, except by inference as an avatar of Egan's wife, briefly evoked as “peachy cheeks, a zebra skirt, frisky as a young thing's,” living in the trendy rue Git-le-Coeur.

The correspondence between the two anonymous cocklepickers, who have come down onto the beach by the stone steps in the sea-wall, and Megapenthes, the son of Menelaus preparing for marriage, is obscure. Stephen re-imagines the pair as midwives trailing a dead foetus in their bag, and conceives a strange anastomosis of flesh linking, navel by navel, all living to the uttermost dead. Of flesh too he thinks when he remembers Paris where, sheltered from its seductive vice by library walls, he studied night after night the “fading” prophecies of Joachim Abbas.c3

Joyce also identifies Paris with Egypt, eroticised.c4

It approaches noon as Stephen speculates on the imponderables of time and space, precisely the “burning hour” when Proteus the Egyptian rises to sleep among the fetid seals.

As for the inconsequential ambush that has been planned for Telemachus in the straits, this theme is not mirrored, nor is it recounted elsewhere. It happens late at night, off-stage as it were, at the train station and is only hinted at by Bloom.

THE ODYSSEY, 4 (Proteus)

Telemachos (son of Odysseus)
Menelaos (brother of Agamemnon, King of Sparta)
Helen (wife of Menelaos), home from Troy
Megapenthes (a son of Menelaos)
Proteus (the old man of the sea: a god)
Setting: Sparta

For two days Telemachos and his companion travel, resting overnight at the bazaar town of Pherae. At dusk on the second day they reach the low-lying city of Lacedaemon and rein in before the entrance to the magnificent palace of Menelaos, the son of Atreus. Menelaos, however, is pre-occupied with a double marriage: that of his son Megapenthes, born to him of a slave (for his wife Helen was barren after the birth of Hermione), to the daughter of Alector, and of his own daughter of fabled beauty, Hermione, to Neoptolemus, the son of noble Achilles, as was arranged at an earlier time.

Having seen to the horses, Telemachos and Peisistratus join the festivities, are fed with the choicest roast loin, and introduced to Menelaos. He relates his own history. For eight years he sailed after leaving Troy, travelling to Cyprus, to Phoenicia, to Egypt, to Ethiopia, to Sidonia, to Erembia, even unto Libya where the lambs are born horned. In that time his brother Agamemnon, chief of the Achaeans, was murdered through the treachery of an unfaithful wife. And, all that time of wandering, one man alone caused him the greatest remorse, Odysseus, so extended and unrequited was his indebtedness to him.

On hearing this of his father, Telemachos weeps and Peisistratus is thereby induced to admit their true identities. Helen, watchful, tells those present that she suspected who they really were.

As for the god-troubled Odysseus, Menelaos recounts how he knows nothing of him, having lost sight of Odysserus' fleet as he himself left Troy and was wind-driven to Egypt, where he was left becalmed on the island of Pharos in the sea-surge off the mouth of the Nile. Day after day on an inhospitable island he lay in despair, while his men “sought food with hooks”. Idothea, the daughter of the sea-god Proteus, then took pity on him. Her father, she explains to him, the old man of the sea, great Poseidon's chief man, knows all manners of sea-faring things and histories, and if he is trapped he can tell Menelaos why he is abandoned as he is, and relate all details of his fellow Achaeans, whether they lived or died, and how.

At each noon, Idothea discloses, Proteus rises from the deep grey sea to sleep in a sea cave amid the fat and sea-stinking seals (the “chickens of Halosydne”). What Menelaos must do is to surprise him there, and bind him until he is exhausted in his shape-changing. Only then will he answer questions put to him.

Menelaos, with three others, heed this advice and conceal themselves under sealskins, their noses choked with ambrosia, and lie in wait among the slumberous seals. When the old man appears and counts the seals, they grab him. Pinned down, he changes into a lion, a dragon, a leopard, a boar, loose water and a tree, before resuming his natural shape. At this, knowing he cannot elude him, he tells Menelaos he must return to Egypt and offer hecatombs to the gods, and the winds will deliver him. Of the fate of the Greeks, he tells him that the finest, Agamemnon, is dead, while his murderer Aegisthus lives. Odysseus he sees in a vision on an island, without ship or oar, marooned and love-girt by the nymph Kalypso. As for him, Menelaos, Proteus foretells his journeying safe at life's end to the Elysian Fields at the end of the world, where Rhadamanthus reigns.

Telemachos is relieved to hear this good news of his father, and wishes to leave, despite the protestations and hospitality of Menelaos. To aid him, he king offers him gifts of a chariot and three horses, but Telemachos has no need of horses on his rocky home, fit only for goats. One gift he accepts: a mixing-bowl of silver, with a golden rim.

Meanwhile back in Ithaca, the suitors learn of Telemachos' departure thence, and, urged to it by Antinoos, son of Eupeithes, they conspire to assassinate him for impudence. They plan to lie in wait for his return from Sparta, moored in the harbour on the islet of Asteris in the straits between Ithaca and rugged Samos. When he calls, they will kill him.

Penelope also learns belatedly of Telemachos' precipitate actions and the murderous plot against her son, but can do no more than bemoan his faith, given the guilelessness and inexperience of the young man, and pray for his safe delivery. Athene is empathetic to Penelope's unhappiness and, to mollify and comfort her, sends her in sleep a phantom in the form of Iphthime, her (Penelope's) sister.