Journaling Ulysses: Ch. 3, “Proteus”

Frank Budgen’s illustration of Proteus from James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses

Well, I made it through the chapter that’s famous for keeping people from progressing further through James Joyce’s  Ulysses. And boy, let me tell you: this chapter is a trip.

The narrative of the chapter is incredibly straightforward. Stephen Daedalus walks down a beach on his way to drop off a letter. Along the way, he sees a dead dog on the beach, watches a gypsy couple meander towards him with their dog sniffing and exploring, and then he either imagines or witnesses the recovery of a dead body from the water. That’s it.

And yet, in these pages we find an intoxicating writhing of language in its theme, content, style, and technique. The chapter becomes more like a sense memory, larger than the sum of its parts, but also hazy in its exact contours.

Stephen & Proteus

This chapter takes as its Odyssean reference the account of Proteus–which is an odd. Neither Odysseus, nor his son Telemachus are a part of that particular tale in the epic. For the last chapter, I told you about how Telemachus seeks out an old war buddy of his father’s named Nestor to find out if he has any leads on Odysseus’ whereabouts. In the course of their conversation, Nestor tells the story of how he got home after the Trojan War. And it’s in this context we hear of Nestor’s run-in with the sea-god Proteus.

Long-story short, stranded on his island, Nestor wrestles and holds-down Proteus as the god does his superpower of transforming into any form. He writhes and shape-shifts into different kinds of animals, objects, and people, trying to break free. After Proteus tires of this and gives up, he tells Nestor how get home.

In Ulysses, we do not get anything close to a literal allusion to this, but rather a depiction of this theme of transformation and submission as reflected through the human soul and language.


The chapter seamlessly and without warning jumps from third-person narrative, to first-person interior thoughts, and even second-person passages where Stephen speaks to himself. Changing metaphors are employed en masse for the most everyday objects and events. The topics of thought and narrative move along with the flitting attention and meditation within Stephen’s mind, switching from abstract ideas and philosophy, to references and allusions, to description, to memory, etc.

Language is stretched and transformed in stunning ways. Thoughts stop mid-sentence. Past-tense memories shape-shift into present experiences. Words are made up (the most famous in the chapter being “contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality” which obviously is less about its literal meaning and more about the idea of such a word). The words and language have an almost physical texture to them as they are read and onomatopoeias are employed to stunningly beautiful effect. Just say this passage out loud and feel the words in both your emotions and body (and no, there are no typos in this):

“Listen: a fourworded wavespeech: seesoo, hrss, rsseeiss, ooos. Vehement breath of waters amid seasnakes, rearing horses, rocks. In cups of rocks it slops: flop, slop, slap: bounded in barrels. And, spent, its speech ceases. It flows purling, widely flowing, floating foampool, flower unfurling.

Under the upswelling tide he saw the writhing weeds lift languidly and sway reluctant arms, hising up their petticoats, in whispering water swaying and upturning coy silver fronds. Day by day: night by night: lifted, flooded and let fall. Lord, they are weary; and, whispered to, they sigh…. To no end gathered; vainly then released, forthflowing, wending back: loom of the moon. Weary too in sight of lovers, lascivious men, a naked woman shining in her courts, she draws a toil of waters.”

To what end? Home.

So yes, this is all fascinating and interesting, but why? Is Joyce being pretentiously opaque? This book is about the inner landscape of the human life and soul. You come to this book to know and be known; to feel and see the human condition wrapped in words on a page.

When we move to the next chapter and we meet the primary main character of the book, Leopold Bloom, we will find a man very much in his head and body, but not his emotions. He likes to figure things out, but his thoughts are task-oriented, secular, visceral, and practical–not philosophical.

But here, we are firmly in the world of Stephen Daedalus, the titular artist of Joyce’s previous work A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He broods and tries to tear himself away from his Catholic baggage. He is a rage of thought and emotions, finding himself stuck in paradoxes like a longing for grandeur rooted in deep regret and insecurity. He has such deep longing for beauty, truth, and goodness all while being deeply acquainted with death and decay, self-deception, and the darkness dwelling within.

So why does Joyce do all this in the chapter? Nestor wrestles the shape-shifter ruling his exile in order to find his way home. Stephen is still a long way from finding his sense of home–his sense of self. The god of his exile is his shame and abiding self-alienation. And yet we see that it’s in his wrestling and attempts at subduing the ever-changing dynamics of his inner life and soul that we begin to see the contours of his long-lost self, and maybe even his long-lost home.

“I throw this ended shadow from me, manshape ineluctable, call it back. Endless, would it be mine, form of my form? Who watches me here?… You find my words dark. Darkness is in our souls do you not think? Our souls, shamewounded by our sins, cling to us yet more, a woman to her lover clinging, the more the more.”

If you’d like to join in on this reading journey, I’ve compiled some resources to help you along your way., 


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