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Wrestling with Proteus: Overcoming Ulysses’s Most Notorious Episode

Figure 1 Artistic rendition of the Proteus episode

Joyce’s Proteus episode in Ulysses is famous for convincing readers that the book is too difficult or convoluted to be worth reading. The first few lines of the episode, narrated from the perspective of Stephen, are infamously complicated. In part, this is because Stephen frantically jumps between seemingly unrelated and highly esoteric references to metaphysics, theology, literature, and aesthetics (amongst other things). Perhaps more troubling for some readers is the fact that Stephen’s rambles are often disrupted by phrases from other languages, ellipses (where his thoughts run aground), anaphoric reference (addressing characters across Joyce’s oeuvre) and pretentiousness. But I choose to argue that readers are rewarded for putting up with Stephen and that by trying to build a coherent interpretation, they are inadvertently acknowledging Joyce’s desire for the episode: to encourage us to interpret and assemble meaning as we perceive the world in all its Protean Flux (more on this later).

Narratively, Joyce encourages participation through a free indirect style. In other words, he channels the movements of Stephen’s mind as they present themselves to him. If you look at the second paragraph of this episode, you can see that the narrative transitions between the voice of the narrator (1) and Stephen (2): “(1) Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells. (2) You are walking through it howsomever.” Because of this, it is often very easy to forget that this episode is not being narrated by Stephen, who might simply talk of himself in the third person. The same technique appears in Joyce’s earlier novel, A Portrait.

Figure 2 First edition of A Portrait, worth over £300

Therefore, we cannot consider A Portrait, or even the Proteus episode of Ulysses, as Stephen’s autobiographical representations of himself - the artist in development. There is another presence that must be acknowledged to appreciate both works as they were intended: the narrator, who is too often mistook for Stephen himself.

There has been much debate in academic circles, for example, surrounding the title of A Portrait. It simultaneously implies that Stephen is artist in question and that he is the fumbling, naïve “young man” that is unrealised as an artist. Most readings of the book look towards Stephen as the hero, the uncompromising aesthete who is both intellectually gifted and poetically inspired. Although this is a valid reading, I believe it disregards the great irony that Joyce tangled into