Though I realize that Ulysses is a masterful paradigm of innovative techniques (or so the faculty of the university would have one believe) – it is the conflicting natures of Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus which I find of primary (if not sole) interest. Dedalus is a disillusioned, Jesuit trained academic with literary aspirations. His academic pursuits have led to a symbolic burning of his wings (his emotional detachment) as he rose to “the enlightenment of the Sun.
He tolerates neither the abusive Buck Mulligan nor the condescending Oxonian Haines (the coinhabitants of Martello Tower) and feigns interest in the citizenry of Dublin. Buck Mulligan is a cynical man of action. He mocks Dedalus’ beliefs and intellectual prowess. Whereas Dedalus fears water (perhaps symbolizing baptism) – Mulligan once saved a drowning man. Mulligan “plunges into life” while Stephen meekly questions existence and his place in reality.
Mulligan can ingratiate himself to the “peasantry” (see the encounter with the unpaid Milk woman) while Dedalus broods on Irish history and appears the elitist. Stephen has been “blinded by the Sun” and lives in a shapeless world. His feelings of guilt (primarily concerning his mother’s hideous death and the abandonment of his sisters to poverty) coupled with his sense of estrangement necessitates a continuous introspection as recourse. His relentless pursuit of absolute truths (a concept dear to the Aristotelian Jesuits) clarifies little and fuels his discontent.
As a teacher he is uncaring – oblivious to the inadequacies of his students. As an employee he is held in light regard. “You were not born to be a teacher, I think… To learn one must be humble” states the schoolmaster, Mr. Deasy (35). His literary views are scorned by his contemporaries and he is not considered a poet of any promise. Yet Dedalus is a hero of a different ilk. Stephen is a sincere “thinker” and as such is diametrically opposed to Mulligan – “the man of action.
He considers the import of his actions and grieves his perceived sins – Mulligan hides in cynicism. Stephen is stumbling towards his goal of self-enlightenment despite societal conventions and his own inadequacies. Though displaced and disempowered by the “usurper” Mulligan (23) – he struggles onward. Ulysses battled the gods and his own character flaws to regain his kingdom and his happiness. Stephen Dedalus has embarked on his own odyssey in search of intellectual freedom – a freedom which society’s Mulligans and Deasys can hardly aspire.