Color and the Sea in “Telemachus”

The first thing that I noticed in this opening episode was the conflation between Buck Mulligan and the sea, both when they are on top of the parapet and at the end of the episode when Buck actually begins to swim, and of how the gray-green color palette used to describe the sea is used in conspicuous contrast to Stephen Dedalus in his mourning-clothes. Buck Mulligan’s voice and presence is ubiquitous in this episode, as are his songs, quotations of poetry, and various allusions from foreign languages, literature, and almost everything else from popular and historical culture. I thought his comment on death was interestingly correlated with the passive indifference of the water in the bay: “And what is death, he asked, your mother’s or yours or my own?…It’s a beastly thing and nothing else. It simply doesn’t matter” (204-207).

Given that Joyce describes Buck’s eyes in the same visual field as the sea (“Stephen turned his gaze from the sea and to the plump face with its smokeblue mobile eyes” (125-126)) and draws attention to their sameness in color, there is a division being set up between the all-encompassing, passive greyness of the culture at large and the hard, uncompromising absoluteness of Stephen Dedalus, as symbolized by his black mourning attire, “in cheap dusty mourning between their gay attires” (570-571). It is hard to see exactly what the purpose of this symbolic distinction is, and it is a relatively minor thing to notice, and yet I feel as though seemingly subtle details like colors and where Joyce puts them for us to find will be an important step in trying to unravel larger themes across the rest of the novel.

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3 thoughts on “Color and the Sea in “Telemachus”

  1. ktb067

    This is so interesting, especially the part about Stephen’s black clothing contrasting with the grey culture. For Stephen, grey area essentially does not exist. Everything of importance is either black or white. Also related to clothing color, Buck states that he wants “puce gloves and green boots,” (14). Perhaps, Buck also wants to stand out, but in a very different manner than Stephen. Rather than abide by Stephen’s strict absolutism, Buck desires flamboyancy.

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  2. oliviawood2013

    This is an intriguing observation. I certainly agree that the subtleties are important in this novel, and now I am wondering if the sea, or Buck’s apparent connection with the sea, will be a recurring theme throughout the rest of the novel.

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  3. jsdrouin

    I’m not sure I have an answer here, but think of the narrator and Stephen’s description of Buck as a horse with wood (oak) colored hair (p. 3 and elsewhere). Perhaps his connection with “beastly” nature is symbolized there as well.

    As for the clothing color, all of the characters are referring to the Decadents of the 1880s and 1890s, particularly Oscar Wilde. Stephen and his friends invoke Decadence with all it’s “yellow” flamboyancy in Portrait (cf. Lynch “swearing in yellow”) and Ulysses. The Decadents were in part attempting to live the “Attic joy” of Hellenism espoused by Matthew Arnold (who also gets a nod in this episode as an Oxford gardener). There is a line drawn from Arnold to Wilde (& Decadence generally) to Nietzsche (i.e. “the new paganism”), but we are probably being asked to consider whether Buck Mulligan represents the Sweetness and Light that forms the foundation of the truly Greek sensibility.

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