Written between 1914 and 1921 and published in 1922, the novel is set in Dublin, a common setting in Joyce’s work (most likely due to the city being his hometown) , on the 16th of June, 1904, an uneventful day in the lives of various characters, the most prominent being Leopold Bloom, an unassuming advertising agent, and also Molly Bloom, Leopold’s unfaithful wife, and Stephen Dedalus – the central character in Joyce’s previous novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and Joyce’s literary alter ego – a young, philosophical writer, who is unafraid to voice his opinions on various topics concerning modern life, such as religion and mortality. The first chapter, or ‘episode’, of Ulysses (also known as ‘Telemachus’) directly focuses on Stephen and his morning, and the people he interacts with.
Even from the very beginning, Joyce’s dry, ironic humour is on full display through his portrayal of Stephen, a suspected committer of matricide through his refusal to kneel at his mother’s, May Dedalus’, deathbed (with Joyce’s grim use of rhyme between her names invoking a cruel humour in contrast with her situation), who will refuse to wear grey (“He kills his mother, but refuses to wear grey”). His interactions with “stately, plump Buck Mulligan” also provide a humour in Joyce’s playful distortion of the ‘fourth wall’, with Mulligan noting Stephen’s odd last name, linking to the Ancient Greek character of Daedalus, as well as the absurdity of an Irish commoner being bequeathed such a name. Soon after, Joyce’s famous stream-of-consciousness technique comes into play as we are transported into Stephen’s mind to listen to his inner thoughts, wherein he is haunted by the ghostly form of his recently deceased mother, possibly hinting at a side of Stephen that Mulligan describes as “sinister”.
The passage also makes various allusions to the tense relationship between Ireland and England at the time when the story is set, with Stephen showing a resentment of Englishmen throughout this fascinating opening episode.