The insanity of reading Ulysses begins un-intimidating enough, lulling us in with talk of the dawn and the morning-time preparations of a handful of bachelors living in a seaside tower. At first we barely notice our hero, Stephen Dedalus, slumped in the corner, disgruntled at being woken so early by roomie Buck Mulligan, who at once appears a more appealing character.
We soon discover Stephen’s disgruntlement takes on a new sphere of expansion – he’s sorting out his life, career, whether he can be an artist, what’s he doing back in Ireland after spending some time the infinitely more developed cultural paradise of Paris, coping with a recently deceased mother and an absentee father — he has his hands full. Moreover, he’s ticked off at Buck on various fronts. Most pressing is Buck’s recent insensitivity to Stephens refusal to pray at his mother’s bedside. He seems more irritated with Buck’s comments than the actual death of his mother.
Soon enough, we learn that Stephen’s annoyance with Buck extends to the presence of a Mr. Haines – friend to Buck, unwanted tower-guest, and more importantly, British and therefore enemy of the peoples of Ireland.
Haines immediately fulfills all of our expectations of the British overlords by ridiculing Stephen, further irritating our young hero and his artistic sensibilities, until the scene is interrupted by an old woman delivering milk. This is very timely as the tea has just been poured. The woman so clearly exhibits the qualities of traditional Irish womanhood that Haines is convinced she must speak a bit of the old Irish. This is in fact not the case. The scene ends with Buck and Haines going off for a morning swim and Stephen going off in a huff.
At this early stage the reading process begins much like reading a normal book, establishing place and character and narrative. In this way Joyce keeps to the conventional novel — at least for a little while. The episode primarily serves as an introduction to our young unrealized-artist, Stephen. His character is laid out for us, and in so doing some of the major themes of the novel are established early on — Irish identity, the dynamics between the individual and his surroundings in seeking to become an artist (and all this represents), the influence of England and Catholicism on Ireland, and Stephen/Ireland’s place in the world. Fun stuff.