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The Homeric parallel is hardly a narrative. But it offers a symbol of metamorphosis in Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea. Menelaus is becalmed in Egypt on his way home from Troy. He wrestles with this divine being who takes on the shapes of several animals and of water and fire. When Menelaus succeeds in holding on to him throughout these changes Proteus gives him the news that Odysseus is stranded on Calypso’s island. Menelaus tells this story to Telemachus. Proteus is allegorized in this chapter as Nature herself.
The Gospel parallel is the Temptation. Jesus spent forty days in the desert. The Devil appeared to him and offered him the kingdoms of the world, which he refused. This corresponds to the season of Lent, and is the prelude to Jesus’ Ministry. Stephen imagines himself as a murderer of a post office employee who has shut the door in his face. The Devil appears in human form as the exiled Kevin Egan whom Stephen met in Paris two years ago. The Devil also appears in disguise as the dog seen by Stephen on the beach. Stephen thinks of the first man in Eden. Adam must have been created without a navel. Stephen imagines us all being connected to him by a series of ancestral navel-strings like telephone wires. The theme of birth is associated with the two midwives that Stephen sees on the beach.
This chapter deals with the thoughts passing through Stephen’s mind, as he perceives the world around him and broods over his own nature. The chapter is predominantly concerned with the human response to the physical world. The protean nature of experience is defined: sight, sound, the smell of incense, of Paris, of the dead dog, the sense of touch and taste, found in the various nostalgic recollections and the more intimate description of bodily functions. The physical world and the mind of Stephen move through different modes, as protean as Homer’s god of the sea.
This chapter throws light on Stephen’s character. Stephen’s fears are stressed. His conventional reactions to Paris make him a stupid tourist. He sees himself as still the child, overborne by an extravagant and shaming family. He realizes that his dreams of fulfillment as an artist, as a lover and as a superman are based on commonplace romantic notions. His Paris memories seem slightly exotic. Dreams of the famous streets of Paris are punctuated by thoughts of the Dublin back streets. The view of the boats seen over Stephen’s shoulder lifts the nature of the imagery from the drab to the beautiful and meaningful.
In this chapter, Protean Stephen, not knowing who he is or where he is going, has identified himself with Aristotle, Boehme, Hamlet, Blake, perhaps Lessing, perhaps Gutzkow, and an upside-down Berkeley. The language of his thought changes momentarily into Greek, Italian and German, and he willfully changes parts of speech and patterns of rhythm into other parts and other patterns. The whole chapter is a chapter of such changes. Stephen’s gaze moves from the sea at his feet to the sea farther out. "Five fathoms out there." The drowned man therefore becomes Alonso in The Tempest, Stephen’s father and Lycidas. Stephen sums up all seachanges: "God becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes feather-bed mountain." But there are metaphorical and theological, as well as biological changes here.
Of all protean things in this chapter most concern Stephen more immediately. He sees himself in exiled "Wild geese" and in "pretenders" or tricksters. Unable to seize his own identity, he becomes Jesus, Lucifer, Hamlet, Shakespeare, Swift and a baldheaded priest by turns. However, what proves him as protean as external nature and words is the dog. It seems to him hare, buck, bear, calf, wolf and pard by turns. Proteus is the god not only of alteration but also of alternation, pattern and persistence. He is the sea, which though never the same for two successive moments has always been the same. Joyce’s "Proteus" chapter is full of changes that represent recurrent patterns with variations: the dynamic stability of living things.