Ulysses begins at 8:00 AM on 16 June 1904 as "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan" emerges onto the roof of a former military tower, gaily mocking the Catholic faith. Joyce modeled Malachi ("Buck") Mulligan on his one-time friend Oliver St. John Gogarty, a medical student who reportedly rented the tower in order to give Joyce a place to live and write.
Gogarty was born in 1878, four years before Joyce. Both were born into Dublin’s small, precarious Catholic middle class, but Gogarty’s family was much better off. Like his father and grandfather, he became a physician after attending Trinity College, Dublin, the university of the Protestant Ascendancy. Gogarty was a talented athlete, notably in soccer and cycling, but also cricket and swimming, and Joyce incorporates this aspect of the model by referring to Mulligan's "strong wellknit trunk" and swimming heroics. He was a wit in the outrageous style of Oscar Wilde, and a self-styled avant-garde aesthete in the same mold. He was a patriot who befriended the revolutionary leaders Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, and after independence he became a senator in the Irish Free State. He was also a writer who befriended many of the literati of the Irish Literary Revival, including William Butler Yeats, George Moore, and George Russell. He produced half a dozen books of poetry, several plays, and a fictionalized memoir titled As I Was Going Down Sackville Street, while conducting a successful Dublin medical practice as an otolaryngologist.
Bernard Benstock remarks that "'Stately, plump Buck Mulligan' as a descriptive phrase has a dignity-cum-pomposity befitting the Buck and might well be his own self-descriptiveness at work. In these opening moments, while Mulligan remains alone, narrative tone is maintained close to the character" (Critical Essays, 2). Ellmann says that Gogarty was “inclined to fat” (117), and we do see Mulligan joke about it later in the novel: a companion in Oxen of the Sun asks him if he is perchance pregnant, and "For answer Mr Mulligan, in a gale of laughter at his smalls, smote himself bravely below the diaphragm, exclaiming with an admirable droll mimic of Mother Grogan . . . There's a belly that never bore a bastard." The novel's opening phrase, then, exemplifies one prominent aspect of Joyce's prose style: third-person narration that intermittently approximates the subjective mind-set of important characters, a device that various literary critics have called "free indirect style" or "free indirect discourse."
Mulligan is older, wealthier, and more socially successful than Stephen Dedalus, and consequently displays a patronizing assumption that he knows what is best for his complicated friend and can save him from poverty and despair. Where Stephen sees no hope for advancement or acceptance from the milkwoman (Ireland) or Haines (Britain), Mulligan sets himself forth as a savior: "From me, Kinch, he said." "I'm the only one that knows what you are," he tells Stephen. "Why don't you trust me more? What have you up your nose against me?"
The answer to these questions may not be clear to Mulligan, but it is quite clear to readers of the book: modest financial assistance is no substitute for respect. Mulligan's claim to "know what you are" sits ill with his constant urge to disparage and demean his friend. He mocks Stephen's jesuitical training, his artistically portentous name, his appearance, his poverty, his hunger, his bathing habits, his dental hygiene, his mourning dress, his relationship with his mother, his grief, his emotional sensitivity, and even his sanity. Stephen's one real intellectual or artistic accomplishment, the elaborate Shakespeare theory that he will deliver in Scylla and Charybdis, also comes in for mockery. Mulligan praises only one thing in Stephen, the talent that makes him most clownish and most like Buck himself, i.e. his talent as a "mummer." Given this never-ending onslaught of caustic mockery, Stephen's bitter hostility seems quite understandable. And it seems quite likely that he is referring to Mulligan in Circe when he thinks, "Break my spirit, will he?"
The impression one receives of Mulligan through Stephen’s eyes is not flattering, and the book reinforces that view in many ways. He takes the key to the tower even though Stephen has “paid the rent”; he allies himself with Stephen against Haines in Telemachus, but then gossips unkindly about him to Haines in Wandering Rocks; and, at the end of a long day, between Oxen of the Sun and Circe, having drunk up some of Stephen's monthly earnings he gives his inebriated companion the slip before jumping on a train back to the southern suburbs with Haines. Simon Dedalus resents his influence on his son (Hades), Leopold Bloom does not like what little he sees of him (Oxen of the Sun), and as Bloom begins to take a paternal interest in Stephen he warns him not to trust Mulligan (Eumaeus).
This slate of condemnations is counterbalanced by a few positive touches, however. Mulligan has his own relative (“the aunt”) who disapproves of Stephen. (In Oxen of the Sun he says that she is planning to write to Stephen's father: "Baddybad Stephen lead astray goodygood Malachi"). Stephen’s having paid the rent (and in life Gogarty did, not Joyce) must be weighed against the fact that he owes Mulligan the substantial sum of “nine pounds” (Nestor). Mulligan has lent Stephen clothing, and proposes giving him more “in a kind voice” (Telemachus).
Despite the bitter antagonism between these two men, their deft banter in this episode shows a modicum of mutual pleasure and respect, and respect for Gogarty can arguably be inferred from the fact that Joyce gave him such a prominent position in Ulysses. Mulligan’s wild pagan comedy launches this very funny and deeply secular novel, whereas Stephen can manage such comic freedom only in the advanced stages of drink. Robert Bell makes this important qualifying observation in Jocoserious Joyce, but arguably goes too far in seeing Mulligan as a real comic hero that the reader should prefer to Stephen.