In the second episode of Ulysses, we follow the prodigal son Stephen Daedalus to his workplace where he is a teacher. We pick up as Stephen is teaching a History lesson to a class of boys. Class lets out early for field hockey. One of the students, Sargent, hangs back to go over his arithmetic lesson with Stephen. After Mr. Deasy, Stephen’s boss, gets the boys organized on the field, he comes back in to pay Stephen his wages. During the exchange, the older Mr. Deasy doles out several “words of wisdom” to Stephen. Additionally, Mr. Deasy asks Stephen to have a letter he has written about foot and mouth disease printed with his newspaper friends. The two spend some time on the topic and then part ways.
Like nearly every other part of Ulysses, the action in the Nestor episode is in the words. Several themes arise for me:
- Mother: While Stephen teaches Sargent his arithmetic after class, Stephen imagines that no one except his mother loves Sargent. A slight framed runt of a child, Sargent reminds Stephen of himself. As he imagines Sargent’s mother doting on the boy, Stephen’s thoughts float back to his own recently deceased mother, who is haunting his memory.
- History: At the start of the episode, Stephen is teaching the boys a history lesson. During the discussion with Mr. Deasy, the elder man offers Stephen a history lesson of Ireland, to which Stephen replies, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
- Teacher vs. Learner: Both Stephen and Mr. Deasy both recognize that Stephen will not be in this job long. Stephen acknowledges early in the episode that the kids don’t respect him and his slack authority with which he holds class. Later, Mr. Deasy tells Stephen that he doesn’t believe he’ll be in the job long, to which Stephen offers up that he is more of a learner than a teacher.
- Jews and Gentiles: Mr. Deasy offers Stephen several anti-Semitic positions during their conversation as the wages exchange hands. Stephen points out that merchants can be Jew or gentile. Mr. Deasy praises the English for their “pay their own way” spirit but says that the England is caving in from within because of the Jews. He offers up the reason why Ireland has never persecuted Jews because “we never let them in.” This is an interesting foreshadow because the main character of Ulysses, Leopold Boom, will later be revealed as a Jew.
- Conflict avoidance: In episode one, Stephen gave up the key to the tower too Mulligan and Haines without a fight. In Nestor, Stephen allows the boys to mock one another without asserting any authority. During the conversation with Mr. Deasy, Stephen offers only minor deflections to several incorrect or disagreeable assertions. As we’ll see throughout the book, Stephen abhors violence of any sort and avoids it completely.
This short episode is packed with themes and sets the stage for plenty more depth. I hope you are at least a little intrigued by the book. Now on my fourth read through, I’m enjoying Ulysses more than ever.
Each one of these posts could be at least double the length with additional linkages and historical notes, but I’m keeping it fairly high level. This process is slowing my reading significantly, but I’m finding that it is paying off. With an eye for themes, I’m being more methodical and purposed in my reading. And if I inspire just one eager reader to begin enjoying Ulysses, it will be well worth the time.
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