Episode 2: Nestor
The "Nestor" episode opens with Stephen in the midst of teaching a lesson at Mr. Deasy’s school in Dalkey, which is a 20 minute walk from the Martello Tower in Sandycove. Because Stephen departed the Tower no sooner than 8:45 (we heard the three bells at the end of the “Telemachus” episode), he presumably arrives a bit late to work (see my recorded walk below).
In The Odyssey, Telemachus leaves Ithaca in search of news of his long lost father. Under the guidance of Athena, he first goes to Pylos, the kingdom of Nestor, a wise man and an old comrade of Odysseus’s.
Stephen’s teaching is uninspiring. He offers skeptical feelings of history as “memory fabled” (2.8), meaning inexact and romanticized. He reveals his lack of dedication to teaching in his need to “glance at the name and date in the gorescarred book” (2.12-13). In short, he is unprepared for class. We’ve all been there.
The discussion of the Greek figure Pyrrhus’s victory at Asculum refers to an extremely costly win over the Romans, like a soccer match that you win in overtime but five of your best players fall to season-ending injuries. In this way, Stephen recalls Pyrrhus’s famous statement: “Another victory like that and we’re done for” (2.14). In his poetic mind, Stephen creates an image of Pyrrhus saying these words “from a hill above a corpsestrewn plain” while “lean[ing] upon a spear” (2.16-17). Notice the rhythm, repetition, and rhyme of Stephen’s articulation of this image.
When the boys laugh at a weaker student, self-aware Stephen thinks of his inability to control the classroom. He is also cognizant of the boys’ awareness of the costly “fees their papas pay” (2.29) for them to be in the classroom of a largely ineffective teacher. Stephen loses his students when he floats a clever definition of a pier as a “disappointed bridge” (2.39). He intends to remember this witticism “for Haines’s chapbook” and anticipates that he will “pierce the polished mail of his mind” (2.43-44) However, he registers self-aimed disgust towards his preoccupation with serving the role of “a[n Irish] jester at the court of his [English] master,” an intellectual entertainer in search of his “master’s praise” (2.45-46).
Stephen abandons the history lesson in favor of poetry. A boy reads a poem aloud to the class, the last line of which reinforces the drowning motif established in “Telemachus.” In Stephen’s silent monologue in response to the poem, Stephen remembers his year in Paris, spent reading Aristotle in French: “the studious silence of the library of St. Genevieve where he had read, sheltered from the sin of Paris, night by night” (2.69-70). This image of Stephen contentedly surrounded by other “fed and feeding brains” (2.71) contrasts sharply with the loudness and intellectually suffocating atmosphere of the Tower and perhaps Dublin in general.
He concludes his lesson with a riddle, the answer of which is “the fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush” (2.115), which seems shaded with his obsession over his mother’s death. Stephen then gives extra math tutoring to a struggling student named Cyril Sargent. Looking at the “lean neck” and “tangled hair” of the “ugly” boy, he muses on the idea that “someone had loved him” (2.140) – Cyril apparently has a face only a mother could love. This thought leads his mind to the haunting image of his own mother as a “trembling skeleton of a twig burnt in the fire, an odour of rosewood and wetted ashes” (2.145-46) Then, Cyril’s math homework reminds him of Mulligan’s claim that “he proves by algebra that Shakespeare’s ghost is Hamlet’s grandfather” (2.151-52). Stephen also sees a bit of his childhood self in Cyril’s “sloping shoulders” and “gracelessness.” When Cyril completes the math exercise, Stephen dismisses the boy to join his classmates at hockey.
Stephen then follows Mr. Deasy into his office to receive his bi-monthly payment of £3, 12s. After he “gather[s] the money together with shy haste and put[s] it all in a pocket of his trousers” (2.223), Stephen endures Mr. Deasy’s lecture on the importance of saving money. However, we already know that Stephen plans to drink away his income, beginning with meeting Mulligan at The Ship, a pub, at 12:30. Deasy supports his argument through the employment of a Shakespearian allusion to Iago’s statement to Roderigo: “Put but money in thy purse” (2.239). Deasy takes this line from Othello out of context, revealing the superficiality of his literary knowledge; Iago says this quote while treacherously encouraging wealthy Roderigo to unknowingly fund his malicious plot against Othello and Desdemona. In Shakespeare’s play, the line has nothing to do with fiscal responsibility.
Deasy continues to hit the wrong cords as he claims that “the proudest words you will hear from an Englishman’s heart” are “I paid my way. I never borrowed a shilling in my life” (2.243-53). Stephen’s silent monologue responds by cataloguing the substantial debts (roughly £25, which would be in the ballpark of $7,500 today) that he owes to at least ten people around town and dejectedly realizes that “the lump” of money (roughly $1000 in today’s money (see my Money in Ulysses page) he just crammed into his pant pocket is “useless” to even begin paying them off. Deasy then engages the topic of history with regards to the Irish independence movement and attempts to establish common ground with Stephen, saying “I have rebel blood in me too” (2.278). He asks Stephen to work his connections with the local press to do him the favor of getting a letter about foot and mouth disease (an affliction of cattle) published in one of the city’s newspapers.
As Deasy finishes the letter, Stephen hears the celebratory shouts of the boys outside as one hockey team scores a goal. He makes the connection between the competition of sports and bloody war and wonders about his place “among their battling bodies” (2.314). Stephen, aware of the inescapable human attraction to conflict, desires to reject enlistment in these barbaric and unending fights, preferring to assert his independence through exile.
Deasy finishes the letter, which Stephen skims and gathers that foot and mouth disease threatens the export of Irish cattle. Deasy’s cousin in Austria claims that cattledoctors there have cured the disease and want to share their knowledge with Ireland. However, Deasy has encountered difficulties in getting the government’s support. He attributes these difficulties to conspiratorial intrigues and the covert influence of the Jews. His anti-Semitism, not unlike that of Haines, imagines that powerful Jews operating in the shadows represent a “sign of a nation’s decay” (2.347-48) and will eventually kill England. These sentiments establish the hostile social context into which Joyce will place Leopold Bloom, an Irish-born Jew.
Stephen, tolerant and rational, defends Jewish merchants as no different from their gentile counterparts. Deasy’s reply that “they sinned against the light” and “you can see the darkness in their eyes” (2.361-62) cues Joyce’s playfulness with the traditional connotations of light and dark imagery: Stephen and Bloom, Joyce’s heroes, both wear black. Stephen’s mind strays to thinking about the legend of the “wandering” Jew, who must wander the earth for eternity in punishment for rejecting Jesus. This trope quite directly foreshadows Mr. Bloom, a Jew who this day will spend 17 hours wandering Dublin.
Stephen asks Deasy “Who has not?” (2.373) in reference to his assertion that the Jews “sinned against the light,” but he has lost his mentor’s attention. Stephen’s silent question of “Is this old wisdom?” reflects the failure of Deasy/Nestor to serve as the father figure Stephen/Telemachus seeks. Stephen offers his final condemnation of history, the schema’s art form for this episode, saying famously that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” (2.377). We might think of the cultural nightmare of Irish subservience to the English as well as Stephen’s personal history with his mother both present in his thoughts at this point. Deasy instead proposes a typically Victorian conception of history “mov[ing] toward one great goal, the manifestation of God” (2.381), which Stephen counters with a Biblical allusion to the anthropomorphized figure of Wisdom in Proverbs, defining God as “a shout in the street.”
Deasy posits an expansively misogynistic diatribe that blames the fall of men on various historical female figures from the Bible (Eve), Homer (Helen of Troy), early Irish legend (Dermond’s MacMurrough’s wife of the 12th century), and modern Irish politics (Kitty O’Shea).
However, Deasy is correct in asserting that Stephen was “not born to be a teacher.” Stephen agrees, claiming that he’s “a learner rather” (2.403). He silently questions himself about what he will learn here - with Deasy specifically and in Dublin generally. Deasy offers an appropriate (if quaint) pearl of wisdom, saying “To learn one must be humble. But life is the great teacher” (2.406-07). Proud young Stephen might do well to take this advice, but we might not blame him for ignoring Deasy in the context of his intellectual vapidity, anti-Semitism, and misogyny. Joyce’s disgustingly detailed description of Deasy’s “coughball of laughter leap[ing] from his throat dragging after it a rattling chain of phlegm” (2.443-44) further emphasizes the novel’s revulsion at intolerance in all its forms.
Stephen leaves the school to take a tram up to Sandymount, where he will walk along the beach, enjoying some time alone with his own thoughts.