Literature Study GuidesUlyssesPart 1 Episode 2 Summary

Ulysses | Study Guide

James Joyce

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Ulysses | Part 1, Episode 2 : The Telemachiad (Nestor) | Summary



It is ten o'clock in the morning. Stephen is teaching a history class at the Dalkey School. The lesson is about a battle fought by Pyrrhus, a Greek king in the third century BCE. Some of Stephen's students are forgetful and distracted. One description is "the boy's blank face asked the blank window." Another boy makes a joke: "Pyrrhus, sir? Pyrrhus, a pier." Stephen's mind is elsewhere too as he continues to think about Buck and Haines but also muses about Aristotle and philosophy.

Stephen moves the class on to poetry, having them read aloud "Lycidas" by the English poet John Milton. As class ends Stephen asks his students a riddle and gives them the answer. After class the students go outside to play hockey. One student remains behind; the awkward, homely Sargent has been assigned extra schoolwork by the headmaster, Mr. Deasy.

Mr. Deasy, Stephen's boss, calls Stephen to his office. He is an Anglo-Irish Protestant who thinks of himself as an Englishman and claims his Irish ancestors voted for union with England. Mr. Deasy pays Stephen his monthly wage and also makes anti-Semitic remarks and advises Stephen on saving money. He gives Stephen a letter he has written about hoof-and-mouth disease which Stephen promises to try to get published in several newspapers.


James named this section after the character Nestor in The Odyssey. Nestor is a veteran of the Trojan War whose advice is sought by the son of Odysseus, Telemachus. Though he is known as a wise speaker, Nestor is unable to help the young man, who wants to know where his father is. Similarly, this episode in the novel explores the role of authority figures who should be able to satisfy a younger person's needs but might not be adequate to the task.

Stephen is sensitive about matters of authority and domination. When a boy makes a joke and the others laugh, Stephen fears losing control of the class. He thinks they know he lacks authority: "aware of my lack of rule." He also thinks they could become aware of their class differences as he is a poor, part-time worker and they are privileged children in a private school: "[aware] of the fees their papas pay." He thinks of Haines because he's made a joke Haines might want for his scrapbook. He could bring Haines a quote for his book, but then he would be "a jester at the court of his master, indulged and disesteemed." (Disesteemed means "disrespected, held in low esteem.") Stephen is not eager to play that role.

Stephen also shows his sensitivity to matters of power when he is sympathetic to the awkward, unattractive boy Sargent, who seems to have gotten on Mr. Deasy's bad side. The theme of love returns as Stephen believes Sargent's mother must have loved her son: "She had loved his watery weak blood drawn from her own." Stephen here uses the past tense, as though Sargent's mother was dead like Stephen's.

Stephen's guilt about his mother's death shows up in the riddle. The point of the riddle seems to be its pointlessness, because it is impossible to guess the nonsensical answer: "The fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush." But the riddle's answer comes back to Stephen a moment later as a guilty memory. He imagines the "poor soul" of a mother gone to heaven while below on Earth, "a fox, reek of rapine in his fur ... listened, scraped up the earth, listened, scraped, and scraped." Rapine can mean "robbery or plunder," but it also describes the activity of predators. The fox is a greedy, criminal hunter. Perhaps it even preyed on its own grandmother just like Stephen, who "killed" his own mother.

Mr. Deasy is pompous and also misunderstands Shakespeare. His comment, "Put money in thy purse," is not advice about saving but something the villainous Iago says to a fool he is cheating in the play Othello. Mr. Deasy goes on and on about the virtues of the English and the vices of the Jews. He tells Stephen the Jews "sinned against the light." Stephen mildly asks who has not sinned against the light. When Mr. Deasy tells his anti-Semitic joke, the scene lingers on his frail, pathetic figure, cough-laughing and choking on his own phlegm. Joyce does not seem to agree with Mr. Deasy; a novel that wanted to pitch anti-Semitism to an imagined anti-Semitic readership would not portray Mr. Deasy so negatively.

Stephen has fond memories of reading Aristotle in the library in Paris. He felt protected there from Paris's "sin." There is something soaring and poetic about the associations Stephen creates with Aristotle's idea that "thought is the thought of thought." For Stephen, a mind reflecting on itself does not lead to abstraction, but to "tranquil brightness" and "Tranquility, sudden, vast, candescent: form of forms." However, Stephen's ideas are not just empty philosophical speculation. He also has a keen sense of the weight of history, especially compared to the complacency of Mr. Deasy, to whom Stephen remarks, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake."

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