By Amy Fish


In “Nestor,” the second episode of James Joyce‘s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus, the perpetual student of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is back at school—but this time as a teacher. The episode continues the exploration (begun in Portrait) of Stephen’s possible places in archetypal relationships of teacher and pupil, father and son, and links that exploration to philosophical questions of history.

History is at once a theme of the episode, the subject of Stephen’s class this morning, and the art of the episode, according to the Gilbert schema. Far from textbook matter, Stephen’s view of history is deeply personal. Personal history blurs into ancient history, giving the distant past a painful emotional immediacy. In “Nestor,” though Stephen has wandered from the house, everything seems to hit close to home. While the technique of the episode, “catechism (personal),” may most obviously refer to Stephen quizzing his class and the school headmaster grilling Stephen, the specification of personal also suggests that many of the episode’s questions are directed by Stephen, to himself.

“Nestor,” The Odyssey, and Father-Son Relations

In Homer’s Odyssey, on which Joyce loosely models his Ulysses, Nestor is a much-respected, elderly man who counseled the Greeks during the siege of Troy. When Telemachus—Odysseus’s son and Stephen Dedalus’s counterpart— sails from Ithaca to search for news of his father, Nestor’s house is the first stop. Despite Nestor’s hospitality and (rather long-winded) conversation, Nestor cannot explain Odysseus’s disappearance, and so Telemachus must move on.

Joyce’s “Nestor” episode consists of four scenes: Stephen testing his class on the history of Pyrrhus and on Milton’s “Lycidas;” Stephen tutoring the student Sargent on algebra (as the boys begin their hockey game outside); Stephen meeting with and receiving his wages from the elderly school headmaster, Deasy (with the sounds of the hockey game in the background); and Deasy chasing down Stephen on his way out of the school grounds. These four parts suggest a kind of dance, in which people step toward Stephen and offer him the chance to form teacher-pupil/father-son connections and Stephen instead steps back. Stephen’s class surrounds him, eager for a story, but Stephen withdraws with a riddle (2.102-7) that only he can understand: not a teacher’s move. Sargent approaches Stephen for help with algebra, but Stephen can only think of “amor matris,” (2.165), mother love: not a father’s love. Deasy gives Stephen advice and suggests his affection for the younger man (“I like to break a lance with you” 2.423-4), but Stephen resists with unspoken feelings and more riddles (“A shout in the street” 2.386): not a pupil’s behavior. Deasy chases Stephen to share a joke about Jews, but rather than laughing or getting angry, Stephen remains detached: not the reaction of a son.

The school episode, then, highlights both Stephen’s failure to settle into teacher-pupil/father-son relationships and the importance of those relationships to other people. The society in which Stephen lives, in fact, depends on such relationships for its organization and hierarchy. Priestly Fathers run the church; a student-teacher-headmaster hierarchy structures the school where Stephen works; and the place of boys in society—both the boys in Stephen’s class, such as Armstrong (2.21), and Stephen himself—depends on the class and wealth of their fathers. The behavior of both Stephen’s students and Deasy, moreover, suggests the eagerness of the people surrounding Stephen to form these relationships. 1904 Ireland thus resembles the ancient Greece of Homer’s Odyssey. In the Odyssey, patrilineage determines friendships, divine favor, and identity: even old Nestor remains known as “Neleus’ son” (Homer III.79), and for Telemachus, everything depends on finding Odysseus.

The all-importance of fathers makes Telemachus’s claim of paternity doubts all the more shocking:

My mother says I am his son; I know not surely. Who has known his own engendering? I wish at least I had some happy man as father, growing old in his own house— but unknown death and silence are the fate of him that, since you ask, they call my father. (Homer I.215-220)

While Telemachus’s words certainly send a backhanded insult toward his mother, he aims primarily at his father. Telemachus bases his paternity doubts not in any circumstance of his conception or birth but instead in the current circumstance of Odysseus’s absence. The reasoning is illogical but significant. Telemachus is upset not only because he misses Odysseus but because without Odysseus, the Ithaca household is crumbling, losing its prosperity and dignity. Fatherhood, then, is inextricably linked to the preservation of the household. The same link holds in the world of Stephen, for whom the growing chaos and poverty of the Dedalus house (Portrait 175) comes to symbolize his father’s inadequacy and perhaps keeps Stephen (at least unconsciously) searching for a father figure. As the fatherly Nestor cannot satisfy Telemachus’s search for Odysseus, so Deasy and other would-be father figures—including Stephen’s actual father, Simon Dedalus—cannot satisfy Stephen. The question of whether the fault lies with Stephen’s stubbornness or with Deasy’s and Simon’s inadequacy remains suspended until Episode 17, “Ithaca,” throws one more potential father figure into the ring. For now, although Stephen classifies himself as not as a teacher but “A learner rather” (2.403), he has not found anyone outside of his books from whom he wants to learn.

History’s Nightmare

Stephen remains among people but not within them. He expresses his isolation in a famous line: “History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” (2.377). We might think that history would be experienced collectively: that, if it were a nightmare, it would be a nightmare from which we are trying to awake. But perhaps Stephen’s isolation stems from the unusual, somewhat inexplicable nature of his vision. Do people like Armstrong and Deasy, the people of 1904 Dublin, see history as a nightmare? The course of Irish history would have provided plenty of reason to have bad dreams— but Deasy reacts to Stephen’s claim with only incomprehension. Channeling any sense of history’s sinister side into his anti-Semitism, Deasy seems to view the world with an untroubled eye: “All human history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God” (2.380-1). At the time of Joyce’s composition of Ulysses, in contrast, after the experience of World War I, the conception of history as a nightmare had become understandable and even common. Citing the apparent chronological displacement of Stephen’s philosophy, the scholar Robert Spoo classifies Ulysses as “transhistorical” (Spoo 149)—that is, alluding not only to the past but to a future outside of the narrative time frame. Spoo sees the Nestor episode as loaded with World War I imagery, notably in the medieval violence of Stephen’s vision of the hockey game: “Jousts. Time shocked rebounds, shock by shock. Jousts, slush and uproar of battles, the frozen deathspew of the slain, a shout of spearspikes baited with men’s bloodied guts” (2.316-8). The boys in Stephen’s class, Spoo notes, would have been of the class and age to serve as officers in World War I—and perhaps in the process adopt their own dark visions of the world (Spoo 144). In 1904 as Joyce portrays it, Stephen seems strange, but in 1922 as Joyce lived it, Stephen might have seemed one of many.

Ulysses cannot be totally transhistorical: it is a novel set on a specific day in 1904. Stephen’s philosophy needs a psychological place in the present of the narrative. Although Spoo’s theory may add a level of meaning to Ulysses, the theory cannot substitute for the primary level of meaning in the novel. By thinking solely of the transhistorical, we would be repeating Telemachus’s fallacy: thinking that the present could cause the past.

Still, Stephen’s words suggest his own transhistorical thinking, if not prophecying the future then at least drawing upon the past. Stephen’s vision of the hockey game as war does not rely on the experience of World War I. Any number of other wars could serve to haunt a moody young man’s mind. After stating his definition of history, Stephen thinks, “What if that nightmare gave you a back kick?” (2.379). History’s back kick could be the force that sends Stephen’s thoughts into the bloody jousts of medieval times; the force that has jolted Stephen out of his fleeting freedom in Paris and back to Ireland; the force that, at the end of Portrait, taints Stephen’s anticipation of Paris with cynicism: “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience…” (Portrait 253). Under his excitement lurks his suspicion that Paris will be just another episode, another moment of awakening from the nightmare of history into the reality of experience only to find that the awakening occurs in yet another level of dream. For the millionth time, in Portrait, a try at true experience; and for the millionth time, in “Nestor,” a try at true relationships.

Stephen’s disappointment mirrors that of another figure of the past, Pyrrhus, whose linguistic approximation, “pier,” Stephen jokingly defines as “a disappointed bridge” (2.39). Pyrrhus is best known for his execution of a Pyrrhic victory, defeating the Romans on behalf of the Tarentines but at such a high cost that Tarentum eventually fell (Gifford 30)—a kind of back kick of fate. As told by Plutarch, Pyrrhus’s life also ends with the ultimate back kick. After an exhausting and only sometimes successful life at war, Pyrrhus dies when the mother of a poor and unremarkable enemy soldier hurls a tile down at Pyrrhus from a nearby rooftop and crushes the general’s neck (Plutarch). Perhaps Stephen sees Pyrrhus’s life as one in which events are remembered not by their rewards but by their costs—a life in which purpose tends to dissolve, as do our efforts to resist the inevitable courses of our nightmares.

Works Cited

Joyce, James. Ulysses. Ed. Hans Walter Gabler. New York: Vintage Books, 1986.

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: The Viking Press, 1964.

Gifford, Don. Ulysses Annotated. Second edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. Garden City: Anchor Press, 1961.

Milton, John. “Lycidas.” The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton. Ed. William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon. New York: The Modern Library, 2007.

Plutarch. “The Life of Pyrrhus.” The Parallel Lives. Loeb Classical Library edition, 1920. Reproduced by Bill Thayer. University of Chicago. 2 Feb. 2009 <http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/plutarch/lives/pyrrhus*.html>.

Spoo, Robert. “‘Nestor’ and the Nightmare: The Presence of the Great War in Ulysses.” Twentieth Century Literature 32.2 (1986): 137-54. JSTOR. 2 Feb. 2009 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/441379>.

All Yale Modernism Lab in-text citations of Ulysses have been formatted in the following style:

(Episode #.Page#). For example, the opening “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan,” which is on the first line of the first episode of Ulysses, would be cited as (1.1). All citations come from the Hans Walter Gabler edition of the text.