This is a short episode, but there is a lot going on. For me, this episode sets the groundwork for the saga which will unfold throughout the book. Some of the dominant themes that stood out for me were memory, history, money, anti-Semitism, and misogyny.
Early in the episode, Stephen Dedalus’ mind wanders as he briefly considers memory. There is a sense that Stephen is haunted by memories, most likely the result of his pain over his mother’s death. I suspect that the reason for this is because often the most vivid memories are the sharpest and most painful, those which cut directly into the psyche.
Fabled by the daughters of memory. And yet it was in some way if not as memory fabled it. A phrase, then, of impatience, thud of Blake’s wings of excess. I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame. What’s left us then?
As Stephen is discussing Pyrrhus with the class he is teaching, one of the students jokes that Pyrrhus was a pier. Stephen then follows the prompt and explores what is a pier.
—Tell me now, Stephen said, poking the boy’s shoulder with the book, what is a pier.
—A pier, sir, Armstrong said. A thing out in the waves. A kind of bridge. Kingstown pier, sir.
The pier then becomes a symbol for memory. It is something solid that juts out into the sea of the subconscious. And despite the continuous crashing of the waves of forgetfulness against the pylons holding up the pier, the pier remains, just as the painful memories persist. It is also worth noting that a pier is a place where ships depart and dock, so the pier also builds the connection to the seafaring Odysseus.
As the class is dismissing, Stephen offers the following riddle to the class:
The cock crew
The sky was blue:
The bells in heaven
Were striking eleven.
Tis time for this poor soul
To go to heaven.
The students are unable to solve the riddle, so Stephen tells them that the answer is “The fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush.” (p. 27) This is a totally absurdist answer and has no relevance to the riddle whatsoever. I would go as far as asserting it is a Dadaist answer. I pondered the riddle for a bit and came up with my own answer: Judas Iscariot. There were originally twelve apostles, and one would assume that eleven of them were admitted into heaven, hence the ringing of the eleven bells. Judas was sent to hell, for betraying Christ and for committing suicide. The riddle implies that it is time to forgive Judas for his sins and allow his soul access to heaven. I think Joyce dropped a little hint to the riddle in the text, because on page 29, he mentions the twelve apostles.
The image of the fox reappears, but now it seems to be a symbol for a historian, a sly and intelligent creature who is obsessed with digging up the past, with scraping away the debris of time to uncover the history buried below the surface.
A poor soul gone to heaven: and on a heath beneath winking stars a fox, red reek of rapine in his fur, with merciless bright eyes scraped in the earth, listened, scraped up the earth, listened, scraped and scraped.
The second half of this episode focuses on Stephen’s interactions with Mr. Deasy, the schoolmaster. I personally found Deasy to be a most disdainful character and he could easily be called Mr. Queasy, since he kind of made me feel sick. He is self-righteous, obsessed with money, brazenly anti-Semitic, and misogynistic.
Deasy lectures Stephen on the importance of money, emphasizing that money is power. He then tosses in a quote by Shakespeare to back up his assertion, but Stephen catches the irony of the fact that it was Iago who Deasy quoted, and Iago is not a model character.
—Because you don’t save, Mr Deasy said, pointing his finger. You don’t know what money is. Money is power, when you have lived as long as I have. I know, I know. If youth but knew. But what does Shakespeare say? Put but money in thy purse.
—Iago, Stephen murmured.
Shortly afterward, Deasy launches into an anti-Semitic rant. He employs the same inane arguments that have fueled anti-Jewish sentiment for years: that the Jews control the government, the banks, the press, and so forth. He then accuses the Jews of being the cause of society’s decline.
—Mark my words, Mr Dedalus, he said. England is in the hands of the jews. In all the highest places: her finance, her press. And they are the signs of a nation’s decay. Wherever they gather they eat up the nation’s vital strength. I have seen it coming these years. As sure as we are standing here the jew merchants are already at their work of destruction. Old England is dying.
After Stephen attempts to defend the Jews against Deasy’s accusations, he says something that really struck a nerve with me:
—History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
On one level, this is an expression of the connection between memory and history. Stephen’s past haunts and torments him, and try as he may, he cannot free himself from his personal history. But there is also a larger issue here. Our society is formed based upon human history. Whether we remember the past or forget it collectively, it doesn’t matter all that much. We are still the products of our collective past. If you wanted to apply a Jungian analysis, you could also argue that our collective consciousness is tied to our collective history, and we are bound to it, unable to free ourselves. It’s kind of a dark rabbit hole to start going down, and for one who has always viewed history in a positive light, this casts a shroud over my long-standing views on the value of history and memory.
Next, Deasy launches into his tirade against women. During his rant, he mentions Helen of Troy, which serves to tie the scene in with the Homeric motif.
—I am happier than you are, he said. We have committed many errors and many sins. A woman brought sin into the world. For a woman who was no better than she should be, Helen, the runaway wife of Menelaus, ten years the Greeks make war on troy. A faithless wife first brought strangers to our shore here. MacMurrough’s wife and her leman O’Rourke, prince of Breffini. A woman too brought Parnell low. Many errors, many failures but not one sin. I am a struggler now at the end of my days. But I will fight for the right till the end.
(pp. 34 – 35)
As I read this again, I couldn’t help wondering how Stephen felt hearing this, especially with the pain of his mother’s death still fresh. He does not react to it, other than signaling he is ready to leave. I suspect he is hurt and angry, but because he is financially broke and struggling, and needs the work, he is afraid to speak out. I feel for Stephen. He is in a terrible place.
The episode concludes with Deasy making a joke about the Jews.
—I just wanted to say, he said. Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the jews. Do you know that? No. And do you know why?
He frowned sternly on the bright air.
—Why, sir? Stephen asked, beginning to smile.
—Because she never let them in, Mr Deasy said solemnly.
A coughball of laughter leaped from his throat dragging after it a rattling chain of phlegm. He turned back quickly, coughing, laughing, his lifted arms waving to the air.
For me, this is the key setup for what is to come. There is a similarity between the Jews wandering in the desert and Odysseus traveling the seas. Both are wanderers attempting to return home, but can’t. It is also important to note that Leopold Bloom (who correlates to Odysseus and will appear soon in the story) is Jewish.
The next episode concludes the first part of the book. If you are reading along, I expect to have my thoughts on Episode 3 to be up in about a week. Read on!