Stephen is working at a school, teaching a class of rather unpleasant children. He is teaching history, rather ominously the victory of Pyrrhus, which is no doubt symbolic of something. (I’m sure I don’t need to tell my clever readers that a Pyrrhic victory is that of a battle that has such heavy losses on each side, the victor doesn’t really gain anything). I don’t think history is Stephen’s strongest subject (in fact, I think he might be a failed medical student) as he appears to be surreptitiously reading from a book as he questions the children. A thick kid eats numerous fig rolls.
Evidently, the lesson isn’t going so well, as Stephen gives up on the history and gets one of the lads to read a poem. I don’t recognise it, but then again my knowledge of poetry is limited, so it’s probably a fairly significant one. Anyway, while the child who is obviously better educated than I am goes about this, Stephen muses on history in general, and on the murders of Caesar and Pyrrhus specifically. He indulges in a little philosophical existentialism, wondering if all of history is inevitable, or if there might have been another way. This doesn’t appear to cheer him up much.
The kids decide it’s time to play hockey and start noisily packing up their bags. Stephen decides to offer them a riddle, which they accept with enthusiasm. Neither the riddle nor the answer make any sense at all, which is about as much as I would have expected. Have a pop at it yourself –
‘The cock crew
The sky was blue:
The bells in heaven
Were striking eleven.
‘Tis time for this poor soul
To go to heaven.’
Any ideas? Spoiler alert – I’m going to give you the answer. Why, it is ‘The fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush’ – of course! Stephen’s young charges seem about as impressed with this as I was and bugger off outside to play hockey. One hapless child – Sargent – described as ‘ugly and futile’ remains behind because he needs some help with his sums, poor chap. This little wastrel reminds Stephen of himself as a young lad, so he takes the time to help him solve his problem – although it does say ‘He proves by algebra that Shakespeare’s ghost is Hamlet’s grandfather’, so not sure how much help that actually is. Anyway, the boy seems happy enough and goes to join his classmates on the hockey field.
Stephen goes to Mr Deasy’s office – who must be the Headmaster – to collect his wages. Mr Deasy also appears to be refereeing the hockey match outside – rather robustly, it must be said – so Stephen has to wait a bit. As Deasy gives him his wages, he advises Stephen on the wisdom of saving money, and proudly shows him his own savings box. Stephen laments his own many debts. Deasy says that the English are very proud of being able to ‘pay my own way’ and that this is a good thing. He then embarks on a ramble about Irish politics and identity and Stephen responds with his own views on Irish history.
Deasy appears to be quite disparaging towards Stephen but nonetheless produces a letter he has written to the newspapers and asks Stephen to use his writerly contacts to ensure it gets published. It’s a letter about a possible cure for foot and mouth disease, which sounds very exciting. Stephen agrees to help, but doesn’t sound convinced. The hockey match continues outside, then Deasy launches unexpectedly into an anti-Semitic rant that seems to come out of nowhere. Not content to be seen as merely just a racist, he throws a healthy bout of misogyny into the mix by blaming women throughout history for ruining the world. Stephen takes a decent stab at countering Deasy’s outburst and dismissing his views but Deasy is unmoved.
On top of all that, Deasy declares that Stephen is not born to be a teacher, to which he responds that he may be more of a learner instead. Probably a bit peeved by this unusually highly-charged wage-collecting episode, Stephen says he will do his best to get Deasy’s letter published, then leaves. Charming fellow that he is, Deasy follows Stephen out to the gate to have one last pop at the Jewish community. Nice!
This is quite a fun episode (you can’t really call them chapters) and the character of Mr Deasy is an excellent villain-type, representing that bigoted class of people who only accept their own rather narrow range of opinions and perceived wisdom. In the first part, Stephen is the teacher – although rather a detached one who doesn’t seem particularly interested in engaging with his unruly young flock, preferring to let his mind wander to his own glum thoughts and musings. Until, that is, he sees something of himself in the pitiable Sargent, a child he considers that only a mother could love. This gets him thinking about his own mother once more and the whole experience seems to bring out a nurturing quality within him.
Once Stephen is in Deasy’s office, it is Deasy who becomes the teacher, of sorts – advising Stephen on financial matters and imposing upon him his views on history and its consequences. There is some irony in the fact that Deasy at first makes much of his fiscal prowess – even brandishing his coins with glee, at one point – then but moments later deplores Jewish merchants for doing pretty much the same thing. It is an excellent presentation of the vile mind of the fellow, in all its ignorant and hypocritical glory. He even makes the effort to chase down Stephen at the end of the episode to tell him – ‘Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the Jews. […] Because she never let them in’. To be fair, he doesn’t think much of women either, so there is some diversity in his prejudice at least.
So all in all, then, we find Stephen once again in reflective mood and mildly at odds with a brash, domineering counterpart. He seems mostly resigned to this state of affairs at this early stage in the book, from what I can tell. Stephen does make attempts to rebut the unpalatable arguments of Deasy, but is maybe unwilling to engage in outright confrontation, so lets things go. Apart from anything else, I absolutely love the riddle. It makes no sense, which is perfect, and the theme of death sits well with Stephen’s maudlin musings over his mother. Bravo!
‘Dicers and thimbleriggers we hurried by after the hoofs, the vying caps and jackets and past the meatfaced woman, a butcher’s dame, nuzzling thirsting her clove of orange.’
A rather super scene of fellows at the races, particularly loving the meatfaced woman!
‘Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying
- That is God.
Hooray! Any! Whrrwhee!
- What? Mr Deasy asked.
– A shout in the street, Stephen answered, shrugging his shoulders.
After much to-ing and fro-ing about religion, Stephen comes back with this. I find it poignant and rather beautiful.