Ulysses by James Joyce: Chapter 2

“History . . . is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake (34).”

In this chapter, we find Stephen working as a teacher. He is busy teaching his students history, while they snack on sweets and show little interest in the topic. After class breaks, he meets with the headmaster Deasy in order to collect his wages, although he feels embarrassed about it. They end up in a conversation about the history of Ireland and Deasy makes some anti-Semitic remarks about Jews controlling Britain. Deasy mentions he views history as coming to an end and heading toward Jesus’ second coming, while Stephen views history negatively. This scene parallels the scene in Homer when Teleamachus meets the wise Nestor.

Deasy occupies the role of Nestor in this scene, but it once again is full of irony because Deasy is Nestor’s complete opposite. Instead of an old man full of wise council, Stephen (Telamachus) finds a racist, sexist, pro-Imperialist know-it-all who actually knows very little about anything, and who confuses historical facts, while spouting other ridiculous nonsense. Deasy holds Pro-British views and shares with Stephen a bunch of historical points that are historically inaccurate. He claims Sir John Blackwood voted for union with Britain, but in fact Blackwood voted against it (see: link). He also claims the Orange Lodges fought against union with Britain, even though they actually supported it. (see: link).  To admonish Stephen on the importance of saving money, Deasy quotes a line from Shakespeare on the topic, but Stephen notes to himself that these words come from one of Shakepseare’s villains, Iago! Deasy blames women for sin in the world, referencing Eve and Helen of Troy, along with other women involved in Irish politics that brought bad fates to their lovers, while also falling prey to anti-Semitic beliefs that the Jew secretly control Britain. Joyce seems to be using these parallel scenes to point out the differences from the ancient narrative and the modern world of the current narrative. The wise Nestors of the world are gone, replaced by idiots like Deasy.

Deasy views history as providential, moving towards the greater good of G-d’s manifestation, while Stephen claims he wants to escape from the nightmare of history. As this chapter and the previous chapter have suggested the Irish and their culture have been oppressed by the British; Irish society today is still plagued by the historical events of yesterday from which Ireland cannot escape. This is true as well on a personal level, as Stephen continues to be haunted by his dead mother. The contrast between the ancient world and the modern world achieved by patterning the novel on scenes from the Odyssey suggest far from moving in a positive direction, man has degenerated in a negative direction. Indeed, the novel itself was written shortly after the end of World War I. History really has become a nightmare! Joyce is critiquing the idea that history is about evolution or movement towards a greater good, when so much of modern events is dominated by specters of the past and so much contemporary history shows man at his worst.

 

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