– I forsee, Mr Deasy said, that you will not remain here very long at this work. You were not born to be a teacher, I think. Perhaps I am wrong.
– A learner rather, Stephen said.
Nestor is the most accessible of the first three chapters of Ulysses, known as the Telemachiad for the focus on Stephen Dedalus. It is full of sharp, witty detail: I like the way he has to look down to his answer book when he questions his students on the date of a war, or refers to the pier as a “disappointed bridge.” He asserts himself against principal Mr Deasy, parrying his coarse talk of the ‘jew’ in Ireland: “- A merchant, Stephan said, is one who buys cheap and sells dear, jew or gentile, is he not?” Here we have a connection to Mr Bloom, who will endure similar bigotry through his day before he finally meets up with Stephen. The conversation in this chapter can be clearly contrasted to their dialogue later in Eumaeus: Stephen in fact will repeat his “buys cheap and sells dear” line there in reference to a prostitute. Here Stephen has the moral high ground over the outmoded nationalist Mr Deasy, but he’s still lost, looking for meaning, for a proper sort of mentor.
There are two key scenes in Nestor that give us some hope for Stephen Dedalus. In the first he observes a student who’s stayed behind during recess to struggle with his algebra homework. The child is a pathetic soul, hopeless in his attempts to understand his studies, perhaps emblematic of Stephen’s own frustrations with the loss of individuality under the crushing forces of nation and history. Stephen observes: “Yet someone had loved him, borne him in her arms and in her heart. But for her the race of the world would have trampled him under foot, a squashed boneless snail.” Stephen conceals a certain empathy for the world from the world. As he must – his friends are scholarly cynics, whose responses are either quick witticisms or dry deconstructions. There is a depth to Stephen’s humanity that does not match his urban environment, that he cannot seem to disclose to his fellow Dubliners. See also: Mr Leopold Bloom.
The second key moment occurs during Mr Deasy’s tiresome prattle on patriotism and duty. In a chapter dominated by history, he represents the old guard, full of stale ideas and mottos of the state. A pompous, prejudiced man, he is a necessary evil that Stephen must engage: this is his boss and he must get paid. At one point, Mr Deasy misquotes one of Stephen’s literary heroes: “But what does Shakespeare say? Put but money in thy purse.” Stephen corrects him (“Iago”) under his breath but it goes unnoticed. But how vexing it must be for a literary warrior like Stephen who will later argue at length on biographical details of Shakespeare’s life. He knows that one can never say “Shakespeare says” because it is the characters not the author who are speaking and that quote from the devious Iago is a prime example. And yet he must sit subservient to this philistine principal. It may not seem like a major point, but from what we know of Stephen Dedalus, this was surely the unkindest cut of the whole conversation.
In the Odyssey, Telemachus meets with Nestor the horse tamer to receive some assistance in his search for his father. Joyce’s Nestor seems to represent the state, whose assistance extends only to the vanity of his pale advice. But we are not tethered to Homer’s story, and aside from a few other referential details, Joyce freely follows his own muse. This is an important chapter because it is the only point where we see Stephen asserting himself, though it seems odd that he shows more confidence with the principal than he did with his friends. But we can share his frustrations in this chapter, delve a bit more deeply into his psyche than we could in the first. We are grateful for the humor:
—Ba! Mr Deasy cried. That’s not English. A French Celt said that. He tapped his savingsbox against his thumbnail.
—I will tell you, he said solemnly, what is his proudest boast. I paid my way.
Good man, good man.
—I paid my way. I never borrowed a shilling in my life. Can you feel that? I owe nothing. Can you?
Mulligan, nine pounds, three pairs of socks, one pair brogues, ties. Curran, ten guineas. McCann, one guinea. Fred Ryan, two shillings. Temple, two lunches. Russell, one guinea, Cousins, ten shillings, Bob Reynolds, half a guinea, Koehler, three guineas, Mrs MacKernan, five weeks’ board. The lump I have is useless.
—For the moment, no, Stephen answered.
In a chapter concerned with clinging to humanity through imperialistic history, it is good to see Stephen becoming more human as a character. We also get an important plot point in this most unplotlike novel: Stephen is given an article about foot and mouth disease to deliver to the newspaper. There he will encounter Mr Bloom among the empty winds of journalism. And whereas Mr Deasy proselytizes, treating Stephen as a mere messenger, Mr Bloom will later try to motivate and inspire him: “You have every bit as much a right to live by your pen in pursuit of your philosphy as the peasant has. What? You both belong to Ireland, the brain and brawn. Each is equally important.” How different is Mr Bloom’s concept of countrymen from Mr Deasy’s, how rare as well. But we have not gotten there yet – for now Telemachus is still wandering, lost, fatherless.
Up next: Proteus and the agenbite of inwit.