As I wrote a couple of days ago, I’m blogging my way through James Joyce’s Ulysses, trying to give a layperson’s perspective on the chapters in an attempt to demystify it a bit. I previously wrote about Chapter 1, and how it’s incredibly straightforward. However, in Chapter 2, I’m starting to see the subtle storytelling shifts that he book is known for.
I’ve known that Chapter 3 is the sandtrap that gets a lot of readers stuck. It is a full-blown stream-of-consciousness sensory overload in the mind and perspective of Stephen Daedalus. Every thought, observation, and fantasy run together in a constant flow.
But that’s Chapter 3. Here in Chapter 2, we start seeing these shifts happen. Whereas Chapter 1 was in a third-person omniscient perspective, Chapter 2 is an odd blend of 3rd and 1st person experiences. For the most part, it’s Stephen as he is experiencing his work as a teacher and getting paid by his boss. But it’ll go from the words of Stephen and his students to his inner thoughts commenting and judging himself for those words he just said.
Thematically, this works beautifully, as much of the Chapter is a meditation on history and the individual’s place in it. And don’t we experience history in just that way, jumping from a third-person observation on the world around us, to a first-person experience of it all?
The “camera” changing angles and perspectives like this works to create a beautiful atmosphere of uncertainty and insecurity as Stephen himself is also trying to find his place in the world.
The Odyssey Turned Upside-Down
As I said the other day, Ulysses structures its narrative and takes its primary inspiration around Homer’s epic, The Odyssey. Chapter 1 played off of the beginning of the Odyssey in a relatively straightforward and parallel way–the young man (Stephen/Telemachus) living among men trying to usurp his growth and assertion as a man. Chapter 2, is the first indication that the connection to Homer isn’t so simple.
Chapter 2 here is based around the story of Odysseus’ son Telemachus visiting Nestor, an old war buddy of his father, to try and get information about Odysseus’ whereabouts. Homer’s Nestor is wise, caring, funny, and generous; Joyce’s version, the schoolmaster Mr. Deasy, is foolish, over-confident, miserly, greedy, and twists history for his own ends and prejudices.
We see here what the rest of the book (from what I understand) will do–it will subvert and upend The Odyssey far more than being some alternate re-telling.
Themes & Motifs
If the first chapter was focused around religion, this one seems to revolve around history and how people relate to it and find life in it. There are musings on whether history could ever have been different than what it ended up being. There’s Stephen’s thought the the human soul is the most basic and elemental form of the human, and so perhaps history itself can be different as it collides with the human soul, but the souls themselves will always stay the same.
Deasy seeks to retell history in a self-serving manner to inflate his own ego and wealth and seek his own ends. Stephen sees this as vapid and concludes that connecting with the beauty in other humans is the only way to imbue meaning into the otherwise uncaring historical forces around us.
And yet, the Chapter ends with Stephen’s efforts to this end frustrated. He is a romantic and an artist; he wants to be a writer and philosopher (and so make his place in history and in others). Yet Chapter 2 concludes with Deasy sending Stephen off to hand-off a terribly-written and historically-inaccurate article he wrote at a local newspaper.
And so the artist who longs to stand atop history and see beauty and wonder in humanity and the world, is forced once more into the role of servant and lackey to those seeking their own aggrandizement, beauty and others be damned.
Chapter 3 will see the frustrated Daedalus retreat into his own mind and imagination to force a sense of beauty onto the world within his own inner life (I can personally relate to this), as he walks along a beach towards the newspaper office. Apparently it gets kind of crazy, so I’ll be sure to report back what I find.
If you’d like to join in on this reading journey, I’ve compiled some resources to help you along your way.,