Ulysses — Episode 2 — hmm

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Yes. So Episode Two.

I read it once.

Then I read it again.

Then I googled: “Why do people enjoy James Joyce’s Ulysses.”

Episode Two is not a long chapter, only a few pages, but I struggled through because the references were definitely outside of my educational background (I had to look up probably 90 percent of what Stephen was referring to); the conversations were banal (at least on first reading); and I was left wondering: why were those scenes even relevant?

The episode opens with Stephen teaching his class. Because he is a prominent character in Episode One, we are not altogether unfamiliar with his melancholy ways and that downer, depressing aura follows him into this next chapter.

He is teaching a group of boys, questioning them about Pyrrhus.

Dear readers, I had no idea who Pyrrhus was in history, which is, to an extent the point I believe because the boys in the class seem to not know either, one of the boys suggesting that Pyrrhus is, in fact, a Pier.

That is kind of amusing.

Kind of, if you caught that the sound of Pyrrhus is similar to pier.

Doubtless, there is even more hilarity if the reader has prior knowledge that Pyrrhus was a minor King who won battles against the Romans on occasion, though ultimately lost the war. Knowing these details does add a layer of depth to the exchange between Stephen and his students that is most definitely not there for those of us who are just now introduced to the historical figure.

Because I didn’t know who Pyrrhus was, my reaction was more of the shrugging-of-shoulders kind.

Moving quickly along, Stephen then poses a riddle to the boys:

The cock crew,

The sky was blue:

The bells in heaven

Were striking eleven.

‘Tis time for this poor soul

To go to heaven.

Stephen asks: Who is it?

The answer: The fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush.

What?

Seriously. What? Maybe if one of my lovely readers understands this answer, they can enlighten me as to what exactly is taking place here, because even as I turned to my hand-dandy annotated book to see what the author is getting at, I was left unsatisfied.

What the annotation says: “Stephen’s riddle is a joke at the expense of riddles since it is unanswerable unless the answer is already known.”

Here then is where I was left staring at the page, slightly irritated: what is the point of this exchange? What is the meaning here? Is there meaning? Is there a point? Is it just a scene with randomness? Does this show Stephen’s personality?

What?

We move along. A boy stays in from playing hockey to speak to Stephen about his math. They do it together and the boy reminds Stephen of himself at that age. It is not a good reminder; in other words, he doesn’t describe the boy in glowing terms rather calling him “ugly and futile.” But Stephen segues into the idea that someone loves this pathetic boy, a mother does, which then leads him into thinking about his own mother.

And we are back with melancholy Stephen.

The scene changes.

Now we have an interaction between Stephen and the headmaster, a Mr. Deasy who has quite a bit to say on the subject of money.  He is a proud Englishman and condescends towards Stephen, who takes it more or less in stride. In truth, Mr. Deasy is quite a piece of work. He goes off about Jews being the downfall of Britain and then goes off about how throughout history, women were the downfall of society.

He is a toad.

And Stephen does contradict him, slightly, gently, as if walking on glass, which does further color in Stephen’s personality.

And then there is the social commentary inherent in the exchange.

Clearly, the Jewish commentary is relevant to the time that the book was originally written/published/read; however, reading it as a 21st-century reader there is an archaic tone to the Headmaster’s words. Obviously, anti-Semitism is a still real, terrible aspect of society (though I couldn’t speak of that for those in Ireland, mostly I speak of the anti-Semitism in the United States), but the degree of Mr. Deasy’s comments really does emphasize that I am reading something written just over a hundred years ago now.

However, these comments, along with the comments about women show a negative, almost uneducated side to Mr. Deasy, which is quite well done. His last comment about Ireland not allowing Jews into the country is the final topping on the cake.

A toad.

All in all, Episode 2 crawled by at a snail’s pace and even Stephen’s musing on Aristotle’s philosophy did not help the… well… boring nature of this particular section. Additionally, if I had not had the annotated Ulysses at my side, I would have been even more lost and ultimately discouraged by what I read.

If you are reading along, or have read it in the past, what are your thoughts on this second section? Please share. Maybe you can help me enjoy it, that is IF I decide to read it a third time through.

Until next time, friends… happy reading!

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