Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4939

New Characters: Mike Flynn: Stephen’s running coach

Aubrey Mills: Stephen’s friend in Blackrock

Maurice: Stephen’s younger brother

Vincent Heron: Stephen’s friend and “rival” at Belvedere

Wallis: Heron’s friend

Mr. Tate: Stephen’s English teacher at Belvedere

Boland and Nash: Heron’s two friends

Doyle: the director of the play Stephen is in...

(The entire section contains 4939 words.)

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New Characters:
Mike Flynn: Stephen’s running coach

Aubrey Mills: Stephen’s friend in Blackrock

Maurice: Stephen’s younger brother

Vincent Heron: Stephen’s friend and “rival” at Belvedere

Wallis: Heron’s friend

Mr. Tate: Stephen’s English teacher at Belvedere

Boland and Nash: Heron’s two friends

Doyle: the director of the play Stephen is in at Belvedere

Johnny Cashman: an old friend of Simon Dedalus in Cork

E--- C--- / Emma: the girl Stephen secretly admires

In the first section, the narrator says that Uncle Charles smokes his morning pipe in the outhouse, because Stephen’s father finds the tobacco smell unbearable. The Dedalus family has now moved to Blackrock, a suburb of Dublin, and it is summer. Stephen is spending a lot of time with Uncle Charles, going around town doing errands, and practicing track running in the park with Mike Flynn, a friend of Stephen’s father. After practice, they often go to chapel, where Charles prays piously, while Stephen sits respectfully. He would go on long walks every Sunday with his father and Uncle Charles, during which he would listen to them talk about politics and family history. At night, he would read a translation of The Count of Monte Cristo. The hero of this book, Edmond Dantes, appeals to Stephen, and he imagines his own life to be heroic and romantic. He has become friends with a boy named Aubrey Mills. They have formed a gang, and play adventure games together, in which Stephen, rather than dressing in a costume, makes a point of imitating Napoleon’s plain style of dress.

In September, Stephen does not go back to Clongowes because his father cannot afford to send him. Mike Flynn is in the hospital, and Aubrey is at school, so Stephen starts driving around with the milkman on his route. His family’s wealth is declining, and Stephen begins to imagine a female figure, such as Mercedes in The Count of Monte Cristo, who will transfigure and save him from the plainness of his life.

In the next section, the family has moved from Blackrock back to the city, and most of their furniture has just been reposessed by Mr. Dedalus’ creditors. Stephen understands that his father is in trouble, but does not know the details. Uncle Charles has gotten too old to go outside, so Stephen explores Dublin on his own. He visits relatives with his mother, but continues to feel bitter and aloof. After a children’s party, he takes the last tram home with the girl he admires. They stand near each other and, though they remain silent, Stephen feels a kind of connection with her. He thinks that she wants him to hold and kiss her, but he hesitates. The next day, he tries to write a poem to her. In the poem, he alters some of the details from the previous night—they are under trees rather than on a tram, and at the “moment of farewell,” this time, they kiss.

One night, Stephen learns that his father has arranged for him and his brother, Maurice, to attend Belvedere College, another Jesuit school. His father then recounts, at dinner, how Father Conmee told him about Stephen going to speak to him about Father Dolan. Mr. Dedalus imitates Father Conmee saying they had a “hearty laugh together over it.”

In the next section, Stephen is near the end of his second year at Belvedere. It is the night of the school play, and Stephen has the leading role in the second section, playing a comical teacher. Stephen, impatient with the first act, goes out of the chapel where the play is being staged. He encounters two of his classmates—Heron and Wallis—smoking outside. Heron urges Stephen to imitate the rector of Belvedere in the play. Heron says that he saw Stephen’s father going in, and teases him because Emma was with him. Their jesting makes Stephen angry and uncomfortable, but this mood soon passes. As they jokingly implore him to “admit” that he is “no saint,” Stephen plays along, reciting the Confiteor.

While doing so, Stephen’s mind wanders to a time, about a year back, when his writing teacher had found a mild example of heresy in one of his essays. Stephen does not argue, but corrects his error. A few days later, however, Heron and two others stop him and tease him about it, asking him who the “greatest writer” and “best poet” are. When Stephen says that Byron is the best poet, Heron mocks him, calling Byron a heretic. They hold Stephen and hit him with a cane and cabbage stump, telling him to “admit that Byron was no good.”

Remembering the incident now, he is not angry. He is thinking of the fact that Emma will be in the audience, and he tries to remember what she looks like. A younger student comes up and tells Stephen he’d better hurry back and dress for the play.

He goes back in and gets his face painted for the part. He is not nervous, though he is humiliated by the silliness of the part he has to play. The play goes well, and Stephen leaves in a hurry as soon as it is over. Seeing his family outside, and noting that Emma is not with them, he leaves ahead of them—angry, frustrated, and restless.

In the next section, Stephen is on a train to Cork with his father. Cork is the city where Simon Dedalus grew up. They are traveling now because the Dedalus’ properties are going to be sold. His father tells stories about his youth in Cork, but Stephen listens without sympathy or pity. In Cork, Mr. Dedalus asks just about everyone they meet about local news, and people he used to know, which makes Stephen restless and impatient. While visiting the Queen’s College, Stephen becomes depressed looking at the carvings on the desks, imagining the lives of the students. His father finds his own initials, carved years ago, which only depresses Stephen further.

Hearing his father tell more stories, Stephen thinks of his own position at Belvedere. His father gives him advice, to “always mix with gentlemen,” and reminisces about his own father. Stephen is ashamed of his father, and thinks that the people they meet are condescending and patronizing. He feels distant from the world of his father, and the section ends with Stephen repeating to himself lines from Shelley’s poem, “To The Moon.”

In the final section, Stephen has won 33 pounds in an essay competition. He takes his parents to dinner, telling his mother not to worry about the cost. He orders fruits and groceries, takes people to the theater, gives gifts, and spends his money generously, if unwisely. His “season of pleasure,” however, doesn’t last long, and soon life returns to normal. He is dismayed that he was unable to stop the family’s decline, which causes him so much shame.

He begins to wander the seedy parts of Dublin, this time searching for a woman to sin with, rather than for the Mercedes-figure from the start of the chapter. At the close of the chapter, he has his first encounter with a prostitute. She seduces him, and Stephen’s reaction is passive and submissive.

After the dramatic ending of the first chapter, which closes with Stephen winning the approval of his classmates, the beginning of this chapter might be something of a let-down. Rather than immediately continuing Stephen’s story, the narrative spends the first page or so describing seemingly banal, incidental, and trivial details about how Uncle Charles goes out to the outhouse to smoke his tobacco, because Stephen’s father can’t stand the smell. The tone of this chapter, as it begins, suggests routinization, habit—rather than presenting singular events, the narrator describes what Uncle Charles would do “every morning,” or what he and Stephen would do “on week days.” The long and ultimately circular walks Stephen takes, every Sunday, with his father and Uncle Charles, suggest how much his life has become a progression of routines, and how much his freedom is limited by the adult world once again, Though he is no longer at Clongowes, he is still, to some degree, at the disposal of adult authority. His literal, physical freedom is limited, and his means of escape, throughout this chapter, becomes imaginative.

This juxtaposition of a dramatic moment at the end of one chapter, and a tone of routinization which tends to deflate that climax at the start of the next chapter, initiates a pattern that will continue throughout the novel. Each chapter will characteristically end with an energetic climax, a moment of enlightenment for Stephen, while the next chapter, as it begins, will seem to show that this moment may not have been as significant as we had thought. This might suggest that the narrator, despite his close engagement with Stephen’s perspective, has a tendency to ironize or parody aspects of his youthful triumphs. It may be that we feel that we can see or know more than Stephen, as Stephen is so young that he does not know all he thinks he does. This is the case throughout the novel, though it is perhaps less obvious as he gets older. The narrator always asks us to consider Stephen in a critical light, even when the language of the narration seems to be wholeheartedly affirming him.

This point is made especially specific in the second chapter, as we (and Stephen) hear Mr. Dedalus recount, over dinner, an encounter with Father Conmee, the rector at Clongowes. He retells the story, which had seemed like such an unambiguous triumph for young Stephen at the end of the previous chapter, in a patronizing, almost ridiculing tone:

…we were chatting away quite friendly and he asked me did our friend here wear glasses still and then he told me the whole story.

—And was he annoyed, Simon?

—Annoyed! Note he! Manly little chap! he said.
Mr Dedalus imitated the mincing nasal tone of the

—Father Dolan and I, when I told them all at dinner about it, Father Dolan and I had a great laugh over it. You better mind yourself, Father Dolan, said I, or young Dedalus will send you up for twice nine. We had a famous laugh together over it. Ha! Ha! Ha!

Stephen’s great act of self-assertion, heroism and confidence is reduced here to a comic anecdote; the champion of justice and the Roman people and senate is here reduced to a “manly little chap.” While this passage is on the one hand, evidence of his father’s insensitivity to his son—we will tend to sympathize with Stephen here—it will also cause us to reconsider the dramatic ending of the previous chapter in a different light.

One important effect of this moment for Stephen, we imagine, is upon his trust in authority. The confidence which he thought he shared with Father Conmee has been betrayed. Rather than reprimanding Father Dolan for his unfair treatment, the two joked about Stephen together. Throughout the second chapter, Stephen becomes more suspicious of authority figures. He has matured in many ways from the naive young boy of the first chapter. He is older now, and living in a different place—Blackrock, a suburb of Dublin. The spatial and temporal distance from Clongowes mirrors the other ways in which he has grown apart from his earlier life.

A telling example of this change in Stephen’s attitude occurs early in the chapter, as he is training with Mike Flynn, an old friend of his father:

Though he had heard his father say that Mike Flynn had put some of the best runners of modern times through his hands Stephen often glanced with mistrust at his trainer’s flabby stubblecovered face, as it bent over the long stained fingers through which he rolled his cigarette, and with pity at the mild lusterless blue eyes which would look up suddenly from the task and gaze vaguely into the blue distance….

Contrast this mistrustful and suspicious attitude toward his father’s recommended running trainer with the way Stephen asserts throughout the first chapter what “father said,” or “Dante said,” or “Uncle Charles said.” There is a subtle sense of arrogance in the way Stephen looks “with pity” upon the man who is his trainer, his elder, and a close friend of his father. However, we must remember that, despite these changes in Stephen’s attitude, he is still at the disposal of adult authority—there is no indication that Stephen is enrolled in track training because he wants to be. Although Mike Flynn’s style of running—“his head high lifted, his knees well lifted and his hands held straight down by his sides”—seems antiquated and absurd to Stephen, he complies nonetheless.

Stephen’s attitude toward religion, which is of course closely related to his attitude toward adult authority in general, is also changing as he gets older. This too is evident early on in the chapter, as Stephen visits the chapel with Uncle Charles. While Charles prays habitually and piously, Stephen is respectful, “though he did not share [Charles’] piety”:

He often wondered what his granduncle prayed for so seriously. Perhaps he prayed for the souls of purgatory or for the grace of a happy death or perhaps he prayed that God might send him back a part of the big fortune he squandered in Cork.

Stephen not only does not understand his uncle’s religious belief, the familiar questioning tone which we recognize from the first chapter has now a sharper, subtly sarcastic edge. By suggesting that Charles might be praying for God to “send him back” the fortune he “squandered,” Stephen is not only making a critique of Charles’ religious faith (equating the selfless prayers with the selfish), but expressing his dissatisfaction with the family’s declining economic status. This suggests the extent to which he is beginning to blame his father and Charles for being careless.

Stephen’s faith in authority has weakened. He assumes a highly critical, almost arrogant, attitude toward those in a position of authority. His father is in serious economic trouble. Father Conmee has betrayed his confidence. Stephen is at once betrayed by and disappointed in various figures of authority in his life, while at the same time he begins to assume such roles himself. He is the leader of the boys’ gang in their adventure games, fashioning himself after Napoleon. He is the leader of his class. He has been elected secretary of the gymnasium. He even assumes the paternal role of economic provider when he distributes the prize money from the essay contest.

Stephen is quick to set himself apart from his peers and to assume responsibility himself. As the day-to-day circumstances of his life become more dreary, and as the family is continually forced to move and to sell its property, Stephen’s hopes become pinned to some kind of deliverance. His attitude throughout the chapter is a kind of restless expectation, an impatience with his prosaic surroundings, and a reliance upon his increasingly poetic imagination. More than once we are told of his sense of destiny, how he feels greater things are in store for him, and that his hardship is only temporary. While he listens to his father and Uncle Charles talk about Irish politics, history, and folktales, Stephen is silent, but intrigued.

The life that has seemed so incomprehensible to him in the first chapter now seems like a world of not-too-distant potential. However, it soon becomes clear that this is not a matter of following in his father’s and Charles’ footsteps; Stephen’s sense of uniqueness and potential moves him away from his family’s plight, and into the “intangible fantasies” of his own mind.

Stephen’s increasingly critical attitude toward authority does not lead to a spirit of conflict. Rather, he assumes a pose of detachment. As when Uncle Charles was praying, and Stephen has an air of what we could call “respectful” silence, he feels a disengaged dissatisfaction with his family’s declining wealth. When he feels that his father expects his support, that he “was being enlisted for the fight” his family was going to have with its creditors, Stephen’s reaction is to remain as detached as possible, to think again of the future.

The change in the family’s situation has clearly changed Stephen’s perception of the world: “For some time he had felt the slight changes in his house; and those changes in what he had deemed unchangeable were so many slight shocks to his boyish conception of the world.” This shaking of his faith in his father’s stability results, in part, in a suspicion of his father, and in a sense that he must try to become more independent. He begins to consciously assume and accept the role of the exile or pariah that he was uncomfortable with in the first chapter.

Stephen’s pose of detachment, then, does not lead to any direct rebellion at this point. Unlike Heron, his classroom rival who delights in bullying younger students and disrespecting the teachers (at least behind their backs), Stephen does not sway from his “quiet obedience.” Amidst all the worldly voices surrounding him at school and at home, Stephen pins his hopes on his imagination. He begins to look at his present surroundings as temporary—he is trapped by circumstance, but feels that he will be able to be free soon. His longings are of course heavily colored by the literature he reads. Literature, for Stephen, provides a means of escape from the reality of his surroundings. While reading The Count of Monte Cristo, he fancies himself the dark romantic hero, proud in his exile. He imagines his wanderings through the city as a “quest” for a figure like Mercedes, who would have the power to “transfigure” him, at which time “weakness and timidity and inexperience would fall from him.”

This idealized Mercedes—which of course doesn’t connect with anything in Stephen’s experience—forms his attitude toward Emma, and women more generally, throughout the novel. Emma or “E--- C---,” is rarely mentioned by name in the novel. She is most often referred to as “her” or “she,” which is significant because it shows how Stephen reduces her to a symbolic, and highly literary, “woman-figure” rather than perceiving her as a thinking and feeling person in her own right. She functions for Stephen, throughout the novel, more as an idea than as an actual person. As he imagines her waiting in the audience at the play, and is anxious and apparently in love, it is telling that he cannot even recall what she looks like: “He tried to recall her appearance but could not. He could only remember that she had worn a shawl about her head like a cowl and that her dark eyes had invited and unnerved him.” It is telling that, as Stephen tries to recall something about her appearance, his mind reverts immediately to the effect she had on him.

Our perspective, as with everywhere else in the novel, is limited to Stephen, and in the case of Emma we sense this acutely. How different, we imagine, would Emma’s account of their ride on the tram be? Whenever Stephen is obsessing over her, we cannot but suspect that here, as elsewhere, his imagination is largely responsible. It is significant that Emma is hard to distinguish from other female figures in the novel, such as Eileen, his childhood friend, and Mercedes, for whom he searches the city. Stephen treats women as symbolic and abstract figures in his life, and not as actualities. Therefore, this “image” will always be in conflict with the actuality of her behavior. In the second chapter and throughout the novel, we suspect that Emma would be surprised by Stephen’s descriptions and fantasies. We wonder, with him, whether he is present in her mind at all. However, we hesitate to assign to her any “unfaithfulness” for this as he does. Given the scarcity of their actual contact, it is quite reasonable that she doesn’t think of him.

This situation is illustrated nowhere better than in the poem Stephen composes for her. This is our first glimpse at an attempt of artistic creation on Stephen’s part. The narrator mentions an attempt, after the Christmas dinner in the first chapter, when Stephen tried to write a poem about Parnell, but couldn’t because “his brain had then refused to grapple with the theme.” This time, Stephen succeeds in composing a poem, though we do not get to see it. This suggests, given the selectivity of this narrative, that the circumstances surrounding the act of creation are more important than the product of its labors. He is inspired by the incident on the late night tram with Emma, and his poem is supposedly written for her.

Stephen’s composition is highly formal—he seems more enamored of the idea of writing a poem than of the poem itself. He entitles it before he starts writing, and is sure to draw an “ornamental line” underneath the title. His paper is headed with the Jesuit motto, “A.M.D.G.” (“Ad Majerum Dei Gloriam”), and at the foot of the page he writes another motto, “L.D.S.” (“Laus Deo Semper”). His title shows how much he sees himself as working within a tradition of English poetry. He titles it “To E--- C---,” asserting that “He knew it was right to begin so for he had seen similar titles in the collected poems of Lord Byron.” The influence of Byron, however, is as superficial as the Jesuit mottoes, which he includes “from force of habit.” It is as if all these extraneous, decorative surroundings—the title, the ornamental line, the Jesuit mottoes, the new bottle of ink, new pen, and new notebook—all get in the way of his creation.

It is no surprise, then, that once he is able to compose his poem (after a brief daydream), that it is as removed as possible from the scene the night before which inspired it. Stephen uses his art to transform and obscure reality, while improving on it. If he hesitates to kiss her in life, he doesn’t in the poem. Just as his way of dealing with his family’s financial trouble is to detach himself, his way of escaping the “squalor” of his life is to engage in imaginative fantasy. His poem serves just this purpose. Just as his interest in Emma is more in the idea of a female-figure in his life, his interest in poetry, at this point, is more in the idea of being a poet. It is personal and private—he hides the book, and as far as we know doesn’t show anyone. Art for Stephen, at this point, is another means of escape and detachment from reality.

Language, throughout this chapter, continues to be fascination for Stephen, and a key aspect of the way his mind works (and, consequently, of the way this narrative works). Consider how, when Heron and Wallis are harassing him, it is the word “Admit!” which sets his mind off on the long digression about the time his English teacher accused him of heresy. This memory is spurred by this “familiar word of admonition”—he recalls how that time, too, Heron had tried to force him to “admit” that Byron is a heretic. The logic of this narrative is associative, and such transitions and digressions are justified by the associations in Stephen’s mind. As we noted in the previous chapter, these are frequently linguistic.

This capacity for a word to spawn a virtual mental flood for Stephen is not simply limited to cases of memory, however. While visiting Queen’s College in Cork with his father, he sees the word Foetus carved into a desk. Its effect on Stephen is instantaneous:

The sudden legend startled his blood: he seemed to feel the absent students of the college about him and to shrink from their company. A vision of their life, which his father’s words had been powerless to evoke, sprang up before him out of the word cut in the desk.

Words in their active application do not have this kind of force for Stephen—his father’s constant descriptions and anecdotes about his school days had bored and annoyed Stephen. But this word, carved into a desk and removed from any active or purposeful use, brings the scene immediately to life. It is as if this potential resides somewhere in the word itself.

As we soon learn, the force of this experience is greater because this word and its associations—which for Stephen are primarily sexual—resonate with his own life. Stephen experiences normal, adolescent, sexual awakening as a profoundly singular, abnormal, “brutish and individual malady.” We learn that the reason that the word Foetus has such an effect on him is because it shocks him that other boys would think about the same “monstrous” things as he does. Again, Stephen tends to see his own experience as unique—he shies from any deep connection with others, and thus assumes that he is the only one who feels as he does. We could also read Stephen’s hyperbolic reaction as a critique of Catholic teaching on adolescent sexuality—despite his pose of singularity and uniqueness, we know that Stephen did not get the idea that this is “monstrous” on his own.

Stephen’s somewhat excessive reaction here is typical, especially in this chapter. As we have noted, he tends to romanticize his life, and has begun to relish the role of the sensitive and misunderstood exile. If at times Stephen seems to overdramatize himself, the narrator certainly has a role in this. As we saw earlier, this narrator is trying to mirror, through language, aspects of Stephen’s personality as it develops. Throughout Chapter Two, his language is often somewhat excessive and melodramatic, to mirror Stephen’s tendencies to view himself in this light. The narrative participates, with a seemingly straight face, in Stephen’s posturings, presenting them as it were at face value. But do we take Stephen seriously throughout this chapter? Or might the narrator, by choosing such extreme language, be subtly parodying him?

When the narrator describes Stephen as answering Heron “urbanely,” “Might I ask what you are talking about?,” are we to understand that 16-year-old Stephen was “really” more urbane and sophisticated than his rude classmate, or that he was acting this way, putting on airs? His pretentious, elevated style of speech is not lost on Heron, anyway, who responds, “Indeed you might.” Throughout this chapter, it seems that the narrator will participate in Stephen’s posturings, using excessive or melodramatic language to describe his stance or tone of voice, while subtly undercutting him, or inviting us to be critical of him.

Like Stephen’s poem, the narrator’s language, by “participating” in Stephen’s state of mind to this degree, often renders it difficult to distinguish exactly what is happening. For example, near the end of the chapter, after Stephen had squandered his money and has taken to wandering the seedy areas of Dublin at night, the narrator tells of his “shameful” and “secret riots.” Only after a very close reading does it become clear that these are only in his mind, and that his encounter with the prostitute at the close of the chapter is his first. The narrator distorts the actuality in a similar way as Stephen himself does—we are to understand, after the Foetus episode, that he experiences his sexuality and fantasies in this extreme manner. The narrator is attempting to replicate and reflect the state of Stephen’s mind; by doing so, he often participates in the same kind of distortions as Stephen.

Throughout this chapter, Stephen sets himself as far apart as possible from his surroundings. His family and his city are a source of shame, and the binary between fantasy and reality is operative throughout the chapter. Stephen begins to assume the role of the exile, modeling himself after Lord Byron and Edmond Dantes from The Count of Monte Cristo. He has a vague sense of a “calling,” some “special purpose” for his life, though it is not yet clear what this will be. He sets himself apart from the other students at the school, and from the members of his family; he is convinced that he is unique. However, in many ways the narrative seems to suggest that Stephen might not be as different as he thinks. The fact that other boys his age have and have always had sexual fantasies comes as an absolute shock to him. He characterizes his sexuality in extreme, abnormal terms but the narrator seems to suggest that it is not as strange as he might think. And, although he criticizes his father and Uncle Charles for their irresponsibility with money, Stephen’s excess and carelessness with his prize money shows us that he might not be as far from his father’s world as he would like to think. He assumes the role of paternal provider, to try “to build a breakwater of order and elegance against the sordid tide of life,” but realizes, of course, that he cannot sustain it. Alongside all of Stephen’s assertions that he is a unique figure, the narrative continues to suggest ways he is not.

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