Chapter 2 takes place at Headmaster Garrett Deasy's school on Dalkey Avenue in Dalkey, about one mile southeast of the Martello Tower at Sandycove. Stephen would undoubtedly have walked the short distance and would have arrived just after nine o'clock, a bit tardily. His conversation with Mr. Deasy ends just before 10:30 a.m. The time of the Nestor Episode is traditionally set at 10:00 a.m. because this is the hour at which the boys break for their hockey practice, during Stephen's history lesson.
The chapter begins with Stephen's calling on Cochrane, a student whose lack of enthusiasm typifies the feelings of Stephen's unruly class, whose members would rather listen to their teacher's riddles and jokes (which they ridicule). The lesson is about the Greek hero Pyrrhus, another victim of a usurper, who, like the archetypal Irish prophet, remained faithful to a lost cause to the end. After he dismisses the class, Stephen spends time helping the inept student Cyril Sargent; he realizes that the boy's mother must once have loved this tired child in spite of his inadequacies, and Stephen is reminded again of the loss of his mother, Mary Dedalus.
A short time later, in Mr. Deasy's study, Stephen listens to his headmaster's moralizing, then accepts his meager salary from Deasy. Mr. Deasy also gives Stephen a letter which he has written about the foot and mouth disease of livestock, cattle in particular. Stephen has friends among editors, and Deasy feels that there will be no trouble in getting his (clich-filled) letter published in the newspaper.
In terms of the Odyssey, Mr. Deasy, the stuffy, Polonius-like administrator, represents Nestor, the aged Greek soldier and rhetorician who helped to keep order among the military principals during the ten-year siege of Troy (described in the Iliad and who was the first friend of Odysseus that Telemachus visited after he left Ithaca in search of information about his father. In this chapter, several parallels between the two men are found. Nestor, though often useful at Troy, is frequently satirized by Homer because of his ponderous verbiage; and it is significant that Telemachus does not gain any valuable information about him. Mr. Deasy, too, may have some sense of national and civic pride, as seen in his concern for sick cattle, but his virtue is outweighed by his militant anti-Semitism, his veneration of money, and his bland interpretation of the place of Protestantism in Irish history. In addition, Nestor was well known as a charioteer and a tamer of horses, and this fact is mirrored in Deasy's horse-racing mementos, whose descriptions foreshadow Bloom's entanglement with the misinterpreted "tip" on the horse Throwaway.
Other obscure but useful and significant allusions to the original Nestor Episode in the Odyssey add to the irony of Joyce's Ulysses. The contemporary Nestor restores order on a hockey field, not on a battleground, and his men are children; although he is old (an explicit parallel with Nestor of the Odyssey), Deasy assures Stephen that he occasionally likes "to break a lance" (argue jestingly) with him; and at the conclusion of the chapter, the sun casts spangles on Deasy's shoulders, suggesting the shining armor of a retiring soldier.
But this chapter is really "about" history, the nightmare from which Stephen is trying to awaken, and the "history" here is personal as well as national and military. While Stephen is inattentively lecturing to his inattentive class, his thoughts remain fixated on the subject that occupied him in "Telemachus," the reason why he has vowed to wear black for a year: his mother's ghastly death. When the boys ask him to tell a ghost story (in the middle of the disorderly class period), he immediately thinks of Milton's Lycidas, a poem wherein Milton promised immortality for his drowned friend, Edward King. In the poem, there is much water imagery, and this idea continues the water motif that Joyce began in the first chapter, while blending in the image of green bile that Stephen constantly associates with Mary Dedalus's death.
Bound up in Stephen's "personal history" are his lingering belief in spirituality, his hope for Miltonic salvation for his mother (in spite of his refusal to pray at her deathbed), his memory (tinged with sarcasm) of holier times spent in the library of Saint Geneviere in Paris (protected from the free-living life of sin outside the library walls), and, especially, the riddle of the fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush. The "poor soul" whose time it is to "go to heaven" is Mrs. Dedalus, and a religious interpretation of the riddle finds support in the next chapter when Stephen wonders if the dog on the beach, Tatters, is digging in the sand for his grandmother. Just before starting to dig, Tatters sniffs the bloated carcass of a dead dog, which has already been associated with the dog-God symbolism of Ulysses by the expression "dogsbody" in "Telemachus."
Even in Stephen's interview with the sniveling Cyril Sargent, we realize how Stephen is doomed to relive the past, the real nightmare of history, and how the past always leads back to his mother. In Cyril, Stephen sees himself as he was at Clongowes: weak-eyed, insecure, misunderstood, trembling, and put upon by the school disciplinarian. But, Stephen reasons, Cyril's mother must have loved him, and this thought leads once again to a memory of the pervasive odor of "rosewood and wetted ashes" that accompanied Mrs. Dedalus's last days.
Stephen's problems have taken a toll on him, and Joyce implies a good deal about his young but tired protagonist by giving us a high selectivity of important details. For example, Stephen's class is not only unruly but is also filled with cheaters; even the teacher, he himself, "cheats," and, in fact, Stephen does not care if his students cheat or not. Stephen has to glance as his "gorescarred" book (Joyce's term for Stephen's military history book) to note the place, Asculum, of Pyrrhus's 279 B.C. victory against the Romans; and the student Talbot haltingly reads parts of Lycidas from a secreted text. Stephen is aware of Talbot's subterfuge, for he sarcastically tells him to "turn over" the page after Talbot inadvertently repeats the phrase "Through the dear might . . . .
Talbot's failing ploy and Stephen's inflectionless response permit Joyce to imply the ironic question of which is more absurd: forcing children to mutilate a great work of art by memorization, or Milton's doctrine of immortality itself. The answer is found in the realization that Stephen's somber point of view is the center of this chapter: Mulligan might have laughed at the absurdity of the question (while tanning Talbot's rump), but Stephen can only wonder whether, in fact, Christ did walk on water. Mired in guilt and sorrow, Stephen cannot enjoy life. He knows, for example, that his pun about a pier, that it is a "disappointed bridge," is clever, but he can think only that, when he repeats it, Haines will simply place it among his collection of Stephen's "bright" sayings; once again Stephen will be labeled as merely a jester at the court of the English tyrant.
Stephen's "personal history," with its bitter internal struggles, is also a microcosm of all of human history, seen in this chapter to be a series of life-and-death battles, ranging from ancient Greece to modern Ireland. However, the allusions to Helen, Julius Caesar, and Pyrrhus, while they are significant in a mock heroic novel based upon ancient prototypes, are less important than the references to the more contemporary betrayal and imprisonment of Ireland by England. And the spokesman for the Establishment is Garrett Deasy, who is a true West Briton — that is, he is an Irishman who imitates English manners and takes the British position on all matters.
Joyce feels that Deasy's view of Irish history is so destructive that he turns over the second half of the chapter to him, letting Deasy condemn himself with his own words. Joyce also gains an excellent structural framework for this chapter by placing Deasy at the center of the stage. In the first half of the chapter, Stephen attempted to lecture to his unwilling and somewhat obstreperous students; now Deasy is the instructor and Stephen is his reluctant interlocutor, as he repeats the part of gadfly-acolyte that he played for the celebrant Mulligan in "Telemachus."
Deasy blames women for the evils of history, and his views are as specious as those of Haines, who, in "Telemachus," maintained timidly that history, not the English, was to blame for Ireland's troubles. Apart from Eve, who first introduced sin into the world, Deasy censures Helen of Troy; Dervorgilla (the wife of the twelfth-century O'Rourke, Prince of Breffni and East Meath); and Kitty O'Shea (the wife of Captain O'Shea and the mistress of Charles Stewart Parnell). Helen is humorously appropriate in the mock heroic Ulysses since Nestor, in the Odyssey, sent Telemachus to Menelaus and Helen when he was unable to tell Telemachus much about his father. The reference to Dervorgilla shows that Deasy is not a precise scholar of Irish history; MacMurrough was not her husband; he was the lover with whom she ran off, occasioning O'Rourke to call in the English to help and bring them to Ireland for the first time (they never left). And the allusion to Parnell, the "Uncrowned King of Ireland," recalls the great political trauma of James Joyce's youth: the betrayal of Parnell by his followers because of the scandal of Parnell's involvement with Mrs. O'Shea. Of greatest importance about the stories of these three faithless wives, however, is that all three are different versions of Molly Bloom, who, on June 16, 1904, with Blazes Boylan, will enjoy an act of adultery.
In much the same manner, Deasy's distorted view of Jews foreshadows the treatment that Leopold Bloom will receive in Ulysses at the hands of predominantly Catholic Dubliners. Deasy feels that England is decaying because Jews are controlling the finances and the press. He sees them as "sinners against the light" in their unwillingness to acknowledge Christ as their Savior, and the image blends well with Bloom, who wears a black suit all day after attending the funeral of Paddy Dignam in "Hades." Deasy's description of Jews as being wanderers over the earth anticipates the role of Bloom as the Wandering Jew. And the crude joke that Deasy tells about Ireland's being the only country never to have persecuted the Jews (the Irish never let them in) establishes the scornful atmosphere that Bloom must wander in throughout the day.
Reinforcing the historical motif in "Nestor" is the theme of money and Joyce's insistence that excessive stress on monetary values has done much to destroy Ireland. Talk of money permeates the chapter, and one is reminded of the lines from Yeats's poem "September 1913": "For men were born to pray and save:/ Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,/ It's with O'Leary in the grave." In the double pun, modern prophets "prey" for forsaking salvation in order to "save" material things; and although in Ulysses, Deasy's play on words is unintentional, Joyce wants the reader to catch the irony of such an admonition's being directed at his mock heroic Christ figure, Stephen: "Because you don't save . . . . . .
Deasy, then, is the spokesman for the world-as-finance. The insolence of the students at his school is occasioned by their parents' wealth; they contrast with Stephen, who was the "poor boy" at Clongowes, forced to make up stories about his parentage. To Deasy, virtue means never having to say you borrowed. Even Deasy's plan to cure foot and mouth disease by using Koch's preparation (the wrong antidote, but one which does suggest a favorite author of Molly Bloom, Charles-Paul de Kock) is meant to prevent an embargo on Irish cattle with its subsequent loss of revenue. It is no wonder that the last picture we have of Deasy is epitomized by the last word of the chapter: "coins."
"Nestor," then, besides being "about" Stephen's personal difficulties, concerns two great forces in human history: military conquest and greed. Joyce calls attention to his dual theme by having Stephen's lesson focus on Pyrrhus during history class and on Cyril Sargent's "sums" after class.