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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
CHAPTER TWO (continued)
THE WHITSUNTIDE PLAY
Stephen is now at the end of his second year at Belvedere. It is a difficult time for him. On the one hand, he has made his mark as a scholar. On the other, he is still an outsider, mocked by his peers for being "a model youth."
If you look beneath Stephen's "quiet obedience," there is turmoil. He is angry, insecure, and mistrusts the world. He feels both superior to and alienated from his classmates. His father embarrasses him, while Dublin's dullness depresses him. To rise above reality, he reshapes it in his imagination-the theme of art as creative flight. Do you think this is creativity or only escapism, a common trait of adolescence?
Stephen has a leading part in the annual Whitsuntide school play. (Whitsuntide is the British name for the Pentecost, a Christian church holiday that occurs six weeks after Easter. In England and Ireland, it also marks a school vacation period.) Yet in the midst of the hustle and bustle, he feels impatient and uneasy. He hopes the girl he likes will be in the audience. A little boy has been made up as a girl for the play. This irritates Stephen. Why does it make him so uncomfortable? Some link this incident to the earlier scene in which Stephen is mistaken for a girl. These incidents suggest that Stephen is unsure of his own sexual identity, of his own as yet unproven manhood.
Stephen's chief scholastic rival, Vincent Heron, teases him about the "deucedly pretty girl" who is coming to the play. Heron strikes Stephen's leg playfully with the cane he sports, and urges him to "admit" he's no saint. Stephen pretends to recite the Confiteor, a ritual prayer of confession. The command "Admit!" repeated twice reminds him of an earlier, painful incident with Heron.
Joyce makes sure you'll notice Heron's symbolic bird's name by giving him birdlike features as well-a beaked face and hair like a crest. He pecks at Stephen like a bird of prey, a reminder of the threatening eye-plucking eagles of the prelude.
In a flashback, Stephen recalls that his English teacher had accused him-half in jest-of making a heretical statement in one of his weekly essays. It is clear that Stephen had been reading authors whose beliefs are deemed contrary to Catholic teachings. (See the section on Catholic Ireland.) After class, Heron and two of his bullying friends had confronted Stephen. They insisted he "admit" that one of his favorite authors, the nineteenth-century Romantic poet Lord Byron, was a heretic, "no good," and immoral. But Stephen refused to be untrue to his intellectual beliefs even though the boys had physically attacked him. He had torn himself away without "admitting."
In both the incidents with Heron, you can see the pressures of conformity through guilt. You can also see the evidence of Stephen's stubborn (and lonely) independence. Joyce also probably means you to see Stephen as a martyr, like his Christian namesake, St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who was stoned to death in A.D. 34.
Lord Byron was known for his free-thinking and reputedly licentious ways, as well as for his intensely emotional poetry. He was the free spirit-and poet-that Stephen would like to be. On the other hand, the nineteenth-century Catholic philosopher Cardinal John Henry Newman-another of Stephen's literary models-is safe from religious attack. He wrote with restrained and dignified eloquence. He was also one of the founders of University College, which Stephen will later attend.
As he acts in the play, Stephen is aware that the girl Emma (E. C.) is in the audience. He hopes to see her after the play. But only his family waits at the theater door. Bitterly disappointed, he runs off by himself, wandering the streets like a wounded animal-the recurrent motif of walking the streets to find a solution. He is finally calmed by the squalor of his surroundings-"horse piss and rotted straw."
Here Joyce reminds you of how important the sense of smell is to Stephen. Of all the senses, it seems the earthiest, the least intellectual and most sensual, and the most closely tied to everyday human life. Throughout the book, smells-even unpleasant smells-will calm Stephen, make him feel connected to the real world.
VISIT TO CORK
A trip to Cork with his father heightens Stephen's misgivings about his father. They have come to this city in the south of Ireland, where his father grew up, to sell the last of his property to keep the family solvent.
For Simon, it's a nostalgic return to his past. With old cronies, he relives his younger days as a dashing playboy. But for Stephen, it's a painful experience. He watches his father fritter away in bars the meager sum he has just collected for the property. Simon's drunken bragging and sentimentality humiliate his son. Once again, Stephen turns inward into his own emotions.
Joyce's own father was brought up in Cork. Like Simon Dedalus, he was high-spirited, an athlete, and a man-about-town. He sang well and acted with flair. For a short time, he attended medical school in Cork-as Simon did-but failed.
Joyce's brother Stanislaus points out in his honest and moving memoir, My Brother's Keeper, that when James took this trip to Cork with his father, he was actually amused rather than angry. In real life, Joyce was patient with his father. He became more and more like his father in his love of singing and drinking, and in his skill at dodging creditors. He even tried medical school in Paris for a short while.
Well-chosen details bring to life the little country town, its local speech and gentle humor. But Stephen is not amused. He feels only a cold detachment. Although the withdrawn, prudish youth envies the sociability and lustiness of his father's circle, no life or youthful spirit stirs within him. Simon rubs it in by boasting that he's a better man than his son.
Do you feel sorry for this isolated, unhappy young man? Or do you merely feel impatient with him as he struggles "against the squalor of his life and against the riot of his mind"?
One emotion Stephen does feel now that he's a bit older is "a cold and cruel loveless lust." In the anatomy lecture hall of his father's old college, Stephen spies the word "foetus" carved on a desk. This triggers guilty feelings about his (own) "mad and filthy orgies" (probably masturbation but possibly just erotic fantasies). Do you think Stephen would feel quite as much guilt in today's more sexually informed climate?
Just what "foetus" means to Stephen, and why the word arouses his guilt, has been debated. Stephen is still an adolescent. His sexual drives are strong, but he hasn't acted on them. Because his religious training has taught him that the physical is inferior to the spiritual, he's often wrapped up his sexual thoughts in romanticized longings for a girl as pure as the Virgin Mary.
The word "foetus" is a blunt reminder of the physical side of sex. It's a reminder of the consequences of sex, consequences Stephen may not be ready to think about, much less accept. Because the sound of words is always important to Stephen, as it is to Joyce, the nearness in sound of "foetus" to "fetid" (having an offensive smell) may increase his squeamishness.
In addition, Stephen may see the word as a crude medical term for a human being. He seems to imagine that the medical students who jokingly scrawled it on the desk are oafs lacking sensitivity toward human life. (In Ulysses, Stephen will be surrounded by such medical students.) And because his father was once a medical student here, the word and the images it inspires also seem to bring back all Stephen's dislike for Simon Dedalus' crude good nature.
The trip to Cork is an important step in Stephen's development. He faces his father's failure-a first step toward rejection of parental authority. He also acknowledges his own unromantic sexual drives.