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So, this chapter is more than a little confusing, but just pay attention and stick with it, because it’s interesting – after all, we’re basically hearing everything that goes on inside a little kid’s head. Even if it doesn’t always seem to make a ton of sense, it moves fast.
As soon as the book begins, we are submerged in a child’s consciousness. Stephen (the child) thinks about the things kids think about: his neighbors, his family, wetting the bed, songs and stories he knows. You know, the usual sights, sounds, and smells of childhood.
Irish politics enter the scene: Stephen knows the names "Michael Davitt" and "Parnell" (two Irish nationalist politicians – you’ll hear more about Parnell later), but not what they signify.
Stephen hides under the table at a gathering and is told to apologize; otherwise, his Aunt Dante says that "the eagles will come and pull out his eyes." Stephen makes this into a creepy rhyme, which he repeats to himself: "Apologize, pull out his eyes."
We see Stephen at the playground of his Catholic boarding school, Clongowes, where we meet some unpleasant schoolmates. Stephen is bullied by one of them (who goes by the charming name of Nasty Roche). Class-consciousness is already a worry, since the other boys ask Stephen if his father is a magistrate, which he’s not.
The boys are playing soccer, but Stephen’s mind wanders to other things…
First, he remembers being sent off to school by his family, and he looks forward to the Christmas holidays.
He thinks about how smart his Aunt Dante must be – maybe even smarter than the priests at school.
A voice calls the boys in, bringing Stephen back to reality. We witness another little scene of schoolboy name-calling; the name in question is "suck." Stephen gets distracted by language once again as he ponders the meaning of this word.
Next, the boys are in math class, and the teacher, Father Arnall, has two teams competing in speed arithmetic. The teams are York and Lancaster (brief historical note: these were the two warring factions in England’s 15th century Wars of the Roses). Surprise, surprise: Stephen is distracted again by his own thoughts, this time on colors.
Dinner is next – and it fits the terrible dormitory food stereotypes (two words here: damp bread. GROSS.). Stephen is homesick, so he takes refuge in the internal world of his senses, this time thinking about sounds.
Poor Stephen gets bullied again by some foul character named Wells; Stephen recalls that Wells pushed him into a ditch full of scummy, slimy water yesterday.
Stephen looks at a world map and ponders his own insignificance. Okay, that’s vague – he thinks about his place in the world, and how small he is compared to everything else, especially God. We get the feeling that at this stage, like most kids, Stephen doesn’t really get the whole God thing, but he believes in it anyway.
As promised, Parnell is back. Stephen remembers a fight between Aunt Dante and his father, in which they argue about whether or not Parnell is a bad man. FYI, Charles Parnell was a leader of the Irish Nationalist movement of the early 1900s, but he died in disgrace after having an affair with a woman named Kitty O’Shea – think Clinton and Lewinsky, but way more scandalous.
Stephen feels very small and confused because he doesn’t know what politics means, and he doesn’t know how big the universe is. Poor kid- we’ve all been there. Heck, some of us still are.
Stephen goes to chapel with the rest of his schoolmates, then to bed. He prays for his family and tries to go to sleep. Like many kids, he’s afraid of the dark and can’t stop thinking of ghosts… He’s something of an optimist, though, so he tries to think happy thoughts of home and Christmas.
He wakes up ill and is taken to the infirmary, where he’s left alone for a while. You guessed it: he starts thinking. This time the topic is death: What if Stephen dies? He imagines a sad and beautiful funeral scene for himself.
Stephen’s talkative roommate in the infirmary, a high-spirited young whippersnapper called Athy, tells Stephen a lame joke. Stephen’s not so amused.
The day passes. Stephen’s mind wanders. He has a trippy dream about the death of Parnell.
In the next section, Christmas is finally here. Stephen is home (yay!), and he’s allowed to eat dinner with the adults for the first time. He has a special fancy outfit that makes him feel "oldish" and a little weird, especially since his father cried when he saw his little boy all dressed up. All the same, Stephen is really excited.
Things heat up discussion-wise pretty quickly. Aunt Dante is a super-zealous Catholic, and she gets into an argument with Mr. Casey and Mr. Dedalus (Stephen’s father) about the Church’s influence on politics. The subtext is that the Irish Church had taken the lead in hounding Parnell about his affair, thus destroying the country’s best hope for freedom from the British. Mr. Casey and Mr. Dedalus consider this the worst kind of betrayal, but Dante defends the Church, and, as you can imagine, dinner just gets worse from here on out.
Stephen gets confused with what’s going on – this argument is way over his head. He gets distracted thinking about his neighbor, a little Protestant girl named Eileen, and about how Dante claims that Protestants don’t understand Catholic beliefs – but then again, neither does Stephen, really.
Mr. Casey tells a rude story about a fight he got into with an anti-Parnell old woman.
Basically, the evening explodes into disaster from here. The gist of the argument is that Dante is on the side of God and religion over everything else, while Mr. Casey thinks that Ireland has had enough of God. There’s a lot of yelling and hullaballoo, and at the end of it, Mr. Casey and Mr. Dedalus both break down and cry, remembering the dead Parnell.
Back at school, Stephen is in an intense discussion with some of his classmates, including Wells (the kid who pushed him into a ditch) and Athy, his Chatty Kathy infirmary roommate. They’re gossiping about some other boys who got in trouble for some unnamed offense. Wells suggests that they stole the Communion wine from the church.
Stephen remembers how he broke his glasses earlier, and how his poor vision makes everything look different today.
Back to the conversation: Athy claims that the transgressors were caught "smugging" (an ambiguous sexual act) with two other boys, Simon Moonan and Tusker "Lady" Boyle. Initially, Stephen’s mind drifts a little; he thinks of his neighbor, the lovely young Eileen, who has long white hands like Boyle’s, which he associates with the religious images of "Tower of Ivory" and "House of Gold."
The mention of homosexuality makes everyone nervous. They speculate and joke about the many punishments the guilty boys will get, but Stephen has a feeling that everyone is a little afraid.
Later, the boys are in a writing lesson. Stephen thinks about how Mr. Harford, their teacher, doesn’t get into "dreadful waxes" like the other teachers (as in, he doesn’t yell, scream, and hit them).
Stephen’s mind drifts again (doesn’t this kid ever pay attention in class?). Now he is concerned by the rumor about the theft of the Communion wine that Wells started. He wonders how anyone could do such a terrible thing; he tries to wrap his mind around such a colossal sin, but he can’t.
Next comes Latin class. Unfortunately, Father Arnall, the Latin teacher, does get into dreadful waxes. He gets into one right now: after checking the boys’ homework, he is horrified by its badness. A boy named Fleming has done an especially crappy job. Fleming then makes a blatant mistake in class and has to kneel in the middle of the classroom.
Stephen wonders if it’s a sin for priests to get so upset with their students. If so, then who the priests confess to – higher-up priests?
Father Dolan enters. He’s the prefect of studies, which is really a fancy title for a guy who beats bad kids. Armed with a pandybat (some kind of terrible wooden instrument of punishment) and some odd rhetorical habits, he proceeds to paddle Fleming’s hand. Just before he leaves, though, he notices that Stephen is not writing. Father Arnall tells the prefect that Stephen has been excused from work because his glasses broke, but Father Dolan will have none of it. He calls Stephen up and beats his hands, too.
Father Dolan leaves, warning the class that he’ll be back tomorrow. Ooooh, scary. Actually, Father Dolan is pretty scary, even if there’s definitely something goofy about a guy who always refers to himself in the third person (Father Dolan will do this! Father Dolan will do that!)
Father Arnall feels bad about the beatings, and he acts nice to the boys for the rest of the lesson.
Stephen is outraged by his wrongful beating, as he should be. Actually, he’s mostly hurt and insulted; his pride is just as damaged as his hands. He has always been one of the best students in class – how dare Father Dolan call him a "schemer" in front of everyone!
At dinner, the other boys agree that Stephen has been majorly wronged. Nasty Roche, who’s suddenly on Stephen’s side, tells Stephen that he should go tell the rector (head priest) about it.
All the other "fellows" think Stephen should go tell on Father Dolan. After all, the priest had been totally unfair and unjust. Someone compared the situation to taking an injustice to the Roman senate (something the boys have learned about in history), and Stephen decides to talk to the rector.
At first, Stephen is confident that he’s doing the right thing, but he quickly starts to worry. What if the rector sides with the prefect? What if Stephen gets beaten again? He eventually puts his fears aside and goes to see the head honcho.
Stephen explains the glasses situation to the rector. Thankfully (we can all breathe a sigh of relief here – no more embarrassment in this chapter!), the rector is a good guy, and perfectly sweet to Stephen. He says that he will talk to Father Dolan.
This is enough for Stephen. He’s so excited he can hardly contain himself. He runs out to the playground, where all the other boys are waiting to hear what happened.
When they find out that Stephen has triumphed, they all cheer and throw their hats up in the air. For once, Stephen Dedalus is the schoolyard hero! The chapter fades out in this glow of contentment. Sigh… life is grand – for now, at least.