A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Chapter 2 Summary
Things start to move even more quickly (and oddly) in this chapter, so buckle your seatbelts and get ready to skip around a lot.
Some time has passed. Now it’s summer, and Stephen is a little older and wiser. He’s home for summer vacation and lives with his family in a place called Blackrock.
Stephen spends much of his time this summer with his Granduncle Charles, a dapper old man most notable for his malodorous pipe tobacco and prodigious vocabulary. Stephen goes on errands around town with Uncle Charles.
Stephen is inexplicably in a one-on-one physical training program with a friend of his father’s, Mike Flynn. Mike makes Stephen run endlessly around the track in a comical style – arms straight down, legs lifted high. It’s a funny and cringe-worthy image. Mr. Dedalus claims that Mike trained many top athletes, but Stephen finds that hard to believe, considering his current state. The coach is a flabby, chain-smoking, lack-luster mess, which isn’t exactly encouraging.
Stephen and Uncle Charles often stop at the chapel so the old man can pray. We see that Stephen has lost the unquestioning faith he had as a smaller child – now, he can’t understand what Uncle Charles prays for.
On Sundays, the men of the Dedalus family take a walk together. Stephen, his father, and Uncle Charles go out into the country, and the adults talk about things Stephen still doesn’t fully understand, like politics and family history. He does have a feeling that he’s approaching adulthood. He feels, like a lot of us do when we’re growing up, like he has a great part to play in the world – he just doesn’t know what yet.
In the evenings, Stephen reads and re-reads The Count of Monte Cristo. This swashbuckling French novel by Alexandre Dumas becomes the foundation for most of Stephen’s daydreams at this point in the book; all you have to know is that the hero is a tall, dark, mysterious man, who’s in love with Mercedes, a beautiful, mysterious woman (mysteriousness is pretty central here). Stephen longs for a Mercedes of his own…no car jokes, please.
Stephen and his friend Aubrey Mills (a boy) are the leaders of a "gang of adventurers." The kids basically do what kids do in the summer – rampage around and fight imaginary battles until dark.
Stephen and Aubrey occasionally ride with the milkman to see the dairy cows out in the country. In the autumn, though, the cows live in a filthy yard closer to the city. This disgusting place upsets Stephen – he’s super-sensitive to beauty and ugliness.
In September, Stephen does not return to Clongowes for school. This is the first sign that tells us that all is not well with the Dedalus family (cue ominous music)…
Stephen is left with nothing to do. His running career ends because Mike Flynn, unsurprisingly, has to go to the hospital. Aubrey is busy at school. Stephen wonders what it would be like to be a milkman.
Stephen knows that something’s going on with his dad; he notices that something has changed at home, and it worries him. He is sure that this is why he can’t return to Clongowes.
Uncertain of how to deal with the troubles at home, Stephen takes refuge in his dreams of Mercedes. We see that Stephen is turning into a real romantic.
Two big caravans show up one day to move the Dedalus clan to a new house in Dublin. Stephen’s mother has been crying, and based on what we’ve already seen, we know this isn’t going to be good. The family moves into a "bare and cheerless" house, and everyone is pretty unhappy. Mr. Dedalus talks a lot about not giving up, and he gets kind of nutty. It’s clear that they’re in a state of financial decline.
Time passes (actually, time is constantly passing pretty quickly in this book, even if it’s not clearly marked, so get used to it). Uncle Charles is going senile and everything’s pretty disorderly in the new house, so Stephen is left on his own a lot. He wanders around Dublin, getting used to the city.
Stephen is now an "embittered" adolescent – that is, an angsty teenager. We all know what that means… there’s a big storm a-brewin’ in Stephenland.
The Dedaluses have relatives close by, and Stephen goes to visit them occasionally with his mother. We see a couple of scenes of everyday Dublin life. First, Stephen visits his aunt, and we see his cousins admiring a picture of an actress. Next, he’s sitting in a creepy old house with two creepy old women (who we assume are other relatives). It doesn’t seem like family ties have much to offer Stephen right now.
Stephen is at a children’s party. Typically, he’s feeling like an outsider, and slinks off to a corner to ponder his burgeoning emotions. Oh, woe is he.
The party is over. We learn why Stephen has been feeling so angsty – he likes a girl. Stephen and the girl flirt awkwardly while they wait for a tram to leave. Stephen remembers an earlier day when Eileen (the Protestant girl from Chapter One) wanted him to chase her and catch hold of her. He gets the feeling that this new girl wants the same thing, and he wonders if he should grab her and kiss her now – but of course he just thinks and doesn’t act. This moment makes us profoundly uncomfortable thinking about our own adolescent awkwardness… ugh.
The next day, Stephen attempts to write a romantic poem to the girl. This is the first time we see the young man actually try to be an artist, so take note. He gets distracted, though, and can’t complete it. He thinks about an earlier time when he tried to write a poem about Parnell.
Stephen keeps trying to compose his poem, but he can’t focus. Instead, he procrastinates by writing a list of his former classmates. This clears his brain a little, and he begins his poem.
In the process of writing, all of the "common and insignificant" parts of his memory of the girl are eliminated, leaving only a vague and romantic image. We don’t get to read Stephen’s poem, but we can tell that it’s oh-so-swoony. We do have to cut Stephen some slack, though – after all, this is one of his first literary works.
Stephen finishes his poem, dedicates it to "E – C – ," hides it, then goes to gaze soulfully into his reflection in his mother’s mirror.
Mr. Dedalus comes home. Stephen has been looking forward to this all day, since there’s mutton hash for dinner. However, Mr. Dedalus’ news spoils his appetite.
Mr. Dedalus tells the family about a run-in he had with the former rector of Clongowes (Stephen’s old school). Stephen’s parents hope that the priest will help Stephen get a position at a new school, Belvedere. They’re not too enthusiastic about the Jesuit teachers but are confident that going to one of these schools will help Stephen get ahead.
We find out that Stephen’s younger brother, Maurice, will join him at the new school.
The rector told Mr. Dedalus the story about Stephen, Father Dolan, and the glasses. Mr. Dedalus is resentful of the condescending attitude the priests take to their students.
We learn from Mr. Dedalus’s story that the rector didn’t scold Father Dolan after all – instead, the two priests "had a laugh" about Stephen’s complaint over dinner.
Stephen has been at school at Belvedere for a while now. It’s spring (we know this because the school is having a Whitsuntide play – Whitsuntide, or Pentecost, is a Catholic holiday following Easter).
The school is having one big shindig. There’s a gymnastics competition, as well as other festivities. Stephen’s involvement is limited to the play. He’s been cast as the main character, a stuffy teacher, because of his seriousness. He’d developed a reputation for being a good writer. We also get the feeling that Stephen is kind of a little prig.
We learn that Stephen is, in fact, already at the end of his second year at Belvedere. See, we told you time passes oddly in this book…
The other boys are practicing their gymnastics routines and getting ready for performances. Stephen gets impatient and goes outside.
Stephen gets caught up in the sound of the band practicing in the theatre. We’re reminded of his fascination with the physical senses. He’s still feeling an inexplicable discontentment.
The smell of smoke reaches Stephen, and he sees two boys smoking in a dark corner. One of them is Vincent Heron, a classmate, and the other is Heron’s friend Wallis.
Heron tries to get Stephen to imitate the rector of the school in his performance. He tries (and fails) to imitate the teacher himself.
Wallis asks Stephen if he smokes – Heron replies that Stephen is a "model youth."
Stephen takes a good look at Heron, which allows us to see him. He has a birdy face to go with his birdy name, with a beaked nose and a crest of messy hair. We learn that the two boys are rivals and school friends; they’re apparently the smartest kids in a class of "dullards."
Heron mentions that he saw Stephen’s father enter the school.
We already know that something’s going on with the Dedalus family, and Stephen’s reaction confirms this. He gets nervous any time someone mentions Mr. Dedalus.
Heron slyly and admiringly pokes fun at Stephen a little. He and Wallis saw a girl (the "E.C." of the poem) walk in with Mr. Dedalus. Heron can’t believe that Stephen, the "model youth," has a relationship with a pretty girl.
Stephen is angered by Heron’s jokes. To him, the girl of his dreams is not a laughing matter. He’s been thinking of her all day, since he knows she’s supposed to be at the play. He feels unsettled and restless again just thinking about her.
Heron keeps joking and playfully hits Stephen with his cane (what’s a high school kid doing with a cane, anyway?!). He forces Stephen to admit that he’s no saint.
Stephen’s anger passes, but he wants to get away, so he plays along with Heron.
Stephen deals with the situation by sarcastically reciting the Confiteor, a Catholic prayer that begs forgiveness for sins.
Heron and Wallis laugh, and Stephen remembers another, earlier incident. He takes us back to his first term at Belvedere… cue Wayne’s World-style fade-out to two years ago…
This earlier Stephen is unhappy in Dublin, and his "sensitive soul" can’t deal with an existence he sees as ugly and meaningless (a pretty common phenomenon at his time of life, if we recall correctly… EMO ALERT!).
At this point, Stephen is strongly affected by everything he comes into contact with. He tries to flex his intellectual muscles and challenges himself to write the best essays in the class. One day he goes a little too far for the strict Catholic teacher, who accuses him of heresy (it may sound ridiculous to us now, but back then this kind of thing was serious). Stephen is forced to admit that he made a mistake to the teacher, who lets the matter go.
After school, though, Heron confronts Stephen along with two of his minions, Nash and Boland. Heron is swinging his cane around again – apparently, it’s his shtick. The boys start talking about favorite writers. They agree that Cardinal Newman (a Catholic thinker) was a great prose writer, but they have an argument about poets. Heron claims that Tennyson (the prim and proper Victorian) was the greatest poet, and Stephen says that it was Byron (the rebellious Romantic). This provokes a huge argument, which returns to heresy. Heron and his thugs say that Byron was a heretic and a bad man, and that Stephen is, too. They try to force him to admit to these things, and when he won’t, they give him a thrashing. While it may seem absurd that these schoolboys get into a fight over dead poets, just think about how riled up people have gotten about more recent rivalries: you know, Democrat v. Republican…
Stephen returns to the present day. He wonders why he’s not still angry at his tormentors about the whole Byron thing.
Distracted, Stephen’s mind lingers on Eileen, and on their parting at the tram. He can’t stop thinking about her and wonders if she’s thinking of him.
A younger boy comes up, desperately seeking Stephen. One of the teachers is "in a bake" (don’t you just love these little slang gems?) and needs Stephen to get ready for his part in the play.
Heron gets upset that a teacher would send for a senior boy in such a way. He gets a little snotty and tells Stephen not to go. Stephen, however, is always obedient (on the outside, at least). On the inside, though, he’s beginning to question the pressures placed on him by his father, his teachers, the Church, the outside world, et cetera…
Stephen enters the chapel where the play will take place, and he observes some younger boys getting their faces painted. Also, watching a Jesuit priest, he thinks about corruption in the Church. He wonders if the play will desecrate the church.
It’s time for the play. Stephen is embarrassed momentarily, thinking of how silly his lines are. Suddenly, a change comes over him when he thinks of the girl watching; for once, we see him act like any other boy, wholeheartedly excited and enthusiastic. This temporary euphoria lasts through the play, but as soon as it’s over, grumpy Stephen and his existential crises are back.
Stephen can’t wait to get away from the crowd. He pushes through the people waiting outside the church and blows off his family, saying he has an errand to run. He doesn’t even look for the girl.
Stephen walks through the city until he feels calm again. He focuses on the earthy smells of horses and straw in the lane before returning to his family.
New scene: Stephen and his father are on the train to Cork, Mr. Dedalus’ hometown. Stephen remembers the wonder he felt during other train trips (to Clongowes); now he doesn’t feel any of that old excitement.
Things are even worse for Mr. Dedalus. He’s an alcoholic – we see him taking sips from a pocket flask, and Stephen is constantly anxious about his drinking in this section. Mr. Dedalus gets sadder as he gets drunker, and he goes on and on about his old friends and family, now dead. Stephen doesn’t know any of them, except Uncle Charles (of the famously stinky tobacco), who he has now almost forgotten.
Mr. Dedalus’s land in Cork is being sold by auction. The family is obviously in pretty dire financial straits.
The train arrives in Cork, and Stephen and his father go to their room in the Victoria Hotel. Mr. Dedalus sings a sad folk song, which Stephen likes.
Mr. Dedalus orders breakfast, then reminisces about his old friends with the waiter.
Father and son go and visit Queen’s College, Mr. D’s old school. He gets into an animated discussion with a porter about old teachers and students. Stephen is embarrassed by how sentimental his father is.
In the anatomy theatre (a biology lecture hall), Stephen is suddenly intensely upset by the word "Foetus" carved several times in a desk. This very odd piece of graffiti evokes an eerily precise vision of past students hanging out in the hall.
Stephen is called away by his father, but can’t get rid of his mental discomfort. The "foetus" incident brings to mind all of his secret dirty thoughts. We learn that poor Stephen has been laboring under the misconception that he’s the only one who has them.
Mr. Dedalus keeps yammering on about his old friends. Stephen is only half-listening – he still can’t stop thinking about how very, very bad he’s been. Stephen is convinced that he has indulged in "mad and filthy orgies." Before you get too alarmed, don’t worry; you haven’t missed anything major (there have been no actual orgies!). However, the sin Stephen’s thinking about is pretty easy to guess: it’s something teenage boys do… in secret… by themselves…wink wink, nudge nudge.
Mr. Dedalus keeps inanely going on about how Stephen should hang out with "gentlemen" – he gets more and more sentimental (and more and more drunk, in all likelihood) thinking about his lost youth and his dead father.
Stephen feels lost inside himself, horrified at the state of his soul. He tries to calm down by focusing on names: he is Stephen Dedalus, he is with his father, Simon Dedalus, they are in a hotel called the Victoria in a city called Cork in a country called Ireland. This reminds us of the scene in Chapter One where Stephen tries to locate himself in a similar fashion.
Stephen tries to recall some of his childhood memories, but they’re foggy. In fact, his readers probably remember them better than he does. He sees himself as a little boy at Clongowes and remembers the time he wondered about his own death (see Chapter One).
Stephen and his father tool around town the next day, and Stephen is embarrassed by his father’s shakiness (evidence of his drinking binge the night before). They end up, unsurprisingly, in a pub with Mr. Dedalus’s old friends, including an old family friend named Johnny Cashman.
The sentimental ramblings of the older men have no effect on Stephen. He feels cold and distant, and he can’t shake the feeling of "loveless lust" that plagues him. He resigns himself to his alienation, comparing himself to the moon in a famous poem (FYI, the poem is "Art Thou Pale for Weariness," by superstar Romantic poet Percy Shelley).
Next, we see the Dedaluses together in Dublin. Stephen has won some prize money for an essay, and he withdraws all of it from the bank.
As usual, Mr. Dedalus mourns for the good old days of Irish politics.
Mr. Dedalus, Mrs. Dedalus, and Stephen are on a walk later in the year (are you keeping up with this?). It’s October now, and Dublin is getting cold. We discover that Stephen has been spending his prize money generously on his family and himself, trying to create a world that he finds more tolerable. But now that the money’s gone, things are back to normal, and Stephen is discontented again. After his brush with a better life, he is disgusted with himself and his surroundings.
Stephen’s feeling of unease and alienation increases. He can’t shake off his physical desires, and his romantic "Count of Monte Cristo" dreams are overtaken by "the fires of lust" – ooooohhh. You know this is about to get steamy.
…AND IT DOES. Stephen goes out a-wanderin’, gets picked up by a particularly bold hooker, and as the curtain closes on Chapter Two, things are getting hot and heavy (and in Stephen’s case, frankly helpless) in her room.