Catechetical Style in "Nestor"

Image of pages 3 & 13 from 1878 edition of "A Catechism of the History of Ireland

Image of page 3 of A Catechism of Irish History

Image of pages 3 & 13 from 1878 edition of "A Catechism of the History of Ireland

Image of page 13 of A Catechism of Irish History

In the Gilbert schema of Ulysses, the technic for the second episode of the novel, “Nestor,” is identified as “Catechism (personal)” (Gilbert 108). It is the first of two episodes with the catechetic technic, the second being “Ithaca,” the penultimate episode of the book (though technic of “Ithaca” is distinct from that of “Nestor” in its qualification as “impersonal”) (369). The Oxford English Dictionary defines “catechism” as “[a]n elementary treatise for instruction in the principles of the Christian religion, in the form of question and answer” and (in a transferred sense, with reference to this first definition) “[a] book of instruction in other subjects by question and answer”; catechism is also figuratively defined as “A course of question and answer; a series or form of interrogatories put to candidates, etc.” (“catechism, n”). In terms of style, then, one of the key characteristics of catechism is its interrogative component. Catechisms educate by way of questioning. Even in a cosmetic comparison, “Ithaca” appears to be more strictly modeled after catechetic structure than does “Nestor”. The physical text of the episode is broken clearly on the page into the standardized question-answer format with obvious separations of white space demarcating the beginning and end of each discrete component. In “Nestor,” by comparison, the physical and linguistic structure of the text does not immediately appear to differ much from that of the preceding episode, “Telemachus,” whose technic is identified as “Narrative (young)” (97). Both share passages of dialogue, description, and inner thought printed on the page in a manner relatively typical of realistic fictive narrative. While “Nestor’s” stylistic ties to catechism are not necessarily as obvious or uniform as those of “Ithaca,” it is possible that the style “Nestor” is suggestive of catechism in what it helps the episode to accomplish: instruction. For this stylistic examination of “Nestor” as it relates to catechism, this analysis will look specifically at how this episode of Ulysses simultaneously complicates and avails itself of the interrogative quality of catechesis. It will point to questions being asked and answered in the text, and will further try to articulate the nature of the instruction performed through those questions and answers. To show how “Nestor” compares to and complicates typical catechetical style and structure, this analysis will make use of several relevant examples of catechetical literature, namely pages from the Sinn Fein Catechism, A Catechism of the History of Ireland, and The Catechism of Balaam.

“You, Cochrane, what city sent for him?” So begins “Nestor” with Stephen Dedalus’ delivery of a history lesson. The entry into the episode, then, is through an explicit use of the catechetical format, in an educational exchange of questions and answers between a catechist and catechumen. In this opening scene, Stephen is situated as catechist, his students as catechumens. However, the formal structure is undermined by the unruliness of Stephen’s students and the lack of regard in which they hold him. He asks only a few formal questions of history, and the addressees either fail to answer his questions or do so with a considerable amount of cheek:

--You, Armstrong, Stephen said. What was the end of Pyrrhus?

--End of Pyrrhus, sir?

--I know, sir. Ask me, sir, Comyn said.

--Wait. You, Armstrong. Do you know anything about Pyrrhus?...

--Pyrrhus, sir? Pyrrhus, a pier. (Joyce 20)

Compare this with the pictured page from A Catechism of Irish History, whose questions are met with tight, controlled, literal answers. The style of “Ithaca” more clearly reflects such controlled prose, while humane messiness comes to the fore in “Nestor’s” catechism.

Image of page 17 of the Sinn Fein Catechism

Image of page 17 of The Sinn Fein Catechism

The class is dismissed barely a page or two later, and so very early on in the episode the initial  catechumens promptly depart. The next logical participants in the catechetical conversation are Stephen and Mr. Deasy, between whom a similar interrogative exchange takes place. This exchange, too, is marked by a resistance against the tidiness of the typical catechetical format:

--A merchant, Stephen said, is one who buys cheap and sells dear, jew or gentile, is he not?

--[The Jews] sinned against the light, Mr. Deasy said gravely. And you can see the darkness in their eyes. And that is why they are wanderers on the earth to this day…

--Who has not? Stephen said.

--What do you mean? Mr. Deasy said. (28)

In terms of language, this conversation is perhaps more typically reflective of catechetical diction as seen, for example, in the accompanying image from the Sinn Fein Catechism. The latter makes use of a sort of mythic language and expression (“barbarian country,” “like an angel out of Heaven,” “the ways of beauty,” etc.) similar to that seen in these lines from Stephen and Mr. Deasy’s conversation (“sinned against the light,” “darkness in their eyes,” “wanderers on the earth to this day,” etc.) and in that sense one may see further catechetical connection and influence.


Image of page 3 of the 1915 sixth edition of The Catechism of Balaam

Image of page three of The Catechism of Balaam

Another reason that both of Stephen’s conversations--first with his students and then with Mr. Deasy--are technically significant is because they each confuse the expected roles of catechist and catechumen by refraining from landing upon any solid, reliable answer; this complication is evidenced by the failure of each follow the basic interrogative pattern of question, answer, question, etc.  For instance, in the very first passage quoted above, catechesis is disrupted as Stephen’s question is met first with a question and then an interruption. Where the reader of a catechism expects an answer and relies upon the credibility of the answerer, Armstrong’s answer is undone by the infusion of irony. Furthermore, unlike the given examples of actual catechisms, the sequence is broken throughout “Nestor” with interjections of Stephen’s inner train of thought. On the physical page, these blocks of text perhaps look similar to the one at the start of the excerpted page from The Catechism of Balaam; the two are very different in terms of style, though, with the prose Balaam text block being relatively clear and the “Nestor” blocks opaque. In the latter, the reader is repeatedly pulled out of formal catechesis and into Stephen’s stream of consciousness. In looking more closely at these detours away from the formal catechetical structure and into the gray space of Stephen’s thought, it is possible that there is a different sort of catechesis taking place, one which further undermines the typical roles of catechist and catechumen through more manipulation of catechetical style.

The first of these entries into Stephen’s stream of consciousness comes just a few lines into the episode: “Fabled by the daughters of memory. And yet it was in some way if not as memory fabled it. A phrase, then, of impatience, thud of Blake’s wings of excess. I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame. What’s left us then?” (20). Suzette A. Henke explains the content of this passage in relation to the history lesson he is delivering to his students: “Stephen counterpoints the lesson with reflections on William Blake’s description of history as allegory, ‘a totally distinct and inferior kind of Poetry…Form’d by the daughters of Memory’ from the ‘Vanities of Time and Space’” (Henke 38). It is directly from Stephen’s mind that this passage is delivered and the only participant of discourse is Stephen’s interior voice--yet the passage ends in a question. The use of a question is significant since it is removed from the expected catechetical position. This question is posed to no one in particular, perhaps even to Stephen himself. If the question is rhetorical, its lack of answer nonetheless resists expectation.

Another passage in which the text manipulates typical catechetical structure is in Stephen’s reflection on Cyril Sargent and the similarities between the boy and himself. He observes with disdain the unimpressive appearance of the boy, then muses that “someone had loved him, borne him in her arms and in her heart. But for her the race of the world would have trampled him underfoot, a squashed boneless snail. She had loved his weak watery blood drained from her own. Was that then real? The only true thing in life?” (Joyce 23). Again, there is no use of white space or labeling to differentiate between the interrogative and the declarative sentences, as in the case of all the attached images of catechisms. However, the declarative and the interrogative are constituent parts of both the catechisms and this passage from “Nestor”; the latter’s difference in its use of the interrogative and declarative serves not only to disrupt the catechetical sequence but also to destabilize the roles of catechist and catechumen since both the questions and assertions emanate from Stephen and no one else partakes in the exchange.

One critic suggests that a clue to figuring out the relation of Nestor’s difference and confusion to catechetic structure may be in Joyce’s qualification of the episode’s technic as “personal.” She says that “While the technique of the episode, “catechism (personal),” may most obviously refer to Stephen quizzing his class and the school headmaster grilling Stephen, the specification of personal also suggests that many of the episode’s questions are directed by Stephen, to himself” (Fish). If this is the case, one must ask of what sort of instruction is the end aim of his questions. The fact that many of the questions Stephen addresses to himself go unanswered is significant: what instruction may be accomplished through unanswerable queries? What is the purpose to instruction or teaching which does not land at a fixed, predictable terminus? The broken catechetical structure of this episode also prompts questions regarding the mechanism and purpose of its instruction. While there is some degree of formal catechesis taking place between Stephen and the students, Stephen and Mr. Deasy, and Stephen and himself, it is also possible that the style of the episode is working to catechize the reader by destabilizing assumptions about knowledge in the text’s abstinence from clear-cut answers. As the reader continues to later chapters, certainly, the questions engendered by the text increase exponentially while concise, definite answers seem to be few and far between. In addition to characterizing the nature of its content and the relationship of its characters to each other, the personal catechetical style of “Nestor” may in fact indicate the way that the novel is operating on the reader, instructing the latter in the nature of the text.



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Figgis, Darrel. Sinn Fein Catechism. Sinn Fein, n.d. Web.

Fish, Amy. “Nestor.” The Modernism Lab at Yale University. Yale University, 2010. Web. 18       October 2014.

Gilbert, Stuart. James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Study. New York: Vintage Books, 1958. Print.

Henke, Suzette A. Joyce’s Moraculous Sindbook: A Study of Ulysses. Columbus: Ohio State     University Press, 1978. Web.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. Ed. Hans Walter Gabler. New York: Vintage Books, 1986. Print.

The Catechism of Balaam, Jr., by an Irish American. New York: Hugh H Masterson, 1915. Web.

Catechetical Style in "Nestor"