Martello tower, photo by Erik Simpson

The Ulysses Lexicon

Peer and Pier


peer, peering, peered, pier, (ap)pear

Related Terms



From the start of the novel, peer is usually manifest as a verb with the primary meaning "to look." In some cases it may also draw meaning from the homonym peer, n. and its semantically-related verb form, establishing and/or satirizing Stephen's social ranking in relation to first Buck (U 1) and later his incompetent student, Sargent (U 2).

By the end of the book, Stephen has been most notably sought and peered by Bloom (U 15, 16, 17); this is interesting because with Bloom we typically see scenes of unpeering, in which he is either ostracized by others or self-exclusionary, usually on the basis of his perceived Jewishness, as linked to his financial standing. Such scenes include the cab ride to Dignam's funeral (U 6), the hospital scene (U 14), and the dark bar scene with the citizen—Bloom's ultimate anti-peer (U 12)—among others.

The spelling pier, which primarily refers to seaside architecture (jokingly referred to as "a disappointed bridge," U 2.39), was introduced through classroom confusion about its homophony with the name of the historical figure Pyrrhus. This should draw our attention to Joyce's potential manipulation of the intersection and overlap of homophones, in this case pier (n.), peer (v.), and peer (n.). Although shared pronunciation results in ambiguity and misunderstanding—as in the Pyrrhus incident, where we see a breakdown in transference of knowledge—it should also be considered an expansion of semantic productivity, since multiple meanings can be encapsulated by a single word. Joyce often seems to utilize homophones in this way, playing aurality against the reader's presumed security in the specific definition of a printed word. (Consider other homophone pairs where this may happen, such as "Sun/Son" or "But(t).")

Pier can also carry the meaning "mirror," via abbreviation of the obscure noun 'pier-glass.' While we have not seen this particular spelling used with mirror imagery, episode 1 features the homophonic peer spelling twice used to describe Stephen interacting with a mirror (U 1.135, 1.141), and Bloom's memories of Gretta Conroy at the end of episode 4 include her "peering" into her "handglass" (U 4.531-32).

Definitions and Examples

  1. I. peer, v. (OED v3 2.a) To look closely, with difficulty or concentration; to try to make out something indistinct or obscured.

    "Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called up coarsely: Come up, Kinch! Come up, you fearful jesuit!" (U 1.06-08).

    • v. To ennoble, to make equal, to make a person a peer; to put in the same rank or on an equal footing with. (OED v1 2.,3.) Since Buck is calling to Stephen from higher ground, this invitation functions literally to put Stephen "on an equal footing with" Buck within the space of the tower. Here peer may also characterize the social dynamic between Buck and Stephen, indicating Buck's social confidence and the agentive role he continues to play in their friendship. But, far from "ennobling" Stephen, many of Buck's comments—for example, "you fearful Jesuit!"—are "coarsely" mocking, contributing an element of irony to this social interpretation.

    "Stephen bent forward and peered at the mirror held out to him, cleft by a crooked crack" (U 1.135-36).

    "Sargent peered askance through his slanted glasses" (2.152-53).

    • n. An equal in natural gifts, ability, or achievements; A member of the same age group/social set; a contemporary; A person who is associated or matched with another; a mate; a rival. (OED 1.b, c, and 2.) Here, allusion to the noun sense of the spelling peer is comical in context of Stephen and Sargent's obviously hierarchal teacher/student relationship, but may more seriously characterize the matched son/son roles envisioned by Stephen as he ruminates on mothers' love. This social sense may also apply to Sargent in relation to his classmates, as the sounds of the Hockey game intrude into the math lesson a moment later, calling attention to Sargent's absence from the class activity. We might read the hockey sounds as beckoning to Sargent, bidding him return to his appropriate social set with his classmates. Alternately, we might get an impression of the hockey sounds as signaling Sargent's sharp separation from his presumed peers, his unbelonging exacerbated by lack of intellectual and physical poise, which place him indoors with Stephen instead.

  2. II. pier, n. (OED I.1., II.5.a) A structure providing vertical support, especially for a bridge. OR A horizontal projection, a platform extending out to sea. Used as a landing place for vessels, as a breakwater, and/or as a promenade, a venue for entertainments.

    "—Pyrrhus, sir? Pyrrhus, a pier. [...] Tell me now, Stephen said, poking the boy's shoulder with the book, what is a pier. A pier, sir, Armstrong said. A thing out in the water. A kind of a bridge. Kingstown pier, sir" (U 2.26-34).

    • As noted above in primary definition II, pier here has two opposite (or at least, perpendicular) architectural definitions: vertical—lending credibility to the student's including "a kind of bridge" in his explanation—and horizontal—a maritime boardwalk, which is the dominant literal referent. This semantic tension may have made it an attractive choice for Joyce's dichotomous vocabulary.

    "—Kingstown pier, Stephen said. Yes, a disappointed bridge" (U 2.39).

Related topics

Language and Linguistics
Light and Shadow
Union and Division

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