This episode begins at 2:55 p.m. and ends at 4:00 p.m. It describes the wanderings of several characters from Ulysses around the streets of Dublin, and thus it forms a mini-odyssey, a microcosm of Joyce's novel. The chapter consists of 19 short episodes which mirror the overall 18-part structure of Ulysses (early critics usually described "The Wandering Rocks" as consisting of 18 parts and a final coda, the description of the viceregal cavalcade). Coming as it does after the first nine sections of Ulysses (traditionally accepted to be the first "half" of the novel), "The Wandering Rocks" is a kind of interlude — much like the comic entrance of Buck Mulligan during Stephen Dedalus's discussion of Shakespeare in "Scylla and Charybdis" — before Joyce begins the second "half' of the novel.
The chapter is almost perfectly balanced: the meanderings of Father Conmee, S. J., the amiable, patronizing former rector of Clongowes (who once saved Stephen from a painful punishment in A Portrait) begin the episode, and the cavalcade of the amiable, patronizing William Humble Ward, Second Earl of Dudley as he travels to open the Mirus Bazaar ends the chapter. The two men represent Ireland's bondage to two key foreign powers — the Roman Catholic Church and Britain — and all of the smaller odysseys in the episode are directly related to these two major structuring devices. Also, it is in the middle section (the tenth section) of "The Wandering Rocks" that Bloom rents Sweets of Sin for Molly. Finally, this near-central chapter of Ulysses is tied together by scores of motifs, gestures, thoughts, and cross-references. Joyce apparently wrote "The Wandering Rocks" with a map of Dublin before him, and modern Joyceans take great delight in timing the various wanderings of the participants, one critic going so far as to limp along the Dublin streets, miming the one-legged sailor; he discovered that Joyce was unusually accurate in his time sequences.
Parallels with Homer's Odyssey are especially clear in this chapter. In Homer, Circe told Odysseus that to return home he must sail either through the large, moving ("wandering") rocks or else he must pass between Scylla and Charybdis. Because only the mythological Jason of the Argonauts had succeeded in negotiating the rocks, Odysseus chose to battle Charybdis, the whirlpool, and Scylla, the six-headed monster.
Joyce, however, is having fun at the reader's expense in this chapter because, to read Ulysses, the reader must pass through both the treacherous rocks and the labyrinth of the National Library, with Stephen's complex intellectual expositions at its center. Also, in Homer, the wandering rocks were probably based on optical illusions, and Joyce has correspondingly filled his rendition of the myth with "false clues" and deliberately misleading language. He seems to be saying to the reader: "You've come through nine episodes, and you think that you really know Dublin — and my writing methods. Beware: you are being over-confident; Dublin and my writing methods are neither simple nor easily grasped."
These tricks of Joyce, escorting us by circuitous ways through the various routes in and around Dublin, begin at once. Father Conmee, we are told, "reset his smooth watch"; he did not, however, correct the time. Instead, he "reset" it — that is, he placed it in his pocket. In addition, we are told twice that Father Conmee is walking through Clongowes' playing fields; this is not literally true: he is returning to his old school ground in Clongowes in his memory. Also, note that Blazes Boylan's secretary, Miss Dunne, wonders whether "he [is) in love with that one, Marion," while she is thinking of William Wilkie Collins' Woman in White (remember, Boylan is readying himself for a rendezvous with Marion Bloom); "that one," however, here, is really Marian Halcombe, a woman character in Collins' novel. Moreover, Bloom does not buy Sweets of Sin; rather, he rents it, as we discover in "Ithaca." In addition, Father Cowley is not a priest in good official standing with the Church; he is a "spoiled priest," simply "Bob" Cowley, a fellow in financial straits. Bloom the dentist has no connection with the protagonist; Denis Breen never does see the solicitor John Henry Menton, but leaves his office after an hour' s wait, and later makes a faux pas when he salutes the carriage carrying Gerald Ward instead of the carriage of the Earl of Dudley; and Lamppost Farrell, who bumps into the blind stripling (the youngster whom Bloom helped in "The Lestrygonians"), is figuratively "blinder" than the lad. In all this ambiguity, however, one thing is certain: Mulligan's statement made to Haines as they both sit drinking tea certainly proves to be prophetic: "He [Stephen/Joyce] is going to write something [A Portrait] in ten years."
If employment of deceit or ambiguity is a modus operandi in this episode, ironic contrast of "factual" events is another. Joyce uses his recurrent images and happenings to express a sardonic theme, and his motifs are very skillfully employed. Father Conmee's holy thoughts are juxtaposed against the sudden appearance of the flushed young lover and the young woman who cross his path (and who later turn up in "The Oxen of the Sun"). The arc of Corny Kelleher's "silent jet of hayjuice" is matched against the "plump bare generous arm" of Molly Bloom, as she throws a coin in an arc to the crippled sailor in the third episode of this chapter. Lenehan's comment that Bantam Lyons is giving out tips on the hopeless darkhorse Throwaway, false information which he originally received in the mixup with Bloom in "The Lotus-Eaters," is quickly followed by the appearance of Bloom himself looking for a sexy novel to bring home to his wife ("A darkbacked figure scanned books on the hawker's cart") and by a "skiff," the Elijah, "a crumpled throwaway," which floats (voyages) down the Liffey River throughout the episode. And the snippet from the patriotic, anti-British song "The Croppy Boy" ("At the siege of Ross did my father fall") is juxtaposed against Mr. Kernan's subservient rush to see the viceregal cavalcade.
Joyce's use of contrast is most effective in the fifth section of "The Wandering Rocks." Here, Boylan tells the girl from Thornton's to put a bottle of wine (meant to warm up Molly before his visit) in the bottom of the bag of fruit and to deliver it at once to "an invalid." Not content with the upcoming visit, however, he flirts with the clerk; he looks down into her blouse, and Joyce records for the reader the only unspoken thoughts of Boylan that we are told of in the whole of Ulysses: "A young pullet." Yet while the aggressive, sexually indefatigable Boylan contrasts with the sensitive, passive Bloom (who is getting his sexual pleasure vicariously in this section by glancing through pornography), it is Bloom, the "throwaway," who may at last triumph. Joyce makes it clear that Boylan is a mere stud: He reduces everything to sex, and to him women are less than human.
In "The Wandering Rocks," Joyce uses his "false clues" and his ironic contrasts or juxtapositionings to express a human theme, and his art becomes a means of creating a grand Chaucerian pilgrimage. As do many great artists, Joyce accepts people largely as they are, and "The Wandering Rocks" forms his panorama of Dublin's city dwellers with all their warts. The point of view in "The Wandering Rocks" is naturalism tinged with compassion. For example, though Father Conmee may be a bit condescending, he does truly care for people, in particular about those outside of the Catholic faith who may die in "invincible ignorance" and never gain heaven; he may like "cheerful decorum," but he is nonetheless concerned about the plight of the "African mission" and about the dark souls of natives who will never receive "baptism of water . . . ." And Father Conmee can only bless the one-legged sailor because, by the rules of his order, he has taken a vow of poverty; he does not have money to spare for the beggar. As another example of Joyce's attitude toward Dubliners, note that in the ninth section, M'Coy's "putdown" of Lenehan is deftly carried out and, because of its understatement, it realistically portrays the reactions of a jokester who fails and his slightly stiff listener. Lenehan tells of taking liberties with Molly (with her "milky way") during an evening in 1894 while Bloom was pointing out the constellations of the stars as the group of old friends returned from the "big spread out at Glencree reformatory. . . ." Taken aback by M'Coy's cool response to his off-color anecdote, Lenehan is forced to admit about Bloom: "He's a cultured allroundman, Bloom is. . . . There's a touch of the artist about old Bloom."
Joyce's compassion for the Dubliners in "The Wandering Rocks" is perhaps most evident in his family portraits, and it is unfortunate that some critics tend to overemphasize the humorous side of the episode; in it, Joyce incorporated several unforgettably moving scenes. just a few of these include (1) Maggy Dedalus's telling her hungry sisters that the pawn shop would not accept Stephen's books, as well as her dishing out "yellow thick" pea soup to them (begged from a nun), and then her correcting her sister Boody, who has bitterly called Simon "our father who art not in heaven"; (2) the drunken Simon trying to convince Dilly that he has no money to give her to buy some food for the family, then castigating her for not standing up straight, while Dilly pleads, "Give it up, father. . . . All the people are looking at you"; and (3) Dilly's purchase of a bit of hope in the midst of all the family squalor, Chardenal's French Primer (Stephen thinks, "I told her of Paris."), which leads Stephen to see his sister as drowning metaphorically, just as his mother did in fact (in her own green bile).
With great artistry, Joyce provides the antidote to possible sentimentality by his depiction of Haines, Mulligan, and (later) Master Patrick Dignam, son of the deceased. The priggish Haines has decided that Stephen suffers from a "fixed idea," an obsession; Mulligan plays along with his facile companion, telling him that it was the Church that ruined Stephen's mind with its doctrine of hellfire. Haines agrees, then ruminates that the ancient Celtic tradition does not admit of an afterlife of punishment. The obnoxious little Patrick Dignam tries as hard as he can to feel some compassion for his dead father, but he can think seriously only that he may get his name in the paper, that he will have a vacation from school, and that he might be lionized by his classmates for a time. And, despite everything, he just cannot get his obstreperous shirt collar to stay down!