The Books: “Ulysses” – the Wandering Rocks episode (James Joyce)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

ulysses67.bmpUlysses (The Gabler Edition)– by James Joyce.

Episode 1: The Telemachus Episode
Episode 2: The Nestor Episode
Episode 3: The Proteus episode

Episode 4: The Calypso Episode
Episode 5: The Lotus Eaters Episode
Episode 6: The Hades Episode
Episode 7: The Aeolus Episode
Episode 8: The Lestrygonians Episode
Episode 9: The Scylla and Charybdis Episode
Episode 10: The Wandering Rocks Episode
Episode 11: The Sirens Episode
Episode 12: The Cyclops Episode
Episode 13: The Nausicaa Episode
Episode 14: The Oxen of the Sun Episode
Episode 15: The Circe Episode

Episode 16: The Eumaeus Episode
Episode 17: The Ithaca Episode

This one, again, was a tough one to get into … until I figured out what Joyce is doing. The Wandering Rocks episode is Joyce at his “trickiest”. We have just passed “Scylla and Charybdis” – which is the halfway mark of the book (see the tricky structure there, too? Scylla and Charybdis is one of the most challenging episodes in Ulysses – which reflects the challenge that Odysseus himself must face – in order to continue on his journey. So the structure of the book actually reflects the phases of the journey itself.) So now that we have passed the halfway mark (there are 18 episodes in the book – we are now on episode 10) … Joyce employs all the tricks in the book, to keep us uneasy, to make us feel that we actually DON’T know what’s going on … even though we, the reader, may be so proud of ourselves for having “made it” through Scylla and Charybdis. Joyce is like: “Not so fast.”

Wandering Rocks is like a panorama shot of Dublin. We do a slow pan through the streets. We follow the paths of many different Dubliners – and it may be confusing at first, because the episode opens with the meanderings of a certain Father Conmee – he suddenly seems like he’s the “star” – who the hell is he? But after 2 pages – his episode stops (for the time being) – and someone else comes to the forefront. There are people we have met before: Buck Mulligan, the Dedalus family – but there are others: a one-legged sailor, Blazes Boylan, Patrick Dignam (the son of the deceased Paddy Dignam) … and way more. It appears that all of the denizens of Dublin are out and about … and Joyce swoops in with his camera onto one group, follows them for a bit, pulls back and then hones in on another group. It’s a panorama AND a montage. It is also one of the chapters which obsessively details the streets of Dublin. Joyce wrote this chapter with a map of Dublin before him. You can tell. I read in some online critical essay that one especially insane Bloomsday celebrator – followed the path of the one-legged sailor in the episode – and he even gave himself a limp, so it would be realistic – and apparently, the timing of the sailor’s episode (when he reached the corner, when he got to the shop, how long it took to cross the street) was spot-on. Joyce was autistic that way.

Characters we met before in Portrait of the Artist as well as Dubliners show up in this episode. Father Conmee was a priest at Clongowes, where Dedalus went to school as a young boy. He is now, if not defrocked – then definitely out of the priesthood.

I remember first reading this chapter and feeling like it was an enormous puzzle. Or some kind of tricky word game that I was trying to figure out. It feels like Joyce is throwing down clues … but more often than not, he leads you in the wrong direction on purpose (an obvious comment on his feelings about life in Ireland). For example, we keep running into the same guys – who are wearing “sandwich boards”, advertising a pub or something like that. And just the way Joyce writes about them – make them seem mysterious, and like the letters on the sandwich board mean something else … there are clues to be had there. I’m not remembering exactly what it all MEANS … but the feeling of the chapter is one of movement (which makes sense – given the title of the episode) and unfinished events. We don’t stay long enough with one person to get any resolution.

And Bloom and Dedalus are omnipresent. We see members of Dedalus’ family – his sister, I think … trying to sell Stephen’s books to a pawn shop, because the family is in such dire straits. The mother is dead, the father is a drunk. We also see Blazes Boylan – Molly Bloom’s lover – he is getting ready for his rendesvous with Molly. There are solicitors, blind people, secretaries … Bloom himself is in the episode, and he is going to “rent” a book to bring home to Molly – it’s called Sweets of Sin – it’s obviously a steamy romance novel (this becomes important later – in The Nausikaa episode and elsewhere) … but the implications are clear (at least we think they are). Bloom, being cuckolded almost as we speak, is getting a book called Sweets of Sin for his adulterous wife … meanwhile, we get to know Blazes Boylan a bit in this chapter, as he banters with his secretary. Like I said, the episode is, uhm, episodic … and yet the over-arching feel of it is a panorama: DUBLIN.

There are many more enigmas here I’m probably not getting … some of the clues are in the source-material, The Odyssey: Odysseus was told that in order to get home he either had to navigate through “the wandering rocks” (especially treacherous – and thought, as well, to be an optical illusion) – or navigate between Scylla and Charybdis. Odysseus, as we remember, chooses Scylla and Charybdis (the episode we just passed through). So … what are we doing in The Wandering Rocks then?? It is as though Joyce is laughing at us, because he knows what he is doing – and we are trying to guess. The “whirlpool” of the former chapter – with its complex navigations through Stephen’s thoughts about Hamlet – has now been passed. The Wandering Rocks, with its placement in the book, is a “pause” – an interlude … before plunging into the last 9 episodes. It’s fractured: we don’t follow just Bloom anymore … we, at alternate moments, are inside everyone in Dublin. And Joyce, being the great humanist that he was, judges no one – although many of the people he writes about are buffoons, or egomaniacs … But he seems to accept them as they are. There is no “ideal world” for Joyce, no utopia. Dublin is what it is. Here it is.

By starting the episode with the wanderings of Father Conmee – Joyce is obviously bookending the episode with his feeling that the Roman Catholic Church is everything that is wrong with Dublin. It has held its citizens in thrall, keeping them in place, like good passive little sheep. And the episode ends (brilliantly) with the Earl of Dudley driving through Dublin in his carriage, passing by everyone we just saw – only now they come to him, in a blur … because he is moving faster. So Joyce’s other bookend is the English. Ireland has two problems: the church and the English.

Navigating through Dublin is no easy matter – like navigating through the Wandering Rocks themselves. Joyce appears to topload this episode with false leads, incorrect information, fragmentary clues that we think we understand – only to realize we have been wrong. It’s all part of the journey. If one becomes over-confident in a journey, then we know that things will not go well for them. Time and time again, through history, we have seen this. Legends, myths … about hubris, etc. So yay, we have made it halfway through the book. We even made it through the long long Scylla and Charybdis chapter – which challenged our minds, made us squint with thought, made us pick up Shakespeare alongside Ulysses to double-check some of Stephen’s theories … we have worked HARD. In “The Wandering Rocks”, Joyce tells us: Good for you. But don’t be over-confident. You still have a long way to go.

Joyce fractures his narrative – and now shares it with all of Dublin. We follow one path, we join another, sometimes the paths merge for a bit, before separating, we look up at windows, then we are inside the room, then we are down on the street again, navigating, cruising this way, that way … meeting (and getting inside) every person we meet.

Here’s an excerpt. Oh, and even this clunky description I’ve just written could probably give you a good idea about what part/function of the human body we are now “in”.

EXCERPT FROM Ulysses (The Gabler Edition) – by James Joyce – the Wandering Rocks episode

Mr Bloom turned over idly pages of The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, then of Aristotle’s Masterpiece. Crooked botched print. Plates: infants cuddled in a ball in bloodred wombs like livers of slaughtered cows. Lots of them like that at this moment all over the world. All butting with their skulls to get out of it. Child born every minute somewhere. Mrs Purefoy.

He laid both books aside and glanced at the third: Tales of the Ghetto by Leopold von Sacher Masoch.

— That I had, he said, pushing it by.

The shopman let two volumes fall on the counter.

— Them are two good ones, he said.

Onions of his breath came across the counter out of his ruined mouth. He bent to make a bundle of the other books, hugged them against his unbuttoned waistcoat and bore them off behind the dingy curtain.

On O’Connell bridge many persons observed the grave deportment and gay apparel of Mr Denis J. Maginni, professor of dancing &c.

Mr Bloom, alone, looked at the titles. Fair Tyrants by James Lovebirch. Know the kind that is. Had it? Yes.

He opened it. Thought so.

A woman’s voice behind the dingy curtain. Listen: The man.

No: she wouldn’t like that much. Got her it once.

He read the other title: Sweets of Sin. More in her line. Let us see.

He read where his finger opened.

All the dollarbills her husband gave her were spent in the stores on wondrous gowns and costliest frillies. For him! For Raoul!

Yes. This. Here. Try.

Her mouth glued on his in a luscious voluptuous kiss while his hands felt for the opulent curves inside her déshabillé.

Yes. Take this. The end.

You are late, he spoke hoarsely, eyeing her with a suspicious glare. The beautiful woman threw off her sabletrimmed wrap, displaying her queenly shoulders and heaving embonpoint. An imperceptible smile played round her perfect lips as she turned to him calmly.

Mr Bloom read again: The beautiful woman.

Warmth showered gently over him, cowing his flesh. Flesh yielded amid rumpled clothes. Whites of eyes swooning up. His nostrils arched themselves for prey. Melting breast ointments (for him! For Raoul!). Armpits’ oniony sweat. Fishgluey slime (her heaving embonpoint!). Feel! Press! Crushed! Sulphur dung of lions!

Young! Young!

An elderly female, no more young, left the building of the courts of chancery, king’s bench, exchequer and common pleas, having heard in the lord chancellor’s court the case in lunacy of Potterton, in the admiralty division the summons, exparte motion, of the owners of the Lady Cairns versus the owners of the barque Mona, in the court of appeal reservation of judgment in the case of Harvey versus the Ocean Accident and Guarantee Corporation.

Phlegmy coughs shook the air of the bookshop, bulging out the dingy curtains. The shopman’s uncombed grey head came out and his unshaven reddened face, coughing. He raked his throat rudely, spat phlegm on the floor. He put his boot on what he had spat, wiping his sole along it and bent, showing a rawskinned crown, scantily haired.

Mr Bloom beheld it.

Mastering his troubled breath, he said:

— I’ll take this one.

The shopman lifted eyes bleared with old rheum.

Sweets of Sin, he said, tapping on it. That’s a good one.


The lacquey by the door of Dillon’s auctionrooms shook his handbell twice again and viewed himself in the chalked mirror of the cabinet.

Dilly Dedalus, listening by the curbstone, heard the beats of the bell, the cries of the auctioneer within. Four and nine. Those lovely curtains. Five shillings. Cosy curtains. Selling new at two guineas. Any advance on five shillings? Going for five shillings.

The lacquey lifted his handbell and shook it:

— Barang!

Bang of the lastlap bell spurred the halfmile wheelmen to their sprint. J. A. Jackson, W. E. Wylie, A. Munro and H. T. Gahan, their stretched necks wagging, negotiated the curve by the College Library.

Mr Dedalus, tugging a long moustache, came round from Williams’s row. He halted near his daughter.

— It’s time for you, she said.

— Stand up straight for the love of the Lord Jesus, Mr Dedalus said. Are you trying to imitate your uncle John the cornetplayer, head upon shoulders? Melancholy God!

Dilly shrugged her shoulders. Mr Dedalus placed his hands on them and held them back.

— Stand up straight, girl, he said. You’ll get curvature of the spine. Do you know what you look like?

He let his head sink suddenly down and forward, hunching his shoulders and dropping his underjaw.

— Give it up, father, Dilly said. All the people are looking at you.

Mr Dedalus drew himself upright and tugged again at his moustache.

— Did you get any money? Dilly asked.

— Where would I get money? Mr Dedalus said. There is no-one in Dublin would lend me fourpence.

— You got some, Dilly said, looking in his eyes.

— How do you know that? Mr Dedalus asked, his tongue in his cheek.

Mr Kernan, pleased with the order he had booked, walked boldly along James’s street.

— I know you did, Dilly answered. Were you in the Scotch house now?

— I was not then, Mr Dedalus said, smiling. Was it the little nuns taught you to be so saucy? Here.

He handed her a shilling.

— See if you can do anything with that, he said.

— I suppose you got five, Dilly said. Give me more than that.

— Wait awhile, Mr Dedalus said threateningly. You’re like the rest of them, are you? An insolent pack of little bitches since your poor mother died. But wait awhile. You’ll all get a short shrift and a long day from me. Low blackguardism! I’m going to get rid of you. Wouldn’t care if I was stretched out stiff. He’s dead. The man upstairs is dead.

He left her and walked on. Dilly followed quickly and pulled his coat.

— Well, what is it? he said, stopping.

The lacquey rang his bell behind their backs.

— Barang!

— Curse your bloody blatant soul, Mr Dedalus cried, turning on him.

The lacquey, aware of comment, shook the lolling clapper of his bell but feebly:

— Bang!

Mr Dedalus stared at him.

— Watch him, he said. It’s instructive. I wonder will he allow us to talk.

— You got more than that, father, Dilly said.

— I’m going to show you a little trick, Mr Dedalus said. I’ll leave you all where Jesus left the jews. Look, that’s all I have. I got two shillings from Jack Power and I spent twopence for a shave for the funeral.

He drew forth a handful of copper coins nervously.

— Can’t you look for some money somewhere? Dilly said.

Mr Dedalus thought and nodded.

— I will, he said gravely. I looked all along the gutter in O’Connell street. I’ll try this one now.

— You’re very funny, Dilly said, grinning.

— Here, Mr Dedalus said, handing her two pennies. Get a glass of milk for yourself and a bun or a something. I’ll be home shortly.

He put the other coins in his pocket and started to walk on.

The viceregal cavalcade passed, greeted by obsequious policemen, out of Parkgate.

— I’m sure you have another shilling, Dilly said.

The lacquey banged loudly.

Mr Dedalus amid the din walked off, murmuring to himself with a pursing mincing mouth:

— The little nuns! Nice little things! O, sure they wouldn’t do anything! O, sure they wouldn’t really! Is it little sister Monica!

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2 Responses to The Books: “Ulysses” – the Wandering Rocks episode (James Joyce)

  1. Wren Collins says:

    Just want to thank you for these fantastic posts. Picked up Ulysses because of them and just got through Scylla and Charybdis (whew)- have been reading along with your posts as a guide. Having a lot of fun with the book even though I know loads of stuff is sailing over my head- so thank you!

    • sheila says:

      Wren – wow, I love to hear this so much!!

      I agree with your “Whew”! If I hadn’t had my dad on speed-dial, I would have thrown up my hands in despair!

      The Cyclops episode, in particular – the writing isn’t all that complicated but I just could not figure it OUT. My dad helped – and it was a really simple explanation. Joyce said once, “With me, the thought is always simple.” And that’s really true. It is the language that is complex – but behind it are really simple things like love and breakfast and window shopping and blah blah blah.

      Let me know your thoughts as you progress – I’m excited you’re reading it!

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