“The Wandering Rocks”

by Julia Galeota

“The Wandering Rocks,” the tenth episode of James Joyce‘s Ulysses relates the activities of citizens in the streets of Dublin between three and four o’clock. Composed exclusively of nineteen short vignettes that feature collectively nearly all of the characters of Ulysses, this tenth of Joyce’s eighteen episodes “is both an entr’acte between the two halves and a miniature of the whole” (Blamires 93).

Two complementary journeys “by the representatives of ecclesiastical and civil authority respectively” open and close the episode, and Joyce peppers the other seventeen sections with references to their progress (Blamires 93). This dichotomous structure is belied, however, by a number of other interpolated incidents “that are temporally simultaneous but spatially remote” from the vignettes in which they occur (Gifford 260). While some of these intrusions relate to pregnant happenings from other episodes—the aquatic voyage of the “crumpled throwaway, Elijah is coming” from the beginning of “Lestrygonians,” for instance, or the trudging walk of the “[t]wo old women” from Stephen’s vision in “Aeolus”—most point to other sections of “The Wandering Rocks” (10.294, 818). This “labyrinth[ine]” technique cultivates (what Joyce termed in the Linati schema) a sense of “The Hostile Environment” (qtd. Gifford 260).

Homeric Parallels

Episode 10 is the only episode in Ulysses without a direct Homeric parallel. The Wandering Rocks appear in The Odyssey only third-hand, in Odysseus’ recount to the Phaeacians of Circe’s presentation of the two routes back to Ithaca: the course through the “Prowling Rocks, or Drifters,” “whose boiling surf, under high fiery winds,/carries tossing wreckage of ships and men” and the path between Scylla and Charybdis (XII.74, 83-4). Since Odysseus opts for the latter path, which Joyce traces in episode 9, “The Wandering Rocks” alludes to the road not taken in Homer’s epic. Though Ulysses here diverges from the plot of The Odyssey, Homer still furnishes Joyce’s fundamental inspiration for this episode—a decentralized, disjointed portrait of Dublin’s “tossing wreckage of…men.”

Plot Overview

The episode opens with the “the very reverend John Conmee S. J.”—Stephen’s rector at Clongowes—embarking from the presbytery to Artane at “[f]ive to three” (10.13). He wonders who can help him satisfy Mr. Cunningham’s plea for care for Paddy Dignam’s son. After the onelegged soldier appeals to him for alms, Father Conmee thinks—“but not for long”—of the sufferings of those who serve others in addition to God (10.12-13). He greets a succession of well-married and well-off women, schoolboys, and the proprietors and patrons of the establishments on his route. He reflects, in turn, upon the “act of perfect contrition” that is the “General Slocum explosion” in New York and “the providence of the Creator who had made turf to be in bogs whence men might dig it out and bring it to town and hamlet to make fires in the houses of poor people” (10.92, 104-6, 725). Father Conmee takes a train to avoid walking in a muddy area and, privately, mildly criticizes his co-travelers for their pretentious solemnity, awkward physicality, and mental slowness and muses on the importance of “the African mission and of the propagation of the faith” (10.144-5). After he alights the train, Father Conmee thinks of his (seemingly secular) book Old Times in the Barony and of another book that he might write about a woman thought to be an adulteress, then of the “tyrannous incontinence” of sex (10.171). He fantasizes about his “humane and honoured” priestly role in romanticized “times of yore” and reminisces about his “reign” at Clongowes as he reads his Divine Office (10.174-5, 188). He sees a young couple emerge from a bucolic tryst and “blesse[s] both gravely” (10.203).

Corny Kelleher examines the lid of a coffin he has been crafting, then exchanges pleasantries with Constable 57C, spitting “a silent jet of hayjuice” as “a generous white arm from a window in Eggles street [flings] forth a coin” (10.221-3).

Singing the a line from the chorus of the pro-English “The Death of Nelson,” a onelegged sailor collects coins, withstands the stares of “[t]wo barefoot urchins,” and receives the coin flung by the “plump generous arm” of section II, which is not long afterwards revealed to be Molly’s arm (10.251) (Gifford 265).

Two Dedalus siblings—Katey and Boody—return home to report their failure at pawning Stephen’s books and inquire after the contents of the two pots sister Maggy is tending at the stove. Maggy explains to her inquisitive siblings that one is filled with boiling shirts, that the other contains peasoup from Sister Mary Patrick, and that Dilly has gone to meet their father (“Our father who art not in heaven,” Boody puns to Maggy’s protestations) (10.291).

Blazes Boylan has a clerk assemble a gift basket for the “invalid” Molly with a bottle (of port) and a jar (of perfume, perhaps) hidden underneath “fat pears and blushing peaches” (10.333) (Blamires 96). As he makes arrangements for the basket’s delivery and payment, Boylan eyes the clerk’s bosom, plucks a red carnation and puts it between his teeth, then asks to use her telephone “roguishly”—a seeming proposition (10.336).

Almidano Artifoni and Stephen converse in Italian as Artifoni waits for (and then misses) his tram. It seems that Stephen’s decision not to pursue (what could be, according to Artioni) a lucrative vocal career is related to his belief that “the world is a beast [i.e., a pigsty]” (Gifford 266).

Miss Dunne, Boylan’s secretary, hides a sensationalist novel in the back of her drawer, outfits her typewriter with a new sheet, and types the first instance of the full date in the novel: “16 June 1904” (10.376). Secretarial pose assumed, she drifts into a metonymic daydream about looks and skirts and “boatclub swells” that is interrupted—“rudely”—by a scheduling call from her boss (10.385, 388).

Ned Lambert is giving a tour of “the old chapter house of St. Mary’s abbey” to Hugh C. Love, a researching reverend with “a refined accent” (10.406). J. J. O’Molloy joins them; Love leaves; Lambert sneezes.

Tom Rochford is showing Nosey Flynn, Lenehan, and M’Coy his invention, a machine “which indicates what turn is in progress at the music hall” (Blamires 98). Afterwards, Lenehan and M’Coy discuss Tom Rochford’s heroic manhole rescue. Under Merchant’s arch they pass the “darkbacked figure” of Bloom; Lenehan speculates jocularly that Bloom is buying “Leopoldo or the Bloom is on the Rye,” subtly painting Bloom as a sophomorically romantic, lovelorn cuckold. Lenehan then tells of a ride in a jaunting car with Bloom, Molly, and Chris Callinan during which he took physical liberties with Molly whilst Bloom pointed out constellations. Lenehan laughs, but upon seeing M‘Coy’s lack of amusement, he backtracks to pay Bloom a stunted compliment: “He’s a cultured allroundman, Bloom is, he said seriously. He’s not one of your common or garden … you know … There’s a touch of the artist about old Bloom” (10.581-3).

As Bloom leafs through two books—The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk and Aristotle’s Masterpiece—that both deal with pregnancy and its related affairs, his mind returns again to the questions of the relation between—and omnipresence of—life (birth) and death; to him, the plates of infants “in bloodred wombs” only heighten the connection between the two states, looking as they do like “livers of slaughtered cows” (10.587). Bloom thinks again of the pregnant Mrs. Purefoy. After rejecting two titles proffered by the vile shopman, Bloom opens a third—Sweets of Sin—and, “practicing sortes Biblicae (or Virgilianae or Homericae),” “[w]armth shower[ing] gently over him, cowing his flesh,” finds himself drawn into the smutty scene, ironically a story of a triangle involving a married couple and a male interloper (10.619) (Gifford 272). He buys the book for Molly.

Waiting for her father, Dilly listens to the proceedings of Dillon’s auctionhouse. When Simon arrives, he immediately chastises and mimics his daughter’s posture, and she asks him for money; Simon tries to tell her he doesn’t have any but slowly she gets some out of him (along with a rather coldhearted condemnation of all of his offspring, “[a]n insolent pack of little bitches since [their] poor mother died”) (10.682). Notable in this exchange are Dilly’s embarrassment at her father’s uncouth imitation of her posture (“Give it up father…. All the people are looking at you”) and Simon’s repeated allusions to Jesus—rather, to himself as Jesus (“Stand up straight for the love of the lord Jesus”; “I’ll leave you all where Jesus left the jews”) (10.666, 662, 697-8).

Mr Kernan basks in the afterglow of a business deal completed and relives the pleasantries he exchanged with a Mr. Crimmins, remembering in particular Mr. Crimmins’ suggestion of the preponderance of graft (“palm oil”) in America—here denigrated as “[t]he sweepings of every country including our own” (10.734-5). Kernan attributes his success to his dress and preens himself physically and mentally, his “frocktails wink[ing] in bright sunshine to his fat strut” (10.762-3). Lost in his musings on Irish politics, he just misses the cavalcade.

Stephen walks, registering his perceptions in high literary form. As he watches the lapidary polish his merchandise, “Stephen sees his own poetic work as wresting buried images from the earth” (Blamires 101). He sees himself caught between the “[t]hrob always without” and “the throb always within”—the “‘two roaring worlds’ of inner and outer compulsion”—but determines that he is not yet ready to “[s]hatter them, one and both” (10.822-6) (Blamires 101). He looks through some used books, like Bloom—though the scholar’s books deal with the attainment, rather than the consequences, of female company—and then questions the originality of the physical and intellectual journeys in which he is engaged: “Who has passed here before me?” (10.846). He thinks about “[c]harms and invocations…to all true believers divulged” and seems about to slide into a meditation on belief when Dilly interrupts him (199). She shows Stephen her purchase, an introductory French primer, and he recognizes his responsibility for Dilly’s pathetic aspirations. Overwhelmed by the pathos of the situation, a tormented Stephen nonetheless decides that he cannot stay to save his sister from their familial situation, for “[s]he will drown [him] with her” (10.875-6).

Simon runs across Father Cowley, who is waiting for Ben Dollard to help him call off two debt collectors. When Ben Dollard appears, he throws out the slanderous term “jewman” in response to a jab about his clothing before settling Cowley’s mind by telling him that his previous debts have rendered moot the debt by means of which he is (physically and figuratively) “barricaded” (10.916, 887).

Martin Cunningham discusses the case of Dignam’s son and furnishes a list of those who have agreed to help take care of the boy in the immediate future. John Wyse Nolan, noting Bloom’s contribution already paid in full, quotes “The Merchant of Venice” (“I’ll say there is much kindness in the jew”) with ambiguous intent (10.980). John Fanning, subsherrif, joins their party and incites a brief discussion of Dublin politics, which inspires Jimmy Henry to rant briefly against the “[d]amned Irish language, language of our forefathers” (10.1011-2). The conversation cedes to a reverent stillness when the cavalcade passes slowly, “harness and glossy pasterns in sunlight shimmering” (10.1035).

Buck Mulligan and Haines enter the Dublin Baker Company’s tearoom (where John Howard Parnell, Charles Stewart’s brother, sits playing chess and avoiding his duties as the city marshall) and soon fall into a discussion about Stephen and (what Haines identifies as) his idée fixe, the all-consuming “visions of hell” that secure “his tragedy”; according to his roommates, Stephen “can never be a poet” because his obsession with hell has rendered him unbalanced, too single-minded to bear the “joy of creation” (10.1072-5). (Here is another comparison to Bloom, the “cultured allaroundman.”) Haines wonders whence Stephen obtained this idea, since “[h]e can find no trace of hell in ancient Irish myth” (10.1082). Mulligan jokes that Stephen won’t write a contribution to the Irish movement for another ten years, but Haines, “thoughtfully” and prophetically, says that he “shouldn’t wonder if he did after all” (10.1091-2).

Walking behind Almidano Artifoni and in front of the blind stripling, Cashel Boyle O’Connor Fitzmaurice Tisdall Farrell turns around, pauses to frown at (among other things) “Elijah’s name announced on the Metropolitan hall,” then with his dustcoat unknowingly knocks over the blind stripling’s “slender tapping cane,” inciting an impassioned curse from the latter (10.1109-10, 1116).

Master Patrick Aloysius Dignam, only son of the late Paddy Dignam, dawdles on his trip back from the butcher’s, delaying his return to the “blooming dull” funeral reception that he seems to detest for its empty, ritualistic pretension (10.1125). In a shop window he dwells on an image of two boxers, only briefly noting his doubled reflection, “two mourning Masters Dignam gap[ing] silently” (10.1132-3). He crowds his mind with subjects stereotypical of a schoolboy, pushing down thoughts of death as he pushes down his collar (the “blooming stud…too small for the buttonhole of the shirt, booming end to it”) (10.1156-7). He thinks of his interactions with other schoolboys and the promise of public—and more importantly, peer—recognition of his mourning, and then his pose starts to break; he marks precisely and impassively the concrete perceptions associated with his father’s dead body and coffin, and then he allows himself to work toward the death more abstractly. With pitiful (yet sophisticated) ambivalence he contrasts his last—hugely unflattering—image of his unkempt father “bawling out for his boots” in order to go “boose more” with with his father’s last—heartwrenchingly inarticulate—message: “He told me to be a good son to ma. I couldn’t hear the other things he said but I saw his tongue and his teeth trying to say it better” (10.1170-2). Still, Master Dignam’s attempt to face the grave reality of his situation (“Never see him again. Death, that is. Pa is dead. My father is dead”) cannot overcome a naïve hope about his father’s afterlife (“I hope he’s in purgatory now because he went to confession to Father Conroy on Saturday night”) (10.1169-70, 1172-4).

The cavalcade, traveling to the opening of a hospital fundraiser, is “variously seen by, stared at by, saluted by, ignored by, or missed by” every character in “The Wandering Rocks” (and several who do not appear in the episode), with the notable exceptions of Father Conmee, Bloom, and Stephen (Blamires 105).


The dispassionate third-persona narration of “The Wandering Rocks” introduces myriad possibilities of plot and narration. Though some characters are “rounder” than others—we are given, for example, more of Father Conmee’s thoughts than Corny Kelleker’s—no perspective is privileged above all others and so no character can be rightly termed the protagonist of the episode. The wide variety of interpolations that pepper the sections—some of which linger behind or erupt ahead of their designated sections; some of which have no designated sections—call into question the administration of narrative attention. Furthermore, while some interpolations respect the course of the narrative (c.f. Master Dignam’s appearances in sections IX, XVIII, and XIX), some interrupt its progression simply to rephrase their earlier appearances (“the young woman abruptly bent and with slow care detached from her light skirt a clinging twig” becomes, seven sections later, “The young woman with slow care detached from her light skirt a clinging twig”). Ultimately, Joyce’s narrative attention and syntactical articulation seem arbitrary, if not somewhat careless; his main prerogative seems to be rehearsing possibilities and aggregating potentialities.

The only real structure in “The Wandering Rocks” comes from the complementary journeys that open and close the episode. According to Frank Budgen, “Joyce wrote “The Wandering Rocks” with a map of Dublin before him on which were traced in red ink the paths of the Earl of Dudley and Father Conmee. He calculated to a minute the time necessary for his characters to cover a given distance of the city” (Blamires 93). Joyce charts these first and last sections toward the middle of his episode, returning to Father Conmee in sections II, IV, and XIII and prefacing the viceregal cavalcade in sections IX, XII, and XV, but although the processions overlap in the text, they never meet in the narrative.

As moving boundaries that threaten their intermediary space, the two expeditions resemble the Wandering—or Prowling, or Crashing—Rocks of Circe’s precautionary account. In The Odyssey, only divine intervention ensures safe passage through the Wandering Rocks; as Circe tells Odysseus, “the far-famed/Argo […] would have crashed on the big rocks/if Hêra had not pulled her through, for love/of Iêson, her captain” (XII.86-90). In Ulysses, however, the three interpolations of the “crumpled throwaway, Elijah is coming” (in sections IV, XII, and XVI) obviously draw no notice from the characters.

Joyce’s novel, of course, is no evangelical tract, but while the “hostile environment” of “The Wandering Rocks” is not categorically negative, neither is it categorically positive. Instead, Joyce’s dispassionate narrative seems merely to illustrate the entropy engendered by a lack of guiding belief—the symptom and cause of the modern condition.

As it reminds us of the infinite possibilities and permutations of plot and narration that can be derived from a single hour in a single city, the labyrinth of “The Wandering Rocks” also disavows the necessity—and, arguably, the possibility—of any single linear narrative. The fact that we readers make it through is due to a kind of modernist deus ex machina—the intervention of the artist-demiurge.


Blamires, Harry. The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through ‘Ulysses.’ London: Routledge:

Gifford, Don and Robert J. Seidman. Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses.’ 2nd
ed. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1988.

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Vintage, 1986.

All Yale Modernism Lab in-text citations of Ulysses have been formatted in the following style:

(Episode #.Page#). For example, the opening “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan,” which is on the first line of the first episode of Ulysses, would be cited as (1.1). All citations come from the Hans Walter Gabler edition of the text.