Given 35 pages, how could you represent the movements and experiences of over a dozen different characters all acting simultaneously? In "The Wandering Rocks," we get Joyce's extraordinary attempt to do so. The nineteen sections in the Episode are woven carefully together so that one character often appears briefly in another character's section. Just think for a moment about getting a map of Dublin and charting the different paths of all these characters and marking the points where they meet or catch a glimpse of each other. That's what Joyce is pulling off here with his "simultaneous action."
Now aside from just being a cool literary trick, the chapter also allows us to get a quick overview of the Dublin cityscape. Our central characters, Leopold, Stephen, and Molly, are put in the context of a much larger population. We already know that the narrator in Ulysses is an omniscient one, but rarely does an omniscient narrator go to such lengths to demonstrate just how much he knows. The episode begins and ends with longer sections and the middle consists of a number of brief vignettes.
First, at Martin Cunningham's request, Father John Conmee walks to a local Jesuit school in an attempt to get Patrick Dignam's son free admission there. Several of the characters that he briefly sees or thinks of appear in their own sections later in the episode. Then the last section of the episode traces the path of the viceregal cavalcade on its way from Phoenix Park to the Mirus Charity Bazaar. As Earl and Lady Dudley wave and salute the people of Dublin, we see everyone from the previous sections one last time.
It's interesting to note that there isn't actually a "Wandering Rocks" episode in the Odyssey. Circe warns Odysseus that no man has ever passed through the rocks alive and thus advises him to pass between Scylla and Charybdis. It's almost as if Joyce, in his creative ebullience, refuses to take Circe's advice. For a section, he forfeits a central character, and as a result it seems as if there is no captain directing the ship. Instead we get these vignettes with only brief bits of the characters' thoughts. For the most part, what we get are movements and actions. Though on a line-by-line level this episode is easier than most, it's also a dangerous one for a reader that has been trained to focus in on one or two central characters and one single line of coherent action. This chapter forces us to read differently than we are used to, to constantly re-focus as we shift from one character and location to the next.
A lot of the action here might seem trivial. There's a section dedicated to Corny Kelleher hanging out in his doorway and watching a man beg. There's another section dedicated to the daydreams of Boylan's secretary, and another focused on Martin Cunningham's collection for Dignam's son. But the seeming triviality is part of the point: these are the ordinary actions of people on the afternoon of June 16, 1904. Cumulatively, they give us a strong sense that this novel is a taking place in a real city full of real people. To contrast these sections, there are also a number of extremely poignant moments mixed in, such as when we see young Patrick Dignam carrying his porksteaks and remembering the last time he saw his father: drunk and about to go back out to the bar.
For the first time, we also get a glimpse of Stephen's family situation. His sisters are living in abject poverty, reliant on donations from Sister Mary Patrick. They are busy pawning off old books (many of which are Stephen's) in an attempt to raise some money. Meanwhile, their father, Simon, is busy wandering around the city making small talk and getting drunk. He only gives up his money to Dilly grudgingly and thinks that his daughters are "an insolent pack of little bitches" (10.398). The encounter gives us a bit more insight into why Stephen might feel estranged from his father. Yet the fact of the matter is that when Stephen runs into Dilly at the bookcart later in the chapter, he makes a similar decision. Stephen is torn between sympathy for his sisters and fear of ending up in the same situation. It almost seems as if his remorse over his mother begins to merge with his guilt for not helping Dilly. All the same, though, he's going to spend the money he has made from teaching to get drunk.
We also get a brief glimpse of Bloom in the chapter, though for the first time as much of the episode is dedicated to Boylan as is to Bloom. The biggest contrast between the two is between Bloom's sexual timidity and the very forward Boylan. Whereas Boylan steals a glance down the shirt of the shopgirl in Thornton's and flirts with her shamelessly, Bloom is busy trying to pick out an erotic novel for his wife Molly. As Bloom pages through Sweets of Sin, he begins to fantasize that the woman in the book is Molly and that she is lusting after him. As in his letters to Martha Clifford, his sexual experience only takes place in fantasy. Interestingly, words themselves – in letters and books – become the place where Bloom acts out his libido. For Boylan, by contrast, there is little difference between fantasy and reality.