In the last few episodes, we've been focusing a great deal on character development. Here, let's put our eye on the theme of the chapter. Namely: pumped up rhetoric and the chaos of the media world.
"Aeolus" has the first visually jarring stylistic change-up in the book: the insertion of newspaper headlines throughout the chapter. There are a number of different ways to think about what these headlines are doing here. As we keep saying, style is something that is extremely flexible in Ulysses. The way that Joyce writes incorporates the moods and emotions of his characters as well as the current setting. It's not too hard to imagine the free-associating Mr. Bloom imagining everything that goes on in the newspaper office in terms of headlines, but that's not quite what's going on here. The headlines are coming from outside the context of the scene. We're being made aware of the narrator of the story, and of the fact that the book is aware of itself as a book. Whoever is telling this story acknowledges that it is being written, and this acknowledgment of the written form allows the narrator to toy with the form as he sees fit.
There's another way one might think of these headlines. Normally, when we wander down to breakfast to read the paper, we think of headlines as something quite separate form our lives. The newspaper is telling us: "This is what's going on in the world today. Listen up." We think of the news as something external, something that happens to us, something out there. The waythat the headlines in "Aeolus" pick up on little bits of speech between the men in the newspaper office and puts words to minor events emphasizes the fact that the news is pulled from everyday experiences. It is tied into human lives, not disconnected from them. In other words, the news records what's going on in the world; it does not dictate it.
Now, in the Odyssey, Aeolus is the god of the winds. He first agrees to help Odysseus make his way home by harnessing all of the winds and putting them into a bag for Odysseus to keep while he sails home. Yet Odysseus's crew, thinking that the bag must be full of treasure, opens it and the winds are released. They are blown all about and eventually end up back at Aeolus's island. This time he isn't so ready to help Odysseus.
Here, the winds are compared to the rhetoric of the journalism world: speech just being blown this way and that without really being controlled or carefully crafted. In the back offices of the paper, the men banter and recall great journalists and orators of the past. But speech just floats about in the chapter. Many stories hang open-ended. We often move from one conversation to another without much warning or indication. Each person's words are overblown and largely directionless. Bloom is one of the only men there who seems to be focused upon a specific task – renewing Keyes's ad – but his attempts are thwarted. Crawford, eager to hurry over to the bar, tells Bloom that Keyes can "Kiss his Royal Irish Arse."
As the cast of minor characters continues to widen, we also get more of a sense of the overall atmosphere of Dublin. We learn that Myles Crawford is something of a drunk; we see that for all his erudition professor MacHugh isn't exactly set on accomplishing much; we are introduced to J.J. O'Molloy who once was a promising lawyer but now has fallen on hard times and needs a loan. As in Dubliners, we get a sense of Dublin as a stifling place, one that is quick to knock men's ambitions flat. And the solution here is often: go to the pub.
The chapter also brings our two major characters, Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, into early glancing contact. Stephen Dedalus enters while Bloom is across the street trying to track down Keyes. Then Bloom returns just as Stephen and the rest of the men are headed out to the pub. Bloom observes Dedalus as "a moving spirit" and it is clear that he is attentive to him as he notices that he has put on new boots. Stephen, in contrast, doesn't even acknowledge Bloom. Stephen's in his element; Bloom is not. The newspapermen dote on Stephen. Crawford agrees to publish Deasy's letter because it came from Stephen, and offers him a job at the paper. Bloom, by contrast, is constantly slighted by other men in the office and remains aloof, left to observe them as they all go off drinking together.
What's the deal with "The Parable of the Plums?" Stephen tells a bizarre story about these two old Irish virgins climbing up to the top of Nelson's pillar, having a picnic on top and throwing their plum seeds down to Dublin. First, note that Lord Nelson was a British Flag Officer famous for his participation in the Battle of Trafalgar. He later became famously embroiled in an affair with the wife of the British Minister to Naples. In Joyce's time, there was much controversy over the pillar in the center of O'Connell street that had been set up to commemorate Nelson. Part of the controversy was related to the fact that there was a statue honoring a British officer in the center of Dublin when many people in the city wanted nothing more than to be free of their British oppressors. On a simpler level, people thought that it was ugly and that it blocked traffic (this controversy was settled later, in 1966, when some IRA men blew up the pillar; today the Spire of Dublin stands in its place).
Now, in Stephen's parable, these two older women who have never given birth to anyone hike up the top of this British monument and sit admiring Dublin. They eat their plums and then throw down the seeds. On one level, Stephen is comparing Dublin (namely, an independent Dublin) to the Promised Land in the Old Testament. But, in his version, the people looking out on the Promised Land are looking out on it from a British monument. Everything seems barren, infertile, unpromising; the old women eat their plums, but then toss the desiccated seeds down into the street. In short, optimism is not running high in Dublin.