We’ve been getting a lot of context for Mulligan and Stephen’s relationship over the last few pages, a lot of backstory. Here we get a clearer picture of what their relationship is like in the present. Stephen has a job, and he’s getting paid. More to the point, Mulligan thinks he has figured out a way to pimp out Stephen’s epigrammatic talent. And Stephen thinks of himself as the “server of a servant.”
Stephen’s feelings are very familiar to anyone who’s had a careless roomate–do I clean up after this jerk? or leave the bowl where it is?–but Mulligan’s class card has already been played, and it means more to Stephen than just bad manners. It’s also a compact way of bringing Stephen’s role as Telemachus back into view: the suitors are making a mess and taking his money, and there’s nothing he can do about it.
About the money–we’ll shortly learn that Stephen is paid a bit less than four pounds, or “quid” on this day. While it doesn’t sound like much, it’s not a trivial amount of money. Think about it this way–you could buy a pint of beer for 2 pennies, or pence, in Dublin in 1904. There are 240 pence in 1 old-style pound. You could therefore buy 120 pints with a quid. A pint of beer in our fair city of Philadelphia in 2008 will set you back anywhere from 2-6 bucks–let’s say $4. So using beer as our point of reference, a 1904 pound in contemporary US dollars would be about $480. Now, economists and other sticklers among you will remind me that the price of beer was kept artificially low in Dublin at this time, and that it’s a lousy basis for conversion… but if you take as a basic rule of thumb that 1p is very roughly equal to $1 in contemporary dollars, you’ll be close. Mulligan is asking for a rather large amount of money.