A literary man who is well-educated, Gabriel Conroy is the guest speaker for his two aunts at the Christmas party. When he arrives, he teases that his wife takes three hours to ready herself; then when he talks with the maid, Lily, he smiles "at the three syllables she had given his surname as he glances at her. In a condescending manner, he presses money into her hand "for Christmastime." But, he is still stinging from her sharp reply about the young men when he suggested that her wedding would be soon.
Again, Gabriel condescends to his audience as, having previously thought about reciting Robert Browning, he decides that his audience may not understand. That Gabriel feels he is less provincial than others is evinced in his desire to travel absorb European as well as Irish culture. When Miss Ivors calls him a "West Briton," however, he is annoyed. Later at the table, he becomes self-absorbed, uninterested in the idle conversation of the others; tapping the cold pane of a window, he muses,
How cool it must be outside! How pleasant it would be to walk out alone, first along by the river and then through the park! The snow would be lying on the branches of the trees and forming a bright cap on the top of the Wellington Monument. How much more pleasant it would be there than at the supper table!
As he goes over his speech, he repeats a phrase he had written in a review: "One feels that one is listening to a thought-tormented music." He wonders if Miss Ivors were sincere when she praised it, and he is nervous to think she will watch him as he speaks on this night; maybe she will be glad if he fails. So, in retaliation, Gabriel thinks of how he can praise his aunts. But, Miss Ivors leaves before his speech. Nevertheless, her departure gives Gabriel more courage, and he begins. Ironically, he describes the time in which they live "a thought-tormented age." He continues,
...I fear that this new generation, educated or hypereducated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humour which belonged to an older day.
It is not until Gabriel hears Mr. D'Arcy singing and his wife standly quietly as she listens that he is aware of how his wife appears frail, and "Moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory," and Gabriel imagines their lovemaking that night. So, after they arrive at the hotel, Gabriel removes his coat and looks down into the street in order to calm the emotion racing through him. Turning to her, Gabriel sees has been crying; when Gretta tells him that she has cried over Michael Furey who died for loving her, Gabriel is angry, embarrassed that his passion has not been returned. In addition, he does not want his wife to think that he is interested in this old lover to whom she has been comparing him. In an epiphany, a "thought-tormented time,"
He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiabe fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror.
Yet, as the story of Gretta's lover makes Gabriel realize they are all becoming "shades," his condescension to her is replaced by an admiration, for she has experienced true romantic love. However, his understanding is still partial, and as he watches the snow, he ponders his journey west, a direction symbolic of death, and potential paralysis.