The central conflict in this story is that of imagination versus reality. In it, a young adolescent boy longs for a richer, more satisfying life than the one he leads in Dublin in a dark house at end of a "blind" alley. The imagery surrounding his life is dull and monotonous: we learn of "decent" lived within houses that have "brown imperturbable faces."
The boy finds an imaginative alternative to the dingy, rainy, cold environment he lives in when he develops a crush on his friend Mangan's older sister. She seems beautiful to him with her "soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side."
The boy dreams of her and blots out his everyday world thinking about her. As he wraps his imagination around her he is:
thankful that I could see so little. All my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves and, feeling that I was about to slip from them, I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring: 'O love! O love!' many times.
When the girl mentions wanting to go to the bazaar but not being able to, the bazaar and the girl conflate or merge in the boy's mind. They both become objects of desire. They seem apart from his dull, mundane world. Instead, they are tinged with exotic and beautiful colorings by his longings.
He decides he will go to the bazaar and bring Mangan's sister a gift. But his drunken uncle lets him down by coming home so late that the boy doesn't get to the bazaar until it is closing. What he sees is dusty and shoddy and no different from the Dublin life he wanted to escape. At the end of the story, his epiphany or realization is that he can't exchange reality for the exotic world he has imagined, because that exotic world doesn't exist for him. Because of this, his eyes burn "with anguish and anger."