This story begins one way and ends another. The shifting nature of the story is balanced by the shifting perception of the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy, a teacher who wants to be considered a writer, though his writing seems to be confined to journalism. The opening exposition suggests that the story mainly will concern a social event, “the Misses Morkan’s annual dance,” held during the Christmas season, at which the Morkans’ favorite nephew, Gabriel, and his wife, Gretta, are significant guests because Gabriel serves as master of ceremonies. The impact of the story, however, comes much later, after Gabriel has left the party and is confronted with new information about his wife and her past.
The cast of characters at the Morkan house is large and representative of many Irish stereotypes: the Morkan sisters, Kate and Julia, who are musically inclined spinsters; their musical niece, Mary Jane; and other assorted characters, ranging from Miss Molly Ivors, the Irish nationalist, to Freddy Malins, whose sobriety is a matter of continuing concern. On his arrival, however, Gabriel is defined as the focal character, a man who is a little too proud of his education and sophistication, foolishly smug and superior, but aware nevertheless of his social awkwardness. Gabriel is expected to perform as an after-dinner speaker and is condescending in his assessment of his audience. Gabriel is destined, however, to learn a lesson in humility before the story is over.
Gabriel Conroy is bored by his country, his relatives, and his colleagues and their provincial ways. Molly Ivors criticizes him for his lack of interest in Irish politics, for writing for The Daily Express (the slant is “West Briton” rather than properly Irish, she asserts), and for his preference for traveling to France and Belgium rather than to the native Aran Islands, a focal point for Irish nationalism. In response to these charges, Gabriel embarrasses himself by telling her that he is “sick” of his own country. Molly Ivors is so upset by his bluntness that she leaves the dance before dinner is served. Gabriel knows that he is responsible for her “abrupt departure.” Joyce provides ample evidence that Gabriel is insensitive and cannot control his rudeness. In his own way he is a social misfit, offending people without intending to offend them.
Gabriel gets through his hypocritical after-dinner address without apparently offending anyone, extolling the virtues of traditional “warmhearted courteous Irish hospitality,” flattering “the Three Graces of the Dublin musical world,” Kate, Julia, and Mary Jane, and then toasting them. As the party is breaking up, Gabriel notices his wife, standing on the stairs, listening in rapt attention as Bartell D’Arcy, accompanied by Miss O’Callaghan at the piano, sings a traditional Irish air, “The Lass of Aughrim.” Gabriel romanticizes the moment and imagines his wife to be the subject of a painting that he would entitle “Distant Music.” His blood is warmed by her shining eyes and the color in her cheeks.
Gabriel remembers the intimate moments of their courtship, and the spark of romance kindled in him by Gretta begins to flame. He then takes his wife to a hotel, feeling “that they had escaped from their lives and duties, escaped from home and friends and run away together with wild and radiant hearts to a new adventure.” Little does he know. The problem is that Gabriel does not understand his wife’s emotional state, for hearing “The Lass of Aughrim” has reminded her of a boy she had known and loved in Galway, Michael Furey, who, at the age of seventeen, died of a broken heart when Gretta left Galway to come to Dublin.
Learning of the dead Michael Furey causes Gabriel to reassess his relationship with his wife, his own petty vanity, and his self-image. The result is frustration and disappointment. He is forced to realize that his wife experienced a deeply felt romantic loss that had nothing at all to do with him. Gabriel aspires to be a writer, but he has failed to know and understand the person with whom he is most intimate. This is the subjective epiphany that provides the ironic reversal that Joyce uses to conclude the story. Gabriel is finally forced to realize that he has “never felt like that himself towards any women,” that he himself is incomplete and unfulfilled; his illusions about himself are destroyed; the truth he discovers is painful.