An Encounter: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1274

New Characters:
Narrator: boy, 8–9 years old

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Mahoney: school friend of the narrator

Leo Dillon: school friend of the narrator

Joe Dillon: Leo’s brother

Older Man in Field: quite likely a sexual pervert

The narrator of this story is once again a boy around eight or nine years old (possibly the same boy as in the previous story, but not specified), who loves reading stories of the Wild West and American detective tales. Although he acts out some of these western adventures with his friends, he feels stifled by both these childish games and school. With his two friends, Leo Dillon and Mahoney, the narrator plans to skip school for one day and have a real adventure in Dublin. Each puts in a sixpence to fund the adventure and they agree to meet in the morning.

When Leo Dillon fails to show up (presumably out of cowardice), Mahoney decides that he has forfeited his sixpence and the two split the extra money. They wander the quays and buy snacks, but the boys feel vaguely dissatisfied with their escapade. As the time for their return home draws nearer, they sit aimlessly in a field while Mahoney tries to slingshot a cat.

An older, dishevelled-looking man approaches them and begins to make conversation, asking them about school, books, and girlfriends. Though bored, they respond politely, but the narrator is made uneasy by the man, while Mahoney more or less disregards him. After the conversation turns back to school children, the older man excuses himself and retreats to the edge of the field where Mahoney spots him either urinating or masturbating (written in 1905, the story would not have been published if the act had been more carefully described). Mahoney sees him in the act, but the narrator doesn’t look up, even when Mahoney speaks out in alarm. The narrator then suggests that if the older man asks their names, they give him aliases.

After he returns to the narrator, the older man speaks even more animatedly about boys and their proper punishments, and the narrator makes up his mind to leave. Calling out to his friend (using the alias), the narrator is greatly relieved when the friend responds, even though he admits to the reader that he’s never liked Mahoney very much.

The narrator of this story, possibly the same narrator as in the previous story, seeks a life of adventure and fulfillment; he looks westward, at the Wild West, realizing that “real adventures do not happen to those who remain at home.” James Joyce realized this in his own life and fled Ireland, but the narrator—too young to flee—seeks adventure through the imagination and through literature, which “opened doors of escape” from his dreary schoolboy life. Still, detective stories and westerns can’t sate his desire for experience, and he longs for an event that goes beyond play-acting and stories.

Stanislaus Joyce writes in his memoir that his brother based this story loosely on a day in their youth when the boys skipped school and met an elderly eccentric in their wanderings (62). However, the story resonates far beyond a day’s “miching.” The suggestion of perversion, following on the previous story, darkens the theme of “The Sisters” and augments the vulnerability of this story’s narrator.

The other key theme in “An Encounter” is that of deception and betrayal, which pervades virtually every element in the story and many others throughout Dubliners.

In order to experience “real adventure,” the narrator, Leo Dillon, and Mahoney must deceive the school as well as their families. To secure the plot, the boys each pledge a sixpence; Leo Dillon, however, is too nervous to follow through with the plot and therefore forfeits his money. The narrator sees the forfeiture as somehow unfair to their friend, but Mahoney justifies it without troubling his conscience. Earlier, the narrator comments that “the confused puffy face awakened one of my consciences.” Again, the specter of Leo Dillon troubles the narrator—he knows the act is unfair—but he’s persuaded to overlook his own instinct by his more ruthless companion.

Most of the boys’ actions in the story are predictable: a visit to the quays to look at ships signifies their desire to see the world, to escape. They buy a snack and wander, but the narrator comments twice on how tired they are; the two are worn out by the futility of their quest for adventure. It’s obvious to them (and the reader) that their goals were unrealistic, and Mahoney looks ruefully at his slingshot (the closest thing to conquest that either of them can muster).

Ironically, just as they abandon the likelihood for excitement, something unusual does happen to them when approached by the elderly gentleman. At first, his conversation seems banal; Mahoney is more interested in his slingshot than wary of the man. The narrator examines him more closely, though, noticing the “great gaps in his mouth between his yellow teeth.” This may remind the reader of Joyce’s description of Father Flynn, or just indicate that the man has an unsavory element to him. The narrator also feels an unease with “the words in his mouth,” though most of his conversation seems harmless, even meaningless.

Like his demeanor, the man’s conversation is also innocuous at first, discussing happy school days. His comments on Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a nineteenth century romantic writer, causes the narrator to scrutinize him further, since some of the author’s writings were considered risque in Victorian society. Once again, however, Mahoney fails to see the signs and the narrator doesn’t communicate his thoughts to him.

As the older man’s conversation progresses, the intensity of his thoughts about school children increases, discussing the soft skin and hair of young girls, repeating his phrases over and over, “surrounding them with his monotonous voice.” The narrator hears something alarming in the man’s tone, noticing that he spoke “mysteriously as if he were telling us something secret which he did not wish others to overhear.” As in the first story, the man makes a confession to the boy, almost seeking approval for his words. This, too, is a perversion, since children customarily seek approval from adults.

When Mahoney notices the man after he briefly excuses himself, it’s unclear whether the latter is urinating or masturbating. In 1905, Joyce could never have indicated or specified either act, but Mahoney labels him correctly: “He’s a queer old josser!”

The extent of the older man’s perversions becomes most clear immediately after this act, when he speaks heatedly about the “nice warm whipping” that some boys deserve, indicating that “there was nothing in the world he would like so well” as to administer such a punishment. In listening, the narrator acts as a kind of collaborator and confessor, since his willingness to listen makes the speaker believe that he might gain understanding from him. In this, the narrator betrays not only his instincts—which tell him to flee—but the man as well, since the boy cannot and does not understand the man’s depraved need.

Sensing danger, the boy rises, feigning politeness, and with embarrassment calls out to Mahoney with the alias he’d previously arranged for this situation. Although he feels silly for this “paltry stratagem,” the boy is enormously relieved when Mahoney runs toward him, as if to his rescue. To the reader, though, the narrator admits his feelings of guilt, since he actually despises Mahoney for his rude and somewhat violent behavior. This represents the story’s final act of betrayal as their adventure draws to a close.

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