Counterparts: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1048

New Characters:
Farrington: Forty-ish clerk and alcoholic

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Mr. Alleyne: Farrington’s boss

Weathers: an English entertainer whom Farrington meets in a pub

Several of Farrington’s Drinking Companions

When the story begins, Farrington, an alcoholic administrator in a law office, is enduring the chastisement of his boss, Mr. Alleyne, for his shabby work. Diving into a pub for a drink to calm his anger, Farrington returns to the office even more muddled than before and makes several more errors in his work. When Alleyne rebukes him, this time in front of a client, Farrington responds insultingly, and the boss nearly goes wild with anger.

Later, Farrington retreats to a bar with his friends. When he re-tells the scene during which he insulted his boss, Farrington grows obviously more proud of his wit, and the small party of men drinks in celebration. Weathers, a British performer, joins their crowd and allows several of the men to buy him a round of drinks without offering to buy one himself. This annoys Farrington, as money is tight and the Londoner orders expensive drinks. Later, when his friends suggest he arm wrestle with Weathers, Farrington is further annoyed when the performer beats him twice.

Furious that he’s out of money and liquor and has been humiliated by a stranger, Farrington returns home in a foul mood. After his young son tells him that his mother has left to attend an evening mass, Farrington unleashes all of his anger on the child and beats him violently.

The counterparts in this story are many and transcend the borders of the story itself. Farrington, like Little Chandler, is frustrated in his job and embittered in his marriage. Like Little, Farrington is condescended to (by his boss) and feels trapped by his life circumstances. Little’s wife demoralizes him, whereas in “Counterparts” Farrington’s boss treats him like an ineffectual non-entity. The endings of the two stories present unsettling parallels as well. Both show us fathers whose family life is out of control, and both end with a child (the son) in tears. However, in “Counterparts,” Farrington has actively brought about his son’s tears by beating him, and this represents an essential difference between Farrington and Little Chandler.

Unlike Little, Farrington is loathsome, not pathetic: an irresponsible alcoholic whose work and family suffer because of his volcanic temper and self-abuse. In his dealings with the egg-headed Mr. Alleyne, Farrington’s self-respect is so diminished that his anger wells up at the very sound of Alleyne’s voice. Significantly, Alleyne possesses a “Piercing North of Ireland accent” (suggesting he is Protestant and a British sympathizer). This polarity between the Catholic Farrington and his Protestant boss heightens their animosity. It also sets up the most important counterpart relationship in the story: that between (Protestant) Britain and (Catholic) Ireland.

Having scurried out of his office for a furtive drink, Farrington cannot concentrate on his work, makes even more mistakes, and brings Alleyne’s growing wrath down upon him once again. When Alleyne insults and yells at him, Farrington—his tongue loosened by alcohol—responds with an insulting and surprisingly witty remark. Farrington feels emboldened by this “victory” over the boss, but cannot grasp that angering Alleyne will only engender more troubles for him. This, too, resembles Ireland’s situation with the British: minor, trivial victories against the Empire would not gain meaningful freedom, just more abuse.

Reliving the incident with his friends in a pub makes Farrington feel like a man—not a groveling office boy—for the first time in the narrative, but only temporarily and only when he’s drinking. This signifies to us the meager sense of self that Farrington actually possesses. When the British artiste Weathers joins the drinking men, Farrington is obliged to buy a round of drinks, but does so grudgingly; he feels immediate antipathy toward Weathers. This dislike is heightened by Weathers’ ordering of expensive drinks (whiskey mixed with Appolinaris water) and by the entertainer’s annoying refusal to reciprocate and buy drinks for the group of Irish men. It’s important to remember that Farrington had to pawn his watch to pay for his desired alcohol; Weathers now takes advantage of him financially, only irritating him further.

This exchange also has political resonance, as once again the English element, represented by Weathers, exploits the poorer nation of Ireland, represented by Farrington, who can ill-afford such treatment. Indeed, when Weathers complains that their “hospitality was too Irish,” he does so unconvincingly, since he willingly partakes of this generosity.

Finally, Farrington’s drunken friends call upon him to “uphold the national honor” and arm wrestle with Weathers. The contest is seen jokingly as England versus Ireland, but once again, the political symbolism is profound. Weathers—thin and pallid—beats Farrington by cheating and Farrington feels humiliated at losing to “such a stripling.” Time and again, the Irish of Joyce’s time were defeated and humiliated by the British, often—Joyce believed—unfairly. Like the Irish, Farrington has no recourse and must suffer the sting of defeat, even though he has gone broke buying drinks for the man.

“Full of smoldering anger and revengefulness,” Farrington returns home, still wanting to drink himself into a stupor to forget the two humiliations of his day. Even his wife, Joyce tells us, bullies—her husband whether he is drunk or sober. Like little Chandler, Farrington is trapped in an untenable life. When his son tells him Ada is at church, Farrington feels even more bereft of support and angry at his circumstances. Thus it shouldn’t surprise the reader that Farrington lashes out at the only character in the story more helpless than he: his little boy.

As Farrington beats the child without reason, the boy falls to his knees in a manner of supplication and prayer, but even this won’t deter his father from unleashing a full day’s worth of anger upon him. The frightened boy begs him to stop, attempting to assuage his fury by offering to pray for him, but this appeal is meaningless to Farrington. In the face of degradation such as that which Farrington has endured, Joyce tells us, the contrivances of Irish Catholicism are useless, as ineffectual as the boy’s helpless pleas for mercy.

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