A Little Cloud: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1250

New Characters:
Little Chandler: Thirty-ish clerk and amateur poet

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Ignatius Gallaher: Little Chandler’s school friend, now a journalist living in London

Little’s Wife (Annie) and Baby Son

Little Chandler, a 30-year-old legal clerk, is anticipating his evening meeting with Ignatius Gallaher, a friend from his youth. In the eight years since they’ve seen each other, Gallaher has moved to London to become a journalist, a situation which both impresses Little and makes him envious. He covets Gallaher’s freedom to travel as well as his career as a writer. As he prepares for their meeting, Little allows himself to hope that Gallaher might be able to help him launch a literary career as a poet, perhaps even outside of Dublin.

Gallaher, however, talks mostly about himself—not about Little’s literary ambitions—and Chandler finds his manner slightly vulgar, especially when discussing the immorality that abounds abroad. After several more drinks than Little’s customary number, they discuss Little’s wife and baby son. Although Gallaher congratulates him he swears that he would never marry and, at the end of their last drink, patronizes the entire notion of marriage.

When Chandler returns home he argues with his wife about a petty complaint and she leaves him with the baby to run an errand. Alone with his son, Chandler begins to resent and regret the different elements of his life that he believes are holding him back. As Little reads poetry and considers the likelihood of a career as a writer, his child wakes up screaming and cannot be comforted. His wife returns, furious that Little has disturbed the child. As she comforts the baby, Little’s own eyes begin to fill with tears.

Joyce drew the title for this story from I Kings 18:44. The prophet Elijah, having defeated false prophets and returned his people to the Lord, announces that the end of a long drought is at hand: “there ariseth a little cloud out of the sea, like a man’s hand.” The long drought of Little Chandler’s life and career, however, shows no sign of ending in the story.

Throughout the story, Thomas Chandler is described in infantile terms, highlighting for the reader his ineffectual presence. He is “fragile,” his voice “quiet,” and he has “childish white teeth.” His nickname, of course, articulates his overly-boyish qualities, as do the author’s descriptions of his “infant hope” and adolescent shyness both with Gallaher and his wife.

Little dreams of being a poet, but even his dreams are unassuming: “If he could give expression to it in a book of poems perhaps men would listen,” he thinks, and longs to establish a “little circle of kindred minds.” (emphasis added) It’s clear to the reader that Little has dim hopes of taking the literary world by storm; the author tells us that “he was not sure what idea he wished to express” with his writing, and his career as a poet (and the poems themselves) are sketchily conceived. His reading of Byron at the story’s end and his longing to “write like that” are absurd given his nature; Byron’s romantic and daring persona represent the complete antithesis of Little’s juvenile character and bearing.

When we meet at last the highly-anticipated Ignatius Gallaher, we can see immediately that he offers no hope in amending Little’s dilemma. Crude, unhealthy-looking, and boorish, Gallaher seems to have returned to “dear dirty Dublin” merely to patronize the city and brag to his awestruck friends. Gallaher is portrayed as a non-believer and drunkard. When Little questions him timidly about the immoral nature of Paris, Gallaher makes a “catholic gesture with his right arm,” as if blessing the tawdriness found on the continent. Gallaher also encourages Little to “liquor up” beyond his ability, and Little—in an attempt to impress Gallaher with his manliness—drinks beyond his measure. For his part, Gallaher is described by Joyce as “emerging from clouds of smoke.” His discussion of his journalist’s life in Europe is full of allusions to alcohol: “it’s a rum world,” he tells Little. “Talk of immorality! I’ve heard of cases—what am I saying?—I’ve known them: cases of…immorality.” (emphasis added)

While at first Little is overwhelmed by Gallaher’s experience, he finds himself justifiably “disillusioned” with his friend and finds in his manner “something vulgar […] which he had not observed before.” He also finally sees—long after the reader has noticed it—that Gallaher is “patronizing [Little] by his friendliness just as he was patronizing Ireland by his visit.” Gallaher obviously visits Dublin to crow among his friends and feel superior, but Gallaher’s unbridled bitterness towards life and his drinking indicate his own dissatisfaction with himself. Although Gallaher boasts of financial opportunities with women and attempts to glamorize the sinfulness of the continent, the reader—and even Little himself—sees through this pretense.

When Gallaher denigrates the idea of marriage, Little initially defends the practice, but later has no response, as he begins to agree with Gallaher’s crude that it “must get a bit stale” over time. Having had too many drinks, Little worries that he has “betrayed himself” regarding his own unhappiness, yet threatens Gallaher by telling him: “You’ll put your head in the sack…like everyone else.”

Returning home to his wife, Annie, Little cannot stop re-playing his meeting with his former friend and the bitterness it inspired within him. Considering the differences between their temperaments, Little questions why Gallaher has received the lucky breaks and not he. “What is it that stood in his way?” he asks himself, answering immediately and correctly: “His unfortunate timidity!” Diagnosing that the problem lies within himself, Little grows even more frustrated with his life, since he recognizes that he has trapped himself with his “pretty” wife and furniture—neither of which continue to satisfy. When he considers escaping to London, he immediately becomes bogged down by obligations and worries about bill payments for the furniture, demonstrating his inability to imagine himself in a more fulfilling life. As he attempts unsuccessfully to read and calm the child simultaneously, Little’s thoughts sum up his futility: “He couldn’t read. He couldn’t do anything….He was a prisoner for life.”

Little’s baby boy is an ironic comment on his own lack of maturity. Since Little has been described throughout the story as infantile, it seems almost impossible that he can adequately fulfill a father’s role. Indeed, Little has obvious trouble in this capacity, since he cannot comfort his child and fears that his own incompetency may bring about its death.

When Annie rushes in, she shrieks at Little for his paltry skills, and he responds by stammering excuses like a terrified schoolboy. He can control neither the child’s sobbing, nor his wife’s temper, nor his own life.

Annie soothes her son, calling him a “little man” and speaking babytalk. Ironically, her husband is a little man whose marriage to an emasculating woman has even further diminished his ability and confidence. The author hints that Annie’s suffocating love for the boy may turn him into a grown-up child like his father. Finally, at the story’s end, we see how Annie’s love has quieted the baby, but her resentment of Little—and his overwhelming despair at his situation—brings child-like tears to his own eyes, and the two males in the narrative have ironically reversed situations.

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