Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1120
Corley: a womanizer about 25 years old
Lenehan: his buddy, approximately the same age
Servant Girl (“Slavey”): whom Corley is dating
The story commences as Corley and Lenehan are walking through Dublin at the end of the workday, discussing Corley’s exploits with women and passing time before Corley’s date. Currently, he is involved with a servant girl (a “slavey”) whom he uses and has sex with but has no intention of marrying. Lenehan enjoys listening but offers little judgment and no stories of his own.
As they pass a club, they hear a harpist on the street playing an Irish folksong to a crowd. Soon thereafter, Corley spots the servant girl, whom Lenehan looks over in appraisal. After the two leave on their date, Lenehan walks aimlessly through the city, eats dinner at a cheap shop, and continues to think about Corley’s exploits and audaciousness with the girl.
Finally, after the time at which they’d agreed to meet, Lenehan spots Corley as he walks the girl home. He sees her enter the house, come out cautiously for a moment, and then return. Lenehan is so overwhelmed with curiosity that he calls out to the now-solitary Corley, who at first doesn’t answer him. Ultimately, Corley smiles and shows Lenehan the gold coin in his hand, which the servant has given to him.
The late addition of this story to Dubliners caused delays in the book’s publication, for Corley’s casual attitude toward sex and the men’s use of profanity (which Joyce agreed to omit) disquieted both the book’s printer and publisher. Joyce remained adamant, however, and the story was included.
The ironic nature of this story is immediately obvious in the title; Corley and Lenehan are not “gallants” but coarse, manipulative figures. Both men are grotesque. Corley is obnoxious and self-centered, staring “as if he were on parade,” concerned only with his ego and physical gratification. Lenehan is a talker but not a doer; his “tongue was tired for he had been talking all afternoon,” but he has no similar stories of womanizing to share with Corley. Rather, he looks up to Corley with wonder throughout the story and in the end is described as Corley’s “disciple.” Whereas Corley is brutish and aggressive in an exaggeratedly macho sense, Lenehan suggests the same extreme in opposite form. His “air of gentility” and ineffectual bearing suggest his emasculated character. His need to follow Corley like a puppy shows us his lack of initiative or ability for independent thought.
Corley delights in the attention of his follower, drawing out for Lenehan tales of his exploits with women, all of which highlight Corley’s lack of humanism (not to mention manners!) and kindness. When he discusses his current prospect, a servant girl whom he terms a “slavey,” he boasts of all he has gotten from her: cigarettes, cigars, and sex. He fears temporarily that she’ll become pregnant, but protects himself by concealing his true identity, which also protects his power in their relationship.
When he later discusses a former girlfriend who is presently “on the turf” (a prostitute), Lenehan suggests that Corley is responsible for the woman’s downfall. Corley—predictably—abdicates responsibility. The juxtaposed images of the prostitute and the current “slavey,” as well as Lenehan’s description of his friend as a “base betrayer,” indicate to the reader the servant girl’s probable fate should she remain loyal to Corley. His power over her is further evidenced by the fact that he always “lets her wait a bit” for their rendezvous.
While still anticipating meeting the slavey, the two men stop before the club on Kildare Street (known in Joyce’s time as an exclusive Anglo-Irish club) to listen to a harpist playing “Silent, O Moyle.” The harp traditionally symbolizes Ireland and the ballad is a folksong about Fionnuala, the Irish daughter of the sea. It is an ironic paradox that these two powerful Irish symbols are employed to solicit spare change on a street corner in front of an Anglo-Irish club. Significant too is the author’s description and personification of the harp itself: “[h]eedless that her coverings had fallen about her knees” and “weary of the eyes of stranger.” The harp, like the servant girl friend of Corley, are both being prostituted for insignificant reward; both are “weary” and accustomed to careless treatment. As A. Walton Litz points out, the slavey and the harp “represent Ireland’s contemporary subjugation,” the former by Corley, the latter by England (375).
This point is furthered when Lenehan later looks over the slavey just as the passersby glance heedlessly at the harpist on the corner. The girl, dressed in “Sunday finery” of blue and white, wears the traditional colors of the Virgin Mary, but the “contented leer” of her smile and Corley’s graphic assessment of her guarantee to the reader that she does not represent Catholic Ireland’s purity.
After Corley departs, Lenehan’s energy leaves him; his face looks older and his spirits darken. More thoughtful than Corley, Lenehan senses that the aimless wandering through Dublin streets and meaningless exchanges with women won’t fulfill him. His vision of Corley seducing the slavey makes Lenehan “feel keenly his own poverty of purse and spirit,” but he does not understand that following Corley is an unsuitable—ultimately unsatisfying—preoccupation for him.
Lenehan is obsessed over Corley’s success with the girl, so much so that the reader believes Lenehan to be gaining vicarious pleasure (perhaps even erotic pleasure) from his imaginings. Repeatedly, he wonders “had Corley managed it successfully,” experiencing “all the pangs and thrills of his friend’s situation.” The reader undoubtedly believes that Corley is attempting to have sex with the slavey, yet his earlier concern with her potential pregnancy leads us to believe that they have already consummated the affair.
Lenehan is so excited to see Corley at the evening’s end that he can hardly contain himself—so anxious is he to know the ¬outcome. The reader, too, wants to know the extent of Corley’s success. Like the arrogant brute he is, though, Corley keeps Lenehan and the reader waiting for his answer, and at the very last minute pompously shows his “disciple” (and us) the gold coin that the slavey has stolen for him.
That the girl debases herself both in stealing and in paying for Corley’s affection brings the theme back to Ireland’s degradation, for the slavey represents the Irish peasant who is exploited in her attempt to eke out a satisfactory life for herself. Corley profits from her weakness and needs; Lenehan—weaker and less cunning than Corley—looks on admiringly.
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