Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 784
“Two Gallants” sets up a series of expectations that are violated and reversed at the end of the story. First, the title suggests a world of gallantry, romance, and perhaps a doubling of lovers similar to a Shakespearean comedy. This expectation is reinforced by the narrator’s description of the place and mood:The streets, shuttered for the repose of Sunday, swarmed with a gaily coloured crowd. Like illumined pearls the lamps shone from the summits of their tall poles on the living texture below which, changing shape and hue unceasingly, sent up into the warm grey evening air an unchanging, unceasing murmur.
There is even a moon shining above them. Also, the conversation of the two main characters, Lenehan and Corley, suggests a romantic involvement. Lenehan calls Corley a “gay Lothario” and wonders if Corley can succeed or “bring it off” with the girl whom he has recently met. However, there are some discordant notes that undercut the romantic mood. Corley has accepted gifts of cigarettes and cigars from the girl rather than giving gifts to her. Lenehan speaks of the romantic code of giving gifts such as flowers and chocolates as a “mug’s game.” Both Corley and Lenehan despise the conventional love game because they do not profit from it. The fictional rules of romantic love do not seem to apply here.
Also, the characters do not seem right for a romantic tale. Corley is described as “squat and ruddy” with a “large, globular and oily” head. Furthermore, his behavior and conversation show him to be rude and a braggart. He brags about his conquests of women and at being in the know at police headquarters. He is the son of a police officer and a “conqueror,” which seems inappropriate for a lover or a patriotic Irishman. In contrast, Lenehan is a hanger-on and a “leech.” His main role seems to be as an audience for Corley’s bragging tales. If Corley talks only about himself, then Lenehan has no self: His pleasures, and his life, are vicarious. The characters, then, seem to be in the wrong story. They should be in a satiric comedy or a realistic story about Irish life.
The most important violation of the romantic story is, perhaps, the break in the narrative structure. The reader has been led to expect a romantic quest narrative; Corley is sent off to see if he can succeed with the girl, however, and the story then concentrates on the sycophant Lenehan. Why does James Joyce choose such an unusual plot pattern? One reason is that Corley’s success or failure must be suspended until the end of the story. One cannot see the process, only the result. Another reason may be that in Lenehan one sees what the real life of a “gallant” is. First, his “gaiety” vanishes when he is alone and can no longer play his accustomed role. He finds “trivial all that was meant to charm him.” All he can do is wander aimlessly, controlled by the rhythm of the harp, a conventional symbol for Ireland. He eats a frugal meal and worries about the price of a plate of peas. His imagination is not stirred by anything around him, including the harp, except for the thought of Corley’s adventure. However, this lack makes him even more aware of his own “poverty of purse and spirit.” He then imagines alternatives, a job, a home, a wife; all these would be pleasant alternatives to his aimless life on the streets. Once more, however, the vision is undercut. “He might yet be able to settle down in some snug corner and live happily if he could only come across some good simpleminded girl with a little of the ready.” This “snug” life would not be a change in his leeching but a final confirmation of it. He can aim no higher than to feed on a simpleminded girl for the rest of his life.
The narrative reaches a climax when Lenehan spots the couple and anxiously follows to see if Corley has succeeded. “Well? . . . Did it come off? Can’t you tell us? Did you try her?” The answer is provided by the small gold coin in Corley’s palm. The reader knows by this point that romantic love is not Corley’s aim, but the reader, perhaps, then assumes that he is looking for a sexual encounter. However, it is finally evident that he does not want sex, let alone love. What he wants and triumphantly shows Lenehan is the money he has extracted from the girl; finding a “simpleminded girl with a bit of the ready” to live on is the goal of the Dublin “gallants.”
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