27 pages 54 minutes read

James Joyce

An Encounter

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1913

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “An Encounter”

“An Encounter,” by Irish author James Joyce, is a short story that uses naturalism and a strong immersion into its setting to address themes of Social Stratification, Religious Division, and Wanderlust. Like virtually all of Joyce’s work, the story takes place in Dublin around the beginning of the 20th century. Written in 1905 but not published until 1914, it serves as the second of 15 short stories in Joyce’s Dubliners, considered one of the most influential collections of stories in the English language. The story follows a young middle-class boy around the city as he skips school with a classmate, Mahony. The narrator and Mahony explore Dublin’s docks and coastline until they are met by a strange man who makes them uncomfortable.

The naturalism and dedication to reporting the small details of city life in Dublin are hallmarks of Joyce’s writing. His most popular work, the novel Ulysses, published in 1922, similarly takes the reader on a journey through the streets of Dublin. Joyce’s writing was often prone to controversy, as he had no qualms about including depictions of sexual acts that were considered taboo to many readers. Ulysses repeatedly faced censorship and obscenity trials, and the delayed publication of Dubliners was due to publishing concerns about content. While there are no overt depictions of sexual activity in “An Encounter,” there is a suggestion that the man whom the boys meet at the end of the story performs an obscene act in their presence. Joyce chooses to surround this event with ambiguity, however.

This guide refers to the version of the text found in the Penguin Classics Centennial Edition of Dubliners.

Content Warning: The source text and some quotations in this guide use racist stereotypes and use the term “queer” as an insult, to mean strange.

“An Encounter” is told through a first-person limited perspective. The narrator, whose name is never given, describes several details in his school and social life that lead up to his decision to skip school with two of his classmates. He begins with a description of the “Wild West” games that he and his friends play together: “Every evening after school we met in his back garden and arranged Indian battles” (10). The narrator shares that the inspiration behind these battles is a series of kids magazines that contain adventure and mystery tales. One day, however, the games begin to lose their excitement when Father Butler, one of the boy’s teachers, discovers “clumsy Leo Dillon” (11) in possession of one of the magazines.

The war games having lost their luster, the narrator decides to try something different. He makes a plan with Leo Dillon and another boy, Mahony, to skip school and journey out to a Dublin landmark known as the Pigeon House. They each contribute sixpence to the excursion to pay for snacks and the ferry across the River Liffey, but on the morning that they had planned to leave, Leo Dillon never shows.

The two boys continue on as planned. They begin their adventure at the Canal Bridge, travel along the North Strand Road to the Wharf Road, and eventually make their way to the north bank of the Liffey, which splits Dublin in two horizontally. Along the way, Mahony “play[s] the Indian” (13) by chasing a group of girls. As they walk away, the girls call them “Swaddlers,” mistaking them for Protestants because of the cricket badge in Mahony’s cap.

The boys cross the river by ferry and watch as a large ship discharges its cargo. The narrator “examined the foreign sailors to see had any of them green eyes for I had some confused notion” (14). Eventually, they end up in a field where they are approached by an odd, “shabbily dressed” man. The man asks them what kinds of books they read and how many “sweethearts” they each have. He continues talking about young girls, working himself up until he excuses himself and walks to the end of the field. Here the man does something that causes Mahony to remark, “I say! Look what he’s doing!” before calling him “a queer old josser” (16). While the man is gone, the narrator makes up fake names for himself and Mahony to use just in case anonymity is needed: Murphy and Smith.

It is never explicitly stated exactly what the man is doing, but the narrator is visibly uncomfortable when the man returns and starts in on a new subject: when and how much it is appropriate to whip young boys as a form of punishment. The man becomes worked up again as he proclaims how important it is to chastise boys with “a nice warm whipping” (17). The narrator looks at the man and meets “the gaze of a pair of bottle-green eyes peering at me from under a twitching forehead” (17). He contrives to get away from the man before anything further happens, and he calls to Mahony, who has wandered to a far end of the field, so that they can leave. The narrator is relieved when Mahony runs back to him “as if to bring me aid. And I was penitent: for in my heart I had always despised him a little” (18).