30 pages 1 hour read

James Joyce


Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1914

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Counterparts”

“Counterparts” is the ninth chapter in Irish author James Joyce’s Dubliners collection. Each chapter stands alone as an individual short story, yet compiled forms a chronological presentation of the citizens of Dublin, Ireland, in the early 20th century. As the ninth chapter in the book, “Counterparts” falls under the category of those related to adult life. James Joyce innovated modernism in literature by creating characterization and setting with a limited amount of exposition. His restraint in the details he chose to include allows the reader to fully imagine the deeper impact of a story’s themes. “Counterparts” follows a day in the life of Farrington, a man preoccupied with evading his duties as a copy clerk in his desire to find solace in the pub.

While “Counterparts” was completed in 1905, Dubliners was not published until 1914 due to objections about the material from the publishers. Joyce’s realistic portrayals of Irish life were seen as problematic or inappropriate, and the author resisted capitulating to the demands of the editors. Farrington’s alcoholism and physical violence toward his son Tom are examples of the topics that alarmed early publishers.

This guide refers to the Norton Critical Edition of Dubliners by James Joyce, edited by Margot Norris.

The third-person limited point of view follows Farrington’s activities throughout the story. Farrington appears to be unhealthy and middle-aged, with “a hanging face, dark wine-coloured […] his eyes bulged forward slightly and the whites of them were dirty” (70). His boss, Mr. Alleyne, is displeased with Farrington and reprimands him for not completing his assignments and abusing the amount of time he is allotted for lunch. Mr. Alleyne does not realize how much his admonitions inspire rage in Farrington and trigger his addiction to alcohol.

Farrington not only extends his lunch break but also sneaks out of his job frequently to have drinks at the neighboring pub. Thoughts of alcohol consume him as he procrastinates writing the letters that his job demands. The job of a copy clerk in the early 1900s required the clerk to transcribe multiple copies of whatever correspondence the business required. While the copying task should be easy enough, being mundane and requiring little skill, for Farrington it is impossible.

Miss Delacour’s presence in the office prompts Mr. Alleyne to demonstrate his control over Farrington. Miss Delacour is an attractive client who is “Jewish” (73) in appearance, and there is a rumored attraction between her and Mr. Alleyne. When Mr. Alleyne realizes that Farrington has failed to complete his assigned work, he reprimands him in front of the woman. Farrington responds in an uncharacteristically defiant way, when Mr. Alleyne asks, “Do you think me an utter fool?” Farrington says, “I don’t think sir […] that that’s a fair question to put to me” (74-75), which elicits amusement from Miss Delacour. With his authority undermined, Mr. Alleyne is forced to give Farrington an ultimatum regarding an apology. Farrington leaves work knowing that even if he apologizes, his job security is forever altered.

As Farrington reflects upon the consequences of his disrespect for his boss, his thoughts incessantly return to alcohol. Farrington’s funds are depleted, and he mentally runs through potential colleagues who can lend him money. It occurs to him to sell his watch, which he does. When he leaves the pawnbroker’s office, his outlook is jubilant rather than regretful. He mentally crafts the scenario with his boss as an anecdote that he will share to amuse his friends over the course of the evening.

In the convivial atmosphere of the pub, Farrington is rewarded for his story with rounds of drinks. As each new acquaintance arrives at the drinking establishment, Farrington is encouraged by the others to retell the story to the newcomer. In the retellings, Farrington elaborates and creates an entertaining narrative by mimicking Mr. Alleyne. With the watch money in his pocket, Farrington contributes to buying rounds of drinks for his friends. The social setting of the pub satisfies Farrington’s longing, because along with the alcohol, the robust storytelling fuels camaraderie among the men, which instills a sense of wellbeing in Farrington.

Farrington’s group travels from one pub to another, picking up and dropping off members with each new location. Drunkenness is indicated when, after numerous drinks, they begin to feel “mellow” (78), and, despite his inebriation, Farrington is cognizant that his money is much reduced. An actress from London captures Farrington’s attention, but his newfound confidence and sense of wellbeing is deflated when the young woman leaves without making eye contact with him: “He watched her leave the room in the hope that she would look back at him but he was disappointed” (79). This imagined slight prompts him to regress to rage and resentment. Farrington calculates the cost of spotting rounds for his friends and considers his friend Weathers to be a “sponge” for picking costly beverages.

A member of the group suggests “feats of strength” (79), and it is decided after examining their biceps that Farrington will arm wrestle Weathers. The first round lasts thirty seconds, during which time Farrington strains, and the redness of his face is again described as “wine-coloured” as he struggles and fails to overtake the younger man. When Weathers wins, Farrington accuses him of using bad form and demands another match, which, in front of a gathering crowd, he also loses.

The setting abruptly shifts to reveal Farrington alone on a train platform heading home. It is a stark contrast to the action of the pub, with Farrington now feeling “humiliated and discontented: he did not even feel drunk and he had only twopence in his pocket. He cursed everything” (80). The wastefulness of his evening and the lack of fruition of his efforts catches up with him, and it is in this state that he arrives home.

When he realizes that his wife is at church and his home is cold and dark, he confronts his son, Tom, saying, “You let the fire out! By God, I’ll teach you to do that again!” (81). The degradations of the day catch up to Farrington, and his suppressed rage unleashes as he beats his son with a “walking stick.” As Tom endures his father’s attack, he resorts to the refuge of religion, and the story closes with the boy praying for his father.