28 pages 56 minutes read

James Joyce

Two Gallants

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1914

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Two Gallants”

James Joyce wrote the short story “Two Gallants” in 1906. He sent his initial draft to his editor, Grant Richards, for inclusion in his short story collection Dubliners. The narrative represents the 13th and last story that Joyce contributed to the collection. Several controversies, including the obscenity charges that critics leveled against “Two Gallants,” prevented Richards from publishing Dubliners until 1914.

Throughout his literary career, Joyce provided an unwavering critique of early-20th-century Ireland. While his critics claimed that his writings presented a shameful view of his nation, the author contended that his realism served an important social function. By revealing Ireland’s flaws, Joyce believed he would indirectly contribute to its reform. These themes can be viewed throughout Dubliners, as each story presents a realistic and bleak portrait of the nation’s contemporary society. In “Two Gallants,” Joyce identifies how the lives and experiences of two conmen reflect the social decline impacting late-19th-century Ireland. The story also presents the theme of Suspicion and Betrayal throughout its narrative.

This summary relies on the digital text edited by David Reed, Karol Pietrzak, and David Widger in the Project Guttenberg online collection. Reed, Pietrzak, and Widger compiled their digital version of Dubliners and “Two Gallants” using B. W. Huebsch’s 1916 edition as their source text.

Content Warning: The characters in Joyce’s text use misogynistic slurs and express derogatory views of women.

The story relies on a simple plot. Joyce’s two main characters are walking through Dublin on an August evening. The narrative depicts Corley as an obese and unattractive character whose confidence and forceful personality enable him to attract friends and female admirers. Lenehan is known as a “leech,” but he disarms others through flattery and cunningness. As the story begins, Corley regales Lenehan with an account of a previous romantic conquest. Lenehan laughs at the tale and expresses admiration. Corley dominates the sidewalk, while Lenehan walks “on the verge of the path” (1). Corley is a police inspector’s son, but instead of following in his father’s footsteps, he is a police informant. He is otherwise unemployed and disinclined to hard work. Lenehan makes money from wagering on horse races.

Corley concludes his tale, and he and Lenehan discuss his latest plan. Corley explains that he plans to meet a “slavey” (female domestic servant) who works for a wealthy family. He boasts that he took the young woman to a field on their second date, and she brought him cigarettes and paid his tram fare. Lenehan suggests that she may have marriage in mind. Corley reveals that he cunningly withheld his name from the servant, who believes he is “a bit of class” (3). The men talk about whether Corley can “pull off” a new scheme. Joyce does not directly reveal Corley’s intentions, but the plan involves persuading the servant to do something for him.

During their conversation, Corley describes his past relationships. He explains that he used to buy gifts for the women he courted but bitterly complains that he received nothing in return. He then recalls a woman he succeeded in sleeping with, regretfully revealing that she later became a sex worker. Lenehan calls the woman a “base betrayer.” Empathizing with his companion’s plight, Lenehan admits to similar disappointment and dismisses traditional courtship as “a mug’s game” (6).

Corley and Lenehan arrive at Kildare Street, where a harpist is playing. The musician and his instrument seem dejected as they play the Irish song Silent, O Moyle. They continue walking and see the servant waiting for Corley on a corner, dressed in her “Sunday best.” When Lenehan says he wants to get a better look at her, Corley grows hostile, suggesting that his friend has ulterior motives. The young woman wears a “ragged black boa” and has red flowers pinned to her jacket (10). Corley departs from Lenehan, agreeing to meet him at Merrion Street at 10 o’clock. The young woman looks excited to see Corley when he approaches her.

In a somber mood, Lenehan wanders Dublin’s streets in circles to pass the time. He arrives at a café, where he orders a Plate of Peas and ginger beer. During his meal, the character ponders his life. He recognizes that at the age of 31, he has accomplished nothing and spends his time betting on sports and carousing with disreputable friends and women. He wonders if he will ever have secure employment or “a home of his own” (13). After satiating his hunger, the character departs the café and resumes his solitary walk through Dublin.

After walking a short distance and chatting with some acquaintances, Lenehan begins to worry that Corley will not honor their arrangement to meet. However, he suddenly spots his friend and the servant girl and follows them to the house where she works. Lenehan watches as the young woman goes inside and then emerges again. She places something in Corley’s hand and then returns inside. Lenehan calls out to his friend, but Corley ignores him and keeps walking. Lenehan becomes agitated and catches up with Corley, demanding to know if his plan was successful. Corley opens his hand, revealing The Gold Coin the woman stole from her employers.