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Free Book Summary-Dubliners by James Joyce-Study Guide/Synopsis
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DUBLINERS - FREE ONLINE STUDY GUIDE

AN ENCOUNTER

Summary

The narrator, a young boy longs to break out of the regimented world of a church school and enter the world of adventure. His teacher, Father Butter is horrified to see boys reading tales of adventure! The boy spends his spare time playing ‘cowboys and Indians’ with the enterprising Joe Dillon and his fat brother- Leo. Only, every battle ends with Joe Dillon dancing a victory war-dance, with an old tea-cosy on his head beating a tin, yelling his war cry-‘yaka, yaka, yaka, yaka!’

All the boys seek to escape their humdrum and suppressive daily life. Even Wild Joe Dillon’s wildness arises from parents "who went to eight o’clock mass every morning in Gardener Street." Ultimately, the grown-up Joe astounds his mates by discovering "that he had a vocation for the priest hood."

However in childhood he is too wild and aggressive for "the reluctant Indians" like the narrator, "who were afraid to seem studious or lacking in robustness." When Leo Dillon is scolded in class by Father Butter, for reading a Wild West adventure story, "the story of the Wild West loses much of its charm for the narrator".

Towards the end of term, the protagonist suggests a day’s escape from school to Leo Dillon and another boy, Mahony. They pool their six pences for the trip, planning to see the ships at the wharf, take the ferryboat and visit the "Pigeon House."

Sleepless with excitement the narrator is the first to arrive at the meeting-place. Mahony joins him, along with his ‘improved catapult.’ There’s no sign of Leo they give him up in disgust, happy that they have at least got his six pence!

The boys walk along the wharf, fascinated by the great world of work outside their dull classroom. Looking at the ships, they fantasize about running away to sea, having adventures in strange lands. They cross in the ferry and buy whatever food they please. As its too late to see the Pigeon House, they relax in a field, enjoying the view of the River Dodder. They see a gray- haired man in a worn ‘suit of greenish-black’ and a ‘Jerry hat’ walking along with a stick. He passes, looking at them and then returns. He sits by them and begins to hold forth on schooldays, books and so on. The narrator claims he has read all the classics mentioned by the strange man. The man approvingly calls him ‘a bookworm like myself’, labeling Mahony as ‘different.’ He asks if they have any sweethearts. Mahony coolly says he has three! The narrator is dumbstruck. Mahony even asks if the man has any himself. The stranger then begins to talk in a hypnotic voice about girls-their soft hair, their soft hands, and so on. At times, "he lowered his voice and spoke mysteriously as if he were telling us something secret which he did not wish others to overhear." He then goes to the end of the field, relieves in full view of them, and returns.

All this while, the narrator though bored and repelled by him, is unable to go away. Yet he is cautious enough to tell Mahony they should call each other by false names before him. The man returns and Mahony begins to chase a cat across the field.

The man is very disapproving-he talks about giving such boys a sound whipping. He keeps enlarging on this theme, until the narrator can’t take it any more. He gets up and summons Mahony by his pseudonym. Mahony responds at once, "as if to bring me aid." The narrator is guiltily grateful, as "in my heart I had always despised him a little."

Notes

This story approaches growing up from another angle-that of the thirst for adventure, fantasy, and the incapacity to face it ultimately in the real world. The boy who is ‘afraid to seem studious’ is fascinated by the world of cowboys and Indians in which Joe Dillon seems so much at home. However, he is disappointed with these games, as he is never allowed to win. He decides that he prefers American detective stories peopled with ‘fierce and beautiful girls.’ Yet all along he is dominated by the influence of the school and the priest.


The scolding of Leo by Father Butler amounts to the defeat of the Wild West in his eyes. He decides to turn to other more ‘real’ adventures. The adventure itself is very modest, consisting only of cutting classes for a day, and going off on an unsupervised trip, wandering wherever they choose, eating whatever and whenever they choose. After Leo Dillon drops out, the narrator considers himself the prime mover, and Mahony merely his accomplice.

The day goes smoothly until almost the end, when the encounter with the strange man takes place. His arrival, his button holing of the boys and forcing of his monologue down their unwilling ears upsets all their well-laid plans. The boy-narrator, particularly, finds something menacing and repulsing about the shabby old man, who speaks with an unexpectedly educated accent. To top it all, he claims a bond with the boy as a fellow bookworm. The man’s crazy talk and his desperation for an audience frighten the narrator and destroy the romantic notions of adventure he had.

The old man doesn’t have the same riveting effect on Mahony, who is bored and runs off after the cat. In response to the man’s questions he shows a cocky refusal to be impressed. Thus at the end, the boy-narrator’s own weakness and the hollowness of his sense of adventure is revealed to him. He is painfully grateful when Mahony responds to his call and they can get away from the man. The concluding sentence: "And I was penitent, for in my heart I had always despised him a little" exposes his recognition of Mahony’s worth as the ‘practical man’ and the limitations of his own bookish self.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

CHARACTER ANALYSIS

The Boy-Narrator

The boy is similar to the central character in "The Sister" but may not be the same. Here the boy fancies himself superior because of his love of books-but even his fantasies arise out of books, and he finds the reality hard to confront. This boy emerges more clearly than the one in ‘The Sister’ because we see him in interaction with his peers and the stranger. This boy wants to be like Joe Dillon and can’t. He seeks "doors of escape" from his normal behavior, and wants to be in a group where "differences of culture and constitution were waived."

At the same time he feels superior to the rest on account of his interest in reading. This feeling makes him seek some other source of adventure where he will not always lose to Joe Dillon, and this makes him take the trip with Mahony. He has more scruples than Mahony, who cheerfully claims Leo’s six pence, as forfeit.

The narrator is a keen observer and gives us a sharp etching of the stranger-whose ‘accent was good’ and who ‘seemed magnetized by some words of his own speech.’ He has also the intelligence to realize his own weaknesses at the end.

The Stranger

The tramp like figure serves only to act as the sour note of reality at the end of the boys’ adventure. His accent and knowledge suggest he has seen better days. An elderly man he seems desperate for an audience to listen to his eccentric and incoherent views on boys and education. His forceful manner and strange talk hypnotizes the fearful narrator, while the less imaginative boy is unmoved.

Mahony

An acquaintance of the narrator, he serves as a foil to him. A cheerful and extrovert boy, he is not in awe of the stranger nor of Father Butter whom he calls Old Bunser. His catapult is his pride and joy, and girls, cats and birds are his natural prey. He stands for the instinctive person, the man of action, in contrast to the bookish man. His freedom from inhibitions makes him seem admirable to the narrator, who is penitent for his earlier feelings of superiority.

PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS

The story opens with a vivid account of Joe Dillon’s Wild West capers and introduces us to the narrator, the "reluctant Indian" and the forces, which have shaped him. Then comes the great adventure-the trip with Mahony. Its excitement dims with the entry of the stranger, until the final escape and the narrator’s revelation about himself and Mahony.

THEMES-THEME ANALYSIS

The theme is the conflict within the serious and bookish young boy, part of him admiring his friend’s Wild West fantasies and the other part wanting to have a "real life" adventure. The unpleasant meeting with a tramp makes him aware of the darker side of adventure and of his own timid weakness.

OTHER ELEMENTS

SYMBOLISM / MOTIFS / IMAGERY / SYMBOLS

There is little use of imagery here, except for the obvious symbolism of the Wild West, the adventure stories and the catapult, all representing action. Yet the Wild West and stories are still fantasy and hold less charm for the narrator. Ultimately, the instinctive action of Mahony seems more impressive to him than anything else.

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