Dubliners | Study Guide

James Joyce

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An Encounter

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of "An Encounter" from James Joyce's short story collection Dubliners.

Dubliners | An Encounter | Summary



The child narrator is a young boy obsessed with adventure. He learns about American Wild West stories from his school friend Joe Dillon, and he plays "Indian battles" with Joe, Joe's brother Leo Dillon, and other neighborhood kids. The narrator enjoys these games and the wild behavior they allow, but he prefers detective stories because they sometimes include "unkempt fierce and beautiful girls."

A teacher at school scolds Leo harshly in front of the class for having a Wild West story, which causes the Wild West to lose appeal for the narrator. At the same time, the narrator yearns to go on an adventure of his own, so he arranges with Leo and another classmate named Mahony to skip school for an excursion to the Pigeon House. He collects sixpence from each boy so they can take the ferry across the river the next day.

Mahony meets the narrator the next morning, but Leo does not show up. The narrator and Mahony make their way toward the wharf, happy to have the extra money from Leo's share. They get into a minor fight with some other children who call them "Swaddlers" thinking they are Protestant because Mahony has a cricket badge on his cap. When they reach the riverfront, the boys eat lunch next to the water and take a ferry across the River Liffey. The day is too hot for the boys to go all the way to the Pigeon House, so they decide to take a train home. Mahony then chases a stray cat into a field.

The two boys are alone in the field for a while, but then an old man approaches them and sits. He reminisces about his own time as a schoolboy and asks them if they have ever read books by Sir Walter Scott or Lord Lytton. He asks the boys if either of them has "a sweetheart." Mahony claims to have three, but the narrator says he has none. The man says he had many sweethearts as a boy and adds, "every boy has a little sweetheart." These words make the narrator uncomfortable.

The old man goes on about girls: "what nice soft hair they had and how soft their hands were and how all girls were not so good as they seemed to be if one only knew." His words take on a repetitive rhythm as he talks for a long while. Then he excuses himself and walks away into the field. The boys then see the old man doing something that makes Mahony say, "I say ... He's a queer old josser!" The narrator suggests if the old man returns, they should give him fake names.

The old man returns to sit by the boys, but Mahony runs after the stray cat again. The man declares Mahony a wild boy who should be whipped. He launches into another repetitive monologue about the kinds of boys who deserve whippings, how they should be whipped, and for what offenses. When the man pauses, the narrator calls out to Mahony, using the name "Murphy." Mahony runs across the field to the narrator, as if to rescue him, and the narrator feels a little guilt because he has never especially liked Mahony.


The child narrator and his friend are inspired by the adventure stories they read, and choose the Pigeon House as their destination for a day of skipping school. It is a location with a notable history associated with a history of hosting adventures. The Pigeon House was built around 1760 on the south bank of Dublin's port by a man named John Pigeon. It served as an inn for travelers arriving from sea travel, particularly those coming from Wales, the traditional departure point for travelers from the United Kingdom to Ireland. A fort was later built near the site of the hotel, shortly after an uprising in 1798, to provide an exit point for British troops if an Irish uprising drove them out of the city. This structure was known as the Pigeon House Fort and was decommissioned in 1897, when the buildings were sold to the city and became part of a power station on the site. Given Mahony's desire to shoot things—presumably birds—with his catapult (slingshot), the fort area is the boys' most likely destination.

Even without making it to the Pigeon House, the boys have plenty of adventure in their day. They encounter a group of children who call them "Swaddlers"—a slang term for Protestants. The children think the boys are Protestant because Mahony wears a cricket badge, a game associated with wealthier classes and Protestants. Then, of course, they encounter the old man. At first he seems genial, asking the boys about the kinds of books they read. He cites two of his favorite writers, Sir Walter Scott and Lord Lytton. Scott wrote adventures such as Ivanhoe, while Lytton's books tended to be more lurid, a sign of things to come. The old man's rambling reflections on school girls are similarly lurid as he focuses on the details of their hair and skin. The monologue sends him off into the field where he does something unspecified in the story. The fact that the narrator does not say what the man does implies it is a lewd act of some kind, possibly masturbation. Mahony's use of the word "josser" rhymes with "tosser," an English and Irish slang term for someone who masturbates. However, the boys do not run away from whatever it is they witness, so it is possible the old man's action was something milder.

When the old man returns to the boys and begins speaking about how disobedient boys should be punished with whippings, the narrator says the old man's voice "grew almost affectionate and seemed to plead with me that I should understand him." The tone the man uses carries another implication that he may be a pedophile trying to gain sympathy from the boy. It could also indicate the man knows he has done something shameful and is saying shameful things but is unable to help himself and wants pity or forgiveness. These words do little to assuage the narrator who calls out to Mahony, whom he confesses he does not like very much. Certainly, the reasoning for this makes sense: Mahony is far wilder than the narrator, carrying a catapult, picking fights with street children, pestering a stray cat. Yet the revelation comes as a bit of a surprise because the narrator has voluntarily spent the day with Mahony and said nothing ill about him. At any rate, he feels a bond with Mahony now that he needs Mahony's assistance and protection from this strange old man, which illustrates how adversity brings people together in unusual ways.

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