Read With Me: Dubliners, ‘An Encounter’

Previously: Falcon & Winter Soldier #5 | Coming Soon: No One Is Talking About This Review

Welcome to the second week of Read With Me: Dubliners. This week we read the story, ‘An Encounter’, and the corresponding essay by Fritz Senn in Clive Hearts essay collection, James Joyce’s Dubliners.

In this story…
We again follow the young unnamed narrator from ‘The Sisters’, and who will also feature in next week’s story ‘Araby’. He is an interesting boy as he seems to conform to ideals of boyhood but also holds a degree of contempt for boys his age. What I mean by this is that while he plays Wild West with the others, he seems to suggest that wishes to be above these childish games. When the teacher finds another of the boys, Joe Dillon, reading the Halfpenny Marvel, our narrator wishes to disassociate himself with these readers. And yet it is exactly what it does.

As the narrator tries to separate himself from the crudity of the Wild West stories by positioning himself as a reader of detective stories. This comparison suggests that he believes detective stories to be of a higher calibre than the Wild West stories, perhaps because detectives often rely on their intelligence rather than their physicality. When he meets the strange gentleman, he lies about the sort of books that he has read to seem well-read. Additionally, he takes umbrage against the mistaken assumption that he is a National Schoolboy. His offence to the assumption shows that he holds contempt for the National Schoolboys and sees himself as superior. While he tries to prove himself superior to his schoolmates he also says ‘[…] I began to hunger again for wind sensations […]’. The use of the word hunger suggests that what he feels is a physical desire, and more than that it is crucial to his survival. This implies that despite his best intentions he is innately drawn to a sense of wildness that, for the other boys at least, is assuaged by the fictional escape of The Halfpenny Marvel.

This introduces us once more to the theme of escape, which as Senn points out, is far more explicit in this story. The desire for escape is translated into a literal escape, as the boys conspire to play truant for the day. Senn argues that this is a limited form of escape, as they never make plans to leave Dublin. However, for a child used to the constraints of the school day, this would seem like the ultimate escape. While Senn focuses on the fact that the boys find themselves watching the mundane life of industry in Dublin you could argue that this is not the case. What may seem mundane to us could be exciting for middle-class boys who perhaps have not been exposed to the hard graft of these sorts of workers. These are boys who play at Wild West but likely have never had to physically toil for much. Joyce’s descriptions of Dublin are gorgeously vivid, despite, or perhaps despite the subject matter. This not only shows Joyce’s love for the city but could also reflect the excitement of the boys’ freedom.

After spending some time in the city, the boys return to a field, where they encounter a strange man. It is striking that the closest they come to danger is framed in a pastoral setting rather than against the industrial backdrop of a few moments ago. This goes against the traditional depiction of the pastoral as something idyllic, and superior to the city. As an adult reading this encounter I can spot the red flags, but our narrator is not quite so perceptive and indulges the man in conversation. This is not to say that our narrator is oblivious, but it seems as though his natural desire is to please, hence the fact that he lies about the books that he has read. This could be since the man is an adult, and therefore the boy places him alongside the other adults he knows, who are authority figures to him. This could also feed into his relationship with Father Flynn, from the previous chapter.

When the man departs initially, the other boy comments that the man is doing something strange. Joyce confirms in his letter that the man is masturbating. However, our narrator refuses to look and so never sees this. This refusal could suggest a rejection of reality, as he chooses to fill in the gaps himself rather than face the reality of what is happening.

The conversations with the man, who returns after this brief sojourn to relive himself, has lots of red flags which is why he is often referred to by academics as ‘the pervert’. It is not a stretch to see why this is. Before his release, the conversation centres around girls. He asks if the boys have any sweethearts, something which our narrator does not lie about and instead admits that he has none. The man comments on the softness of girls, of their hair and their hands. It is incredibly uncomfortable to read, but it is the sort of discomfort that keeps you reading. In case you have yet to realise, I enjoyed this chapter. After his release, his conversation focuses on boys, and more specifically the punishment of boys. As you can imagine all the warning bells are now ringing, and our Narrator makes an excuse to escape. While academics sometimes focus on the switch from girls to boys, it is striking to me that the way the girls are described as soft, is also applicable to boys because of their youth. This is an interesting if slightly worrying look at gender and childhood.

By the end of the chapter, our Narrator has run from the man and calls out from his friend. When the friend does return to him, the narrator almost begrudges the fact that he feels rescued by his friend. He even tells us that he does not particularly care much for this friend. This is an interesting admission, given the exploration of gender that we have just read. Perhaps our narrator disdains the fact that he feels rescued by his friend because that put him in the weaker role, one ordinality reserved for the female. This could be another example of his desire for superiority, a desire that is quashed by the simple act of his friend making him feel safe again.

One last thing that I want to discuss briefly is the fleeting depiction of religion in the chapter. The chapter begins with a description of Joe Dillon, a friend who claims that he will come with our narrator but never shows up. We learn that Dillon eventually became a priest, which seems in opposition to his initial description. However, the events of the day prove that he is someone who will submit to authority. In this chapter, it is the authority of the adults who send him to school every day, but his vocation to priesthood could suggest that he was always searching for authority to submit. Of course, his unlikely vocation could also suggest that priests are not necessarily the type of people they claim to be.

The reason I wanted to discuss religion last is that the chapter also ends with a mention of religion, and penitence. I especially like this because it joins the beginning with the end and gives the story a feeling of cyclicality. I discussed last week how the stories seem to be cyclical and this is another example of that.

What about you… Are you reading along with Dubliners, and if so, what did you think?

Dates for your diary:
‘Araby’ on the 17th of April
‘Eveline’ on the 24th of April.
‘After the Race’ on the 1st of May.

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