Allow us to introduce you to one of the least likable characters in all of Dubliners. The fact that this guy not only has drinking buddies, but a wife and kids may sound really surprising, because what we read about Farrington on the day this story takes place makes him sound like a monster. He's a terrible employee, an unhappy drunk, and a violent father. Is he anything else? Maybe.
The first pages of "Counterparts" describe the oppressive work environment Farrington faces every day. It's bad because of his boss, and it's even worse because of his own habits. He can't focus on his work, because all he can focus on is getting a drink. In fact, drinking takes up a lot of Farrington's mental energy. If he's not thinking about getting a drink right now, he's worried about having enough money to drink a whole lot later and get in some trouble: "The barometer of his emotional nature was set for a spell of riot" (Counterparts.32). And you thought the Internet was distracting.
Of course, it's important to remember that Farrington's boss has none of the silly, endearing foolishness of Michael Scott. He orders Farrington around, yells and screams at him, and can't even laugh at his unexpected joke. In some ways, it's no wonder that Farrington devises schemes to escape the office and daydreams about extreme actions in order to get some relief. Just like Little Chandler, some of Farrington's frustration begins, just like his story, in a depressing work environment.
If work causes Farrington's drinking (at least to some extent), what are the effects of his excess? Well, they aren't good. First of all, he's not a really happy drunk like Freddy Malins (from "The Dead"), and that's a big bummer. From the start, Farrington intends to "rush out and revel in violence" (Counterparts.32). Sure, he'll tell a few bragging stories and be chummy, but we get a sense that Farrington won't be satisfied by a little evening hang out with his pals: he needs something wilder to happen. As in, a fist fight.
Watch how things just get worse and worse for Farrington, and how his reactions get more and more extreme. A girl doesn't return his desiring gaze, he loses an arm-wrestling match, he spends all his money, and dinner isn't ready when he gets home. It's enough to make anyone angry, but Farrington simply bursts. He's already had a bad day at work, remember?
Of all the people he could expose to his "violence," though, he chooses his son. The idea of being violent came up at several points—with Mr Alleyne and with the cheeky bartender—but it's not until he gets home and finds someone he's sure he can defeat that he really lets loose. Notice the contrast between his restraint at work and at the bar, where he just talks a big game, and his explosion at home, where he continues beating his son despite his pleas for help.
When it comes to figuring out why the title of this story is "Counterparts," remember that the word has two meanings. On the one hand, it refers to one of the copies of a legal document, just like the ones Farrington has to copy endlessly. More generally, it refers to anything that's remarkably similar to something else. Even though Farrington seems like he's the most extremely bad man in Dubliners, he's actually very similar to a couple of other characters.
Like Corley in "Two Gallants," he's a bit of a womanizer. Among the many frustrations Farrington experiences after he leaves work, one of the worst is getting snubbed by a British woman he's traded glances with across the bar. When it happens, we're told that "he was so angry he lost count of the conversation of his friends" (Counterparts.47). But when he remembers it later, it's still a big deal, and "when he thought of the woman in the big hat […] his fury nearly choked him" (Counterparts.57).
He's also comparable to Little Chandler, whose excessive drinking also leads him to abuse his child, albeit verbally. (See Little Chandler in "A Little Cloud" for more). One thing that's different is that Farrington has a lot less money than Chandler, and a much worse job. His circumstances, which he can't escape, are a huge factor in making Farrington's responses to frustration so much more extreme than that of his counterparts in the rest of the collection.
Finally, he's like so many male characters in Dubliners whose behaviors in public places have significant consequences for their home life. Joyce could have ended "Counterparts" after an unsatisfying night at the bar, but instead he shows what happens when Farrington goes home. It's the same for the narrator's uncle in "Araby," for Mr Mooney in "The Boarding House," for Mr Kernan in "Grace," and even for Gabriel Conroy in "The Dead." There's a famous novel by Thomas Wolfe called You Can't Go Home Again. Some of these men should read it, and keep their riffraff outside where it belongs.
What a pain in Farrington's neck. Mr Alleyne is Farrington's stick-in-the-mud of a boss, and he doesn't make life easy for our difficult protagonist. Joyce describes him as "a little man wearing gold-rimmed glasses," with a head "like a large egg" (Counterparts.8), but what's worse than how he looks is how he nags. Three times in the same conversation he says, "Do you hear me now?" (Counterparts.11), and even we want to give him a little back talk when he does it.
From the start he's on Farrington's case. As soon as Farrington enters the room, Mr Alleyne starts yelling, "What is the meaning of this? Why have I always to complain of you?" (Counterparts.9). Even if we realize that there's some truth to Mr Alleyne's whining that "you always have some excuse or another," it doesn't seem like the way he runs an office is helping Mr Farrington become a better employee.
And it's not like he's a model worker, either. He seems to be having an affair with one of the clients, Miss Delacour, and trying to give her special treatment makes him even harsher toward Farrington. When he finds out that Farrington hasn't completed this project—and even denies that there are two letters missing—he starts in on "a tirade of abuse" that was "so bitter and violent" that it almost got physical.
When Farrington jokes with him, and responds to his screams with a little bit of unintentional humor, Mr Alleyne just can't take the joke. His response is normal at first—he gets embarrassed in front of Miss Delacour and his employees—but it would have been much better if he could have just laughed along with everyone else. Alas, he's too proud, and he takes one more opportunity to scream at Farrington and demand an apology, like the classy guy he is.
Mr Alleyne might not be one of the major characters of Dubliners, but he demonstrates the stubbornness and nearly self-destructive incapacity for change that you'll see all over these stories. Joyce wrote in a letter to his brother, Stanislaus, that he hoped the story "Counterparts" showed how much effect the "brutal" conditions of the "atmosphere in which they live" have on characters' lives. Mr Alleyne is a key part of that brutality, and it's one way that we can see Farrington himself in a slightly more sympathetic light. Maybe.
Miss Delacour is a "a middle-aged woman of Jewish appearance." She has an ongoing case at Mr Alleyne's firm, and may be having an affair with him. When Farrington makes his joke, Miss Delacour, whom Joyce describes as "a stout amiable person," is the only one who has a positive response. She "began to smile broadly" (Counterparts.38). Unfortunately, this only seems to embarrass Mr Alleyne even more.
Nosey Flynn is a drinking buddy and the first person to hear Farrington tell his story of making a joke at his boss' expense.
Higgins is a co-worker of Farrington's who also arrives at the bar and re-tells Farrington's story.
Leonard is another drinking buddy of Farrington's.
O'Halloran is another drinking buddy of Farrington's, as if he needed another. Luckily, he helps to keep Farrington from getting in a fight with the bartender who has made a comment about the arm wrestling match Farrington just lost. Before that, he had announced that Farrington couldn't go meet any women with Weathers "because he was a married man" (Counterparts.46).
Miss Parker is a secretary at the office where Farrington works.
Mr Shelley is the chief clerk in Farrington's office. On the office totem-pole, he's higher than Farrington but lower than Mr Alleyne. He's a little bit more easy-going than Mr Alleyne, too, which means that when Farrington slips out for a drink and comes back late, Mr Shelley doesn't really get angry. Instead, he humiliates Farrington in front of some clients by suggesting that he's drinking too much: "Five times in one day is a little bit […] Well, you better look sharp and get a copy of our correspondence […] for Mr Alleyne" (Counterparts.28).
Tom is Farrington's son. In the last scene of the story, Farrington comes in the house and mistakes Tom for his brother, Charlie. Although Charlie very politely tells his father that his mother is at chapel and that he will warm up his dinner for him, Farrington mocks his "flat accent" and curses him for letting the fire go out. He tries to run away, but Farrington catches him and beats him. Tom utters the closing words of the story, "Don't beat me, pa! And I'll…I'll say a Hail Mary for you." (Counterparts.80). His mention of the "Hail Mary," a Catholic prayer, indicates that Farrington is in dire need of forgiveness or grace.
Weathers is an artiste Farrington meets at the Scotch House through Paddy Leonard. He drinks a more expensive drink on Farrington's dime and then beats Farrington in two straight matches of arm wrestling.