by James Joyce
Characters in "An Encounter"
Lookin' for Adventure…
Like a lot of kids his age, our narrator goes to a Catholic boys' school in Dublin. He's a pretty smart guy, but no one's going to make fun of him for being the straight-A nerd. The subject in class may be ancient Roman history, but what really matters to him comes from paperback books about the American "Wild West." You know, the ones where "glory" comes from fighting battles on the prairie and shooting the guy who steals your horse in an epic duel? Here's what we've gotta keep asking as we talk about the narrator. Does his story in "An Encounter" turn out like one of those stories? Does he live the dream?
Before the real adventure of the story begins, we get a lot of background about our narrator's life. In addition to reading stories of the Wild West, he and the neighborhood kids play "Indian battles" against Joe and Leo Dillon, and they always lose. In addition to being a loser in this way, he pretty much admits that he's mostly just afraid "Afraid to seem studious or lacking in robustness," sure, but also just afraid.
Besides being a scaredy-cat, there's something else he wants us to know about himself before we set out on a day of skipping school. And that's the fact that the Wild West isn't like, all that important to him. When his friend Leo gets scolded in class for reading The Apache Chief, the whole phenomenon loses some of its importance for him. But it's not like he's got a lot of other options, and he catches himself going home and wanting the "wild sensations […] which those chronicle of disorder alone seemed to offer" (An Encounter.8). Hard to blame the kid, right?
… And Whatever Comes My Way
Even though he describes himself as afraid, our narrator is the ringleader for this day of skipping school, which is totally brave, if a little reckless. And hey, there have been worse plans for skipping. In fact, these kids actually get prepared by saving money, arranging a time and place to meet, and setting everything up in advance. Our guy might have been born to be wild, but like the narrator of "Araby," he's got a head on his shoulders.
Which is kind of why it's so upsetting that things turn out the way they do for him. From the very start, the trip seems doomed. Leo Dillon doesn't even show up, but in a way, that's better because this means they get to make fun of him. Calling someone a "funk" was a good insult back then, apparently (An Encounter.16). And okay, there are some good things going on, like watching a steamer arrive at harbor and watching "the spectacle of Dublin's commerce" (An Encounter.17). But that's just because the narrator actually wants to learn stuff—he even tries to read the Norwegian ship's name.
In some ways, the real point of this adventure seems to be the opposite of the point of "Araby." In that story, we see mostly what happens inside a little kid's head. Here, we're going to see the city through a different kid's eyes. And it turns out that the whole city of Dublin, even on a day off from school, can't really provide as much genuine adventure as a little paperback book.
Just look at how many times the kids get tired: they get "tired" of watching the ships, and then they're "rather tired" even after drinking sugary lemonade, and then they're "too tired" to get to the Pigeon House. It's no Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
This is Not What I Meant By Adventure
To put it pretty bluntly, the only thing that "happens" in their adventure involves getting cornered by a potential child molester. And just as we might have expected, our narrator's main response to this "encounter" is getting scared—in two different ways.
At first, when the man starts talking about books, the narrator really wants to impress him. And when Mahony gives a dumb answer to his obvious question about Lord Lytton's books, the narrator says he's "afraid the man would think I was as stupid as Mahony."
For a kid who says he doesn't care about school too much, the fact that he wants to impress a "queer old josser" in a field stands out. For one thing, it shows us just how susceptible kids are to other people, and that includes smart kids. Our narrator will find out pretty fast that he can't trust this guy, but at first, the source of his fear is his desire to be seen as really smart.
So why does he get so suddenly afraid at the end of the story? Well, maybe because he realizes just how much of a number this old dude has done on him. Now that he's talking about whipping naughty boys, the narrator realizes that this "encounter" has taken a turn for the worse.
That's scary enough. But what's even scarier is that he sort of liked this guy at first, and wanted to be the good kid. It's like meeting someone who really wants to be your friend, feeling really excited that they're so interested, and then finding out they only want your lunch money. Or worse.
Born To Be Mild
Once the narrator decides to peace out of this weird conversation, everything happens pretty fast. He calls Mahony by his fake name, "Murphy," has to call him again when doesn't hear or understand the first time, and is then relieved to see him running toward him. Wait a second. He only seems to be relieved. Actually, the way his "paltry stratagem" makes him feel is completely "ashamed." But why?
Well, first of all, he feels dumb for having used such a silly method for escaping from the situation. Calling your friend by a fake name to bail on a sticky situation is not exactly what a Wild West hero would do, right? But there's another, more complex reason why the narrator feels ashamed. He explains, "I had always despised him a little" (An Encounter.40).
Basically, he feels bad because he really relies on someone he has always sort of hated—Mahony. It's a terrible feeling anyway, because if your friend knew how you really felt, he'd never help you out, but here he is, helping you out anyway. You don't really deserve it, but you're so scared that there's not really any other way out, you think, and you end up with that red-faced feeling that comes from looking silly when you ask for help and knowing that the person you get it from is, at least for the moment, a better person than you are. Yowza.
And things started out so promising for this fellow, too. He was an underdog against Joe Dillon. He just wanted adventure. Now he's sort of a chicken. Probably started crying as soon as the story ended, don't you think?
Mahony is the friend you're not really sure why you keep calling. You're pretty much totally different from him, you're not sure you really trust him, and you always feel worse about yourself after hanging out. All we really know about him in "An Encounter" is that he's pretty easily distracted and not all that smart. And, oh yeah, he's very loyal, so you can jot that one down in the plus column.
And you can add to that column the fact that Mahony actually shows up to adventure day, which makes him a lot more fun than Leo Dillon. Our narrator gives him some props for "very sensibly" pointing out that the teacher at his school isn't going to see them out in Dublin […] because he's going to be at school. And when they start their adventure, Mahony keeps the narrator's spirits up by pointing out that, since Leo didn't show, they'll have more money to spend on themselves.
Nevertheless, Mahony just isn't narrator-caliber. He's always running off to chase cats, and gumming up the adventure works. Even the old man says, "he is different; he goes in for games." Basically, Mahony's a restless athletic type; the narrator's more of a thinker.
But here's the thing: he's not really a bad friend, just kind of a dumb one. And when it comes down to it, he's actually a decent, loyal guy, if a little annoying. At least when our narrator screams his code name across a field, panicked that a child molester is on his heels, our boy Mahony only has to be called twice before he puts two and two together and comes to the narrator's rescue. Although we must say, it'd be better if he came after the first try.
Now for one of the oddest and most disturbing characters in Dubliners.
It's hard to describe this guy fully or accurately, because everything we know about him comes from the perspective of a frightened kid who can't really understand why an older man would be interested in talking to a young boy in an abandoned field.
Here's what we do know about the man: he's not well-dressed (the narrator says he's "shabby") and he walks a little strangely, "with one hand upon his hip and in the other hand […] a stick with which he tapped the turf lightly." He's also into some weird stuff that sends up a red flag for our narrator… eventually.