When's the last time you sat down and really thought about your life over the last eight years? If you've ever done it, chances are something really important (or really unpleasant) pushed you to it.
Something about Little Chandler's old friend, Ignatius Gallaher, flips a switch inside him, and he has to rethink everything, first during his walk to Corless's bar to meet Gallaher, and then at home after he's said goodbye. What puts Little Chandler in this mood, and what does he figure out about himself?
Joyce gives us some background that helps us figure out why he can't simply chill at the bar with an old pal, and why the story has such a serious tone. From the start, we know this guy isn't hanging with Seth Rogen or Russell Brand. "His voice was quiet and his manners were refined," which means he's more likely to be voted "Best Dressed," than "Class Clown" or "Life of the Party."
And remember, this is a guy with a boring desk job. But instead of drinking his boredom away (or obsessively checking Facebook), Little Chandler drifts off, thinking not only of his successful friend, but of the "late autumn sunset" and all the "moving figures" who, like him, know that it's "useless […] to struggle against fortune" (A Little Cloud.3).
If he had a motto, it would be, "It is what it is." Uplifting, right?
Little Chandler leaves his office for a pretty direct walk through Dublin to the bar, but his emotional Google map tells him to turn right at "gentle melancholy" avenue and continue until he hits a traffic circle at the intersection of Ambition, Disappointment, and Self-pity. For the rest of the story, he's going to keep circling around this same spot, so it's going to be hard for him to take the high road when the time comes.
To put it briefly, Little Chandler's ambition is that he has always wanted to be a poet, but he's so shy that he can't even read someone else's poems to his wife, much less write down his own ideas. Instead of recognizing his own weakness, he thinks that Gallaher could be the key to some future success, but, as we're about to see, there's a major traffic jam right where Disappointment Street feeds in.
See, it's not just that Gallaher doesn't want to help Little Chandler because he's so concerned with his own success. It's that, at a certain point, Little Chandler realizes he doesn't really want someone like Gallaher to give him a hand. Sure, these guys were really close a long time ago. Little Chandler was the friend who saw him off at the port. Now, though, Little Chandler's a family man and Gallaher's a playboy. Chandler wants "the gift of easy and graceful verse" (A Little Cloud.11), and finds Gallaher's way of talking the exact opposite: it's "vulgar" and "gaudy" (A Little Cloud.40).
In fact, almost everything that Little Chandler worries about has its opposite in Ignatius Gallaher, which is part of what makes the evening such an epic fail. It's one thing to have friends from different walks of life, but Little Chandler is in an awkward position with Gallaher because, while he disapproves of his lifestyle, he totally envies the guy's success.
At first, he hopes that Gallaher can be a good connection for him. At a certain point in the night, though, influenced by the drinking, Little Chandler just wants to prove Gallaher wrong, and he starts mocking him the way Lenehan (from "Two Gallants") might if only Lenehan were less concerned about needing to hit up Corley for a drink every now and then.
In this way, it's not just that Little Chandler has an opposite in Gallaher. He's starting to become an opposite to his own, former self. Before, he was thinking of poetry and art; now he's drunk and snapping at a friend who's not really worth bothering about. The process that got him here involves a slow disappointment with Gallaher's changes, a good bit of alcohol, and an unhealthy dose of personal discontent. It's like baking soda, vinegar, and good, pure, venomous envy.
The closing scene with Little Chandler and his wife is remarkable, just because he doesn't even seem like the same guy who was sitting in the King's Inns at the beginning of the tale. When his son's crying interrupts Chandler's heady thoughts (which do feel pretty familiar), he has a wildly inappropriate response. To yell "Stop" at an infant is something only a very drunk and very embittered Little Chandler would do, but there you have it.
Here's the last road in our little traffic circle: it's Frustration Boulevard, also called the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Beneath the surface of a finely furnished house and good job, his life is as turbulent as Gallaher's, without any of the fun.
Where do people like Gallaher come from? They seem larger than life, and if you aren't a famous person yourself, knowing someone like Gallaher can be sort of intoxicating all on its own, without Little Chandler's three small whiskies. While it seems like Chandler and Gallaher were pretty close—Chandler did accompany him to the North Wall (the same place where Eveline was supposed to depart for Argentina)—it's hard to imagine them any more different than they are at the bar.
First, Gallaher picks the kind of establishment Little Chandler would never set foot in, and it becomes pretty clear that Gallaher doesn't really pay too much attention to Chandler anyway. Sure, he's up for a conversation, but he's most excited when he talks about the sights he's seen, all the immorality to which he's been exposed. In short, he really enjoys scandalizing Chandler. If his friend isn't a part of the rich and famous, Gallaher finds a way to talk about the rich and famous people anyway.
Near the end of the story, we do get a sense that Gallaher can be pretty sensitive. As Chandler gets bolder in suggesting that Gallaher will also settle down, Gallaher asserts defensively that if he wanted to get married he'd have no trouble doing so. But he recovers pretty quickly from the outburst and manages to turn the tables on Chandler, saying that married life "must get a bit stale" (A Little Cloud.103).
Since the story that follows "A Little Cloud" is titled "Counterparts," it's worth looking at the role of Gallaher as a kind of anti-counterpart. As a representative of the world outside Dublin, he is everything that Chandler wants. But as a playboy and man about town, he gives Chandler the evidence that leaving Dublin would involve him in a life he couldn't handle. He's like the carrot held out in front of a rabbit—except that when you look closely, the carrot's completely rotten.
With the exception of Frank the Sailor in "Eveline" and a few lines of Gabriel's in "The Dead," Gallaher gives some of the only mentions in Dubliners of the specific quality of the rest of Europe. The fact that he's really the less significant of the two characters here (he'll return in Joyce's novel, Ulysses) reminds us that our interest isn't in his rapid movement and success, but in the disappointment and anger of the paralyzed citizens of Dublin.
Little Chandler's wife gets annoyed at him for forgetting to go to the grocery at the end of the story. A picture of her in a dress he had purchased for her leads Little Chandler to feel even more resentful about his life. It's when she goes out to get groceries that the infant starts crying and provokes Little Chandler's, "Stop!" At this point, Annie rushes in and takes care of the baby.