An Encounter by James Joyce
In An Encounter by James Joyce we have the theme of escape, failure, paralysis, disaffection, poverty, disappointment, loyalty, education and coming of age. Taken from his Dubliners collection the story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed male who is looking back on an incident from his childhood and after reading the story the reader realises that Joyce may be exploring the theme of escape and failure. Despite his desire to have an adventure or to escape from the world that he knows the narrator never actually reaches his intended destination, that being Pigeon House. Rather he ends up sitting on an embankment while an old man, considered by critics to be a pervert, tells him what he would like to do to Mahony. As to why the narrator decides to ‘mich’ from school (skip school) and set out on his adventure with Mahony is also explained to the reader very early on in the story. Driven by the stories he has read about the ‘Wild West’ and from the images he has created in his mind after reading American detective stories the narrator longs to explore the world, to have his own adventure.
Though it is very natural for any young boy to seek adventure or to escape from their everyday life it is possible that Joyce, as he has done throughout Dubliners, is placing an emphasis on the sense of paralysis that existed in Dublin for many Irish people at the time the story was written and the urgency that was felt by those who lived in Dublin (or Ireland) to escape from the realities they found themselves in. Whether Joyce is accurate or whether he is persuaded by his own personal opinion of life in Dublin is left to each individual reader to decide. However there is no doubting that there were high levels of poverty in Dublin when Joyce wrote the story which may have contributed to the disaffection that was felt at the time by those who lived in Dublin.
Joyce appears to draw on this poverty when the narrator and Mahony ‘encounter’ a group of ‘ragged girls’ and ‘two ragged boys’ as they are walking along Wharf Road. Joyce’s use of the word ‘ragged’ is important and most likely deliberate, particularly as he uses the word twice which suggests that he is attempting to emphasis the word and it is by placing an emphasis on the word that the reader senses just how different life may have been for some people who lived in Dublin at the time. It may also be important that the narrator describes the two ragged boys as being ‘too small’ to chase. Though some critics may suggest that the narrator is making reference to the boys’ age it is more likely that it is Joyce’s intention to highlight to the reader that the boys are small, not because they are younger than the narrator and Mahony but because they are possibly under feed or malnourished. Which would again suggest that there were levels of poverty in Ireland that not all Irish people, like the narrator and Mahony who are seen eating food at different stages of the story, may have encountered.
This sense of difference, particularly between how the narrator lives his life in comparison to other children his own age and who also live in Dublin, is further noticeable when the two boys previously described as ‘ragged’ come to the assistance of the group of ‘ragged’ girls after Mahony chases the girls. Not only are the two boys showing an element of loyalty to the girls but they are also differentiating themselves from the narrator and Mahony by calling them ‘swaddlers.’ Though the reader is aware (from the narrator’s education with Father Butler) that both he and Mahony are not ‘swaddlers’ or Protestants and that the boys assumption that they are, is based on Mahony’s appearance there is still some obvious differences between the four boys. Though it is also important to note that there are also some similarities between all four boys which Joyce highlights at the end of the story.
Joyce may also be attempting to criticize the Catholic Church in the story, which he also attempts to do in other stories from Dubliners. When Father Butler discovers that Dillon and some of the other boys in the class are reading a comic he tells the boys ‘I could understand if you were…National Schools boys.’ By introducing this line into the story Joyce may be highlighting the perception that existed among the Irish Catholic Hierarchy when it came to the quality of education taught to Irish children by the National Schools. At the time many within the Irish Catholic Hierarchy considered a National Schools education, which was not only multi-denominational (all religious faiths) but was also not controlled by the Catholic Church, to be inferior to the education that was provided by the Catholic Church. As to why this may have been is debatable. Some critics suggest that due to the lack of influence that the Church had when it came to religious teachings in National Schools rather than taking a proactive stance towards a child’s education they were more reactive, critical or viewed unfavourably the education offered to children by the National Schools. Viewing their own educational practices and methods to be superior to those of a state sponsored education system.
The end of the story is also interesting as Joyce appears to be exploring not only the theme of disappointment but he also appears to be further exploring the theme of loyalty. As mentioned previously the narrator never completes his adventure, he never reaches Pigeon House and as such he has not only failed in his task but there is also a sense that he is disappointed with how his day has turned out. He has also, rather than experienced any sense of escape, been exposed to a more negative side of real life through his encounter with the old man who again many critics suggest is a pervert or a sexual deviant. The one saving grace in the day for the narrator and which he is thankful for is the fact that when he calls ‘Murphy’ or Mahony, Mahony comes running to him. Which in many ways is similar to the two ragged boys who came to the girls’ rescue. If anything it is possible that Joyce by having Mahony show the same loyalty that the two poorer boys showed the girls is suggesting that despite a Catholic or Jesuit based education which the narrator and Mahony have received, the reality is that children regardless of how they are educated are in essence the same. Something that the narrator may also be aware of at the end of the story when he becomes ‘penitent’ towards Mahony having previously despised him a little.