Holidays and weekends simply go away too fast for us. We would start by planning some elaborate activities, in hope of some true excitement, only to find ourselves lost, wandering about the day with no sense of orientation. By nightfall we have no choice but to exclaim, “nothing really happened!”
Such feelings are similar to our reaction towards “An Encounter,” a short story in James Joyce’s Dubliners. A lot has been said about other pieces in the collection. For one, scholars have done elaborate research trying to figure out the meaning of “The Sisters,” in particular, the word “paralysis,” which is mentioned in the beginning of the story. It has been argued from multiple angles that “paralysis”, which symbolizes the dark and lackluster Irish society, constitutes the underlying theme of all the stories in Dubliners. (Kelly, xxiv) But when it comes to “An Encounter,” much less can be said. The narrator and two friends of his, playing truant, originally planned “to go along the Wharf Road until we came to the ships, then to cross in the ferryboat and walk out to see the Pigeon House.” (Joyce, “An Encounter” 20) But one of the three never showed up, and they never got to the Pigeon House; instead, the narrator and Mahony encountered “a queer old josser,” who bored them with his monologue and made the narrator feel afraid. (26) The ending is abrupt, and just like our typical weekends, “nothing really happened.”
But it is the lack of orientation that bothers us the most. Granted, the theme word made its appearance: “paralysis” shows itself in the figure of the old man, walking “so slowly that I thought he was looking for something in the grass” (24). But it tells us little beyond that, and we are left wanting. In absence of a complete story structure, instinctively we start looking for the author’s guidance. Why does he write such an anticlimactic story? Where is James Joyce, and how can we understand this story through him?
But before this question can be answered, it deserves a reevaluation. Can we find Joyce in the story itself? He is, of course, the author, and the common sense is that, in every word, we are brought to a direct connection with him. But the statement itself introduces the problem: our connection with the author must go through the barrier of language. The author, in other words, is on the other side of the page, always at a remove, so that by perfecting our interpretation of a text we can only get closer to the actual person writing it, never reaching. Underlying this argument is Nietzsche’s claim that language, in its inherent ambiguity, is imperfect when guiding us towards the truth. It is even more apparent in Joyce’s works. Volumes of books can be written on his life experiences, but one seemingly absent-minded word choice can send a literary critic go scrambling for interpretations. Volumes of interpretations, then, are written, but the critic is still unsure whether the intention of Joyce is correctly understood—for all we know, it may never be understood.
Since the author is nowhere to be found, it follows that we shouldn’t seek the presence of him. But the absence of Joyce certainly doesn’t mean that we can do whatever we want with his text. If we freely assign subjective interpretations to his works, not only does it mean that “[t]oo many elements in the stories have to be forced, twisted or suppressed to achieve the supposed ‘unifying’ pattern,” (Kelly, xxii) the massive corpus of interpretations it creates can leave us even deeper in disorientation. Who should we look for, then? Who, indeed, do we claim to know, when we say we know the author?
The answer seems apparent this time: we are familiar with the image of Joyce portrayed through his language, a representation of the author by the language. Joyce often writes in an autobiographical way, so our popular construct of him is developed through our analysis of his other texts, creating what Foucault defined as the “author-function”. And there is, in this case, literally a Portrait: the person we claim to know is not James Joyce, but rather the protagonist in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and later on in Ulysses: Stephen Dedalus. It is him that we should be looking for in “An Encounter.”
So, what do we know about Stephen Dedalus? In the famous second-to-last sentence of The Portrait, Joyce writes:
Welcome, O Life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. (299)
William Empson offers an interpretation of this sentence that most people agree on. The phrase “for the millionth time,” according to Empson, is not “the young man’s vanity [making] him use inflated language.” “He recognizes that the process has happened a million times before, because he knows he is only an avatar of the needed culture-hero.” (208) Dedalus vows to become a culture-hero for his corrupt and sinful nation, through his exploration of and experience with reality.
But before we make any further deductions from this image, we have to address that, weirdly enough, Empson arrives at this conclusion by stressing the author, not the author-function. He is a proponent of the primacy of author in a piece of work, and claims that his fellow literary critics are ignorant to think they can understand literature without looking at the author’s biography first. But had he adhered to his own doctrine meticulously, the ideal Empson would, in an effort to prove his point, throw pieces of Joyce’s biography at us. He didn’t; instead, his first instinct is to seek evidence in language. He betrayed it himself: “It becomes clear that I must defend every clause of the penultimate sentence of the Portrait, as it has been nagged at by a series of critics.” (207) In defense of his position, the first evidence he seeks is “every clause of the penultimate sentence”—in other words, language. It is therefore safe for us to resume our discussion, and apply Empson’s image of Dedalus to “An Encounter.”
We immediately notice that “An Encounter” is written in first person. Of course, the first person in a novel does not have to refer to the author himself; the question left for us is, does the narrator resemble Dedalus? The similarity, indeed, is striking. The young boy, after school, would reenact Indian battles he read in teenage novels with his friends. But he gradually grew tired of it:
The mimic warfare of the evening became at last as wearisome to me as the routine of school in the morning because I wanted real adventures to happen to myself. But real adventures, I reflected, do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad. (20)
In seek of “real adventures,” one has to go abroad. This is precisely the core rationale behind the final scene of A Portrait, where Dedalus exclaims:
The spell of arms and voices: the white arms of roads, their promise of close embraces and the black arms of tall ships that stand against the moon, their tale of distant nations. (298-299)
As Ghahreman puts it, “[e]vidently, Stephen is warming up for his eventual vocation as an artist in exile.” (161) The young artist, in short, wants to sail away to “distant nations,” in order to fulfill his aesthetic pursuits. We also see Dedalus’ perennial interest in ships: in the quote above, we read “the black arms of tall ships”; the title of his novel Ulysses is almost self-evident; in “An Encounter,” the narrator out of school chooses, of all things, to visit the river, and stare at vessels and sailors. The story, then, is organized around a journey in pursuit of freedom, or, projecting Dedalus’ ambition, a journey to “encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience,” the antithesis of “paralysis.”
It is hardly a surprise, therefore, that because the narrator’s “journey” in “An Encounter” is still within Ireland, he encounters, instead, the personification of “paralysis”:
He came along by the bank slowly. He walked with one hand upon his hip and in the other hand he held a stick with which he tapped the turf lightly. He was shabbily dressed in a suit of greenish-black and wore what we used to call a jerry hat with a high crown. (24)
Though not literally paralyzed as in “The Sisters,” the man is still described as “fairly old,” with mustache “ashen-grey.” But perhaps more importantly, the narrator took the time to notice the color of the old man’s suit. According to John Kelly, “[g]reen, the Irish national color, is constantly associated with frustration or perversion.” (xxiii) We immediately see his perversion in action:
Then he asked us which of us had the most sweethearts. Mahony mentioned lightly that he had three totties. The man asked me how many had I. I answered that I had none. He did not believe me and said he was sure I must have one. I was silent.
— Every boy, he said, has a little sweetheart. (25)
His monologue progresses with increasing eroticism:
He began to speak to us about girls, saying what nice soft hair they had and how soft their hands were and how all girls were not so good as they seemed to be if one only knew. There was nothing he liked, he said, so much as looking at a nice young girl, at her nice white hands and her beautiful soft hair. (26)
The fantasizing and objectifying of females is evident in his language. Furthermore, there is something inherently pedophilic about the old man, his favorite activity being looking at the hands and hair of “a nice young girl”; projected to the Irish nation, it is even darker and more disturbing.
But what is interesting is the narrator’s reaction: “In my heart I thought that what he said about boys and sweethearts was reasonable. But I disliked the words in his mouth.” The original question of the old man was “which of us had the most sweethearts”—as if winning the favor of women is a competition—and Mahony, adept in his use of slangs, assigned the word “totties.” What the narrator is objecting to is treating women simply as objects of sexualization. Love is, to say the least, “reasonable;” eroticism and perversion is not. This is reminiscent of a scene concerning Dedalus’ love interest, Emma, in The Portrait:
— Indeed you might, answered Heron. We saw her, Wallis, didn’t we? And deucedly pretty she is too. And inquisitive! […] She’s ripping, isn’t she, Wallis?
— Not half bad, answered Wallis quietly as he placed his holder once more in a corner of his mouth.
A shaft of momentary anger flew through Stephen’s mind at these indelicate allusions in the hearing of a stranger. For him there was nothing amusing in a girl’s interest and regard. (85)
From the novel, we know that Emma to young Dedalus is like Beatrice to Dante: a love almost Platonic, a symbol of beauty and life. Indeed, when he meets her again at the end of The Portrait, Emma turns out to be just like any ordinary Irish girl, and Dedalus fails to bring himself to start a relationship with her. It is quite possible that the narrator in “An Encounter” has a sweetheart, which is why he fell silent upon the old man’s further inquisition. For his conception of a sweetheart is different from the old man’s and Mahony’s idea of sweethearts: the former signifies freedom, life and aesthetic pursuits, whereas the latter hints at perversion and decadence.
It might also be worth it if we take a step back, and look at the story as a whole. The narrator always seems to be the observer; his sensitivity contrasts himself with other kids in school, who runs around and enjoys “barbaric” games. Dedalus has almost exactly the same characteristics: alone, reflective, contemplating. According to Kelly,
Joyce is in the Flaubertian tradition. He believes that the artist should remain outside his text, so disinterested, as he has Stephen Dedalus put in A Portrait of the Artist, that he stands aside paring his finger nails while his novel proceeds. (xiii)
We see here that this pattern of narrative choices distinctive to Joyce can also be applied to “An Encounter.” The belief that “the artist should remain outside his text,” in addition, gives us further confidence in pursuing the construct of Dedalus hidden in the Joycean language, and not Joyce himself.
And just like Stephen Dedalus, the author-function constructed from the author’s other works, helps us understand the meaning of “An Encounter,” when we are reading the short story, we are also following the perspective of a young boy out of school. We see another Dedalus whose passion for ships and journey beyond the nation is all too familiar; who despises the perversion, decadence and “paralysis” of the Irish society; whose role of a quiet observer is directly precedent of the role of the young artist in the author’s later works. Herein lies the value of the author-function: In finding Stephen Dedalus, we find the key to understand “An Encounter.”
- Empson, William. “Ulysses: Joyce’s Intentions.” Using Biography. Harvard UP, 1984, pp. 203-216.
- Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Cornell UP, 1980, pp. 113-138.
- Joyce, James. “An Encounter.” Dubliners. Alfred A. Knopf, 1916, pp. 18-28.
- —, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The Modern Library, 1916.
- Kelly, John. “Introduction to Dubliners.” David Campbell Publishers Ltd., 1991, pp. vii-xlix.
- Ghahreman, Omid. “James Joyce’s “An Encounter”: From the Perversion of an Escape to the Perversion of the Fatherhood.” International Journal of Applied Linguistics & English Literature. Australian International Academic Centre, 2013, pp. 158-164.