James Joyce's 'An Encounter' - Fantasy Becoming Mundane
Fantasy and Illusory Thinking in Dubliners
Among many other things, Dubliners charts the role of illusory thought at various stages of life, from the role of connotations in the acquisition of language in 'The Sisters' to the pinnacle of reality in the stunning final paragraph of the final story, 'The Dead'.
'An Encounter' is the second story in the collection, and the middle one that deals with childhood. In the previous tale - 'The Sisters' - the young boy narrator is hardly touched by fantasy: the epiphany belongs to the priest, Father Flynn, and to the reader; and in the tale following 'An Encounter', 'Araby', fantasy and illusion are at their height when the protagonist falls into obsessional love with his friend's sister.
'An Encounter' is the middle ground between acquiring the ability to extrapolate the reality of life into the fantasy of games and wishful thinking, and the almost outright lies that characters in the later stories tell themselves.
In both ‘An Encounter’ and ‘Araby’, the tendency of the characters towards fantasy deepens and becomes more dangerously cued from the real world. In ‘An Encounter’ the boy is transfixed by his childhood games, first playing Wild West games with Joe Dillon and then when this ‘mimic’ becomes ‘wearisome’, he seeks ‘real adventure’ by planning ‘a day’s miching’ (that is, playing truant, or being absent from school without reason) (Dubliners, pp.19-20).
Unlike the narrator of ‘The Sisters’, this protagonist is keen to join the adult world and make a show of associating himself with it. As San Juan points out, the boy assumes something of an attitude of knowledge with the stranger he and his friend Mahony meet: ‘Mahony asked why couldn’t boys read them – a question which agitated and pained me because I was afraid the man would think I was as stupid as Mahony’ (Dubliners, p.25; ref San Juan, p.47).
A Fantasy of Adulthood
At the close of 'An Encounter' even this tentative step into adulthood is only a fantasy to the young boy. He realises that he does not yet fully understand the cryptic and frightening adult world, and as his mind conjures up the negative fantasy that the stranger, who has been fantasising aloud about ‘whipping boys’, ‘would seize me by the ankles’, he retreats to his school friend and his own reality with Mahony (Dubliners, p.28).
A Rite of Passage Story
But where ‘An Encounter’ is of a rite of passage that is cut short, and the vague fantasies of ‘real adventure’ and joining the adult world turn out to be too frightening to the young boy, ‘Araby’ is a real step into the world of fully-fledged adult fantasy, woven into the thread of reality so finely that it might be real. The resulting crash marks not the end of fantasy and a bold step into the real world, but instead the point where childhood meets adulthood, where fantasy must become mundane and fully internalised in order to survive, and from thenceforth, as can be seen in ‘Clay’, a routine part of the characters’ thoughts.
Reality in Fantasy in Dubliners
Joyce wrote that he saw illusory thinking as a screen from reality (San Juan, James Joyce and the Craft of Fiction: An Interpretation of Dubliners, 1972 Associated University Presses, p.18), and in the first three stories of Dubliners the young protagonists use fantasy in various ways to block out a mundane, dull life. In 'The Sisters', the boy is building a store of language and seems most challenged and focused on sinister words that he has learned from Catechism, or his odd friend, Father Flynn. In 'Araby', the adolescent narrator compartmentalises his fantasies of his first crush, Mangan's sister, from real life, trying (and ultimately failing) to keep his thoughts of her wholly separate from his schoolwork and the dull shopping trips he takes with his aunt.
'An Encounter' is a boy's fantasy of joining the adult world; he is fantasising about reality - a reality that he has not yet had experience of, and which he imagines will be much greater than his current life. He slips in and out of boyhood and near-adulthood: still playing games of pretend, but feeling no fear at striking out on his own and playing truant from school to taste the freedom and independence he imagines adult life will bring.
This is a forerunner of a theme that will appear in later stories in Dubliners: where fantastical thinking becomes ever more mundane and entwined with reality, so that they are barely separate - the characters are not (like the 'Araby' protagonist) dreaming wild dreams of escape and sweeping, exotic love, but of small fantasies that are only slightly different from reality. This becomes most important in the final stories of the book, when fantasy and reality become barely distinguishable for the characters, and their continued illusory thinking paralyses them into stagnation and living the same mistakes over and over again: in 'Clay', Maria sees herself only as she imagines other people see her - she has wholly lost sight of who she is or might be, and envisions herself as a shy person, beloved by all and surrounded by a cloud of pity.
Although it is not as much of a 'turning point' story as 'Araby', 'Eveline' or 'The Dead', 'An Encounter' is one of the most important stories in Dubliners in some respects, since it unearths the childhood seeds of the reality-based fantasies that will block the lives of the older characters in later stories.