It was Joe Dillon in who introduced the Wild West to the young narrator and his friends in the form of magazines. Joe and his younger brother, Leo the idler, would play Indians with a group of boys after school but, as the young narrator says, "however well we fought, we never won siege or battle and all our bouts wound up with Joe Dillion's war dance of victory" (10). The narrator explains he isn't as robust as Joe Dillon and that while the adventures in the magazines didn't appeal to him, "the literature of the Old West" provided a great means of escape. He finds American detective stories far more interesting. But, the narrator "wanted real adventures to happen," and plans "a day's miching," or hooky, with Leo Dillon and another friend named Mahony (11). The three pool their money to make up eighteen pence and plan to meet at Canal Bridge.
Although Leo fails to show, Mahony meets the narrator and they set out on their exploits around Dublin, their only weapon, Mahony's catapult, or sling shot. First they run after a group of ragged girls only to be pelted with stones by chivalrous poor boys who call Mahony a "swaddler," because he wears an emblematic Protestant cricket badge. Then, while they eat their lunch by the Liffey River, they watch the ships below and dream of running away to sea. Next they take the ferry across the river where they see a large Norwegian ship discharging sailors whose faces the narrator closely examines for green eyes.
At Ringsend, the boys buy chocolate and cookies and raspberry soda as they wander through squalid neighborhoods. They realize they will have to shorten their excursion in order to be home by 4:00 p.m. On their way to catch the train, they encounter an old man "tapping the ground with his stick" (14). He asks if they've read a variety of authors and the narrator pretends that he has. The old man inquires whether the boys have sweethearts and, proud to be asked such a question, Mahony admits he has three, while the narrator confesses to none. "Every boy," the old man insists, "has a little sweetheart" (14). The narrator is struck by the old man's attitude, "strangely liberal in a man his age," and he continues talking in a sort of obsessive manner about the beauty of young girls until suddenly he excuses himself for a moment or two. Next, Mahony exclaims: "Look what he's doing!" (18). The narrator doesn't answer, nor does he even look up, and suggests that they should call each other Murphy and Smith.
When the old man returns, Mahony chases a cat that earlier escaped him and leaves the narrator with the old man. The old man calls Mahony "a very rough" boy, and suggests he should be whipped. He continues talking about whipping boys and how much he would like to perform such whipping more than anything in the world. Finally, the old man seems to plead with the narrator "to understand him" (17). The narrator, fearful that the old man will seize him, runs to the top of the slope and cries out for his friend "Murphy," who is wandering around aimlessly. Mahony, alias Murphy, returns and the narrator feels deep gratitude. However, he also feels "penitent; for in [his] heart [he] had always despised him a little" (18).
Escape, a theme which dominates all of Joyce's works, is the prevailing theme in "An Encounter." Joyce himself realized early on in life that to fulfill himself as an artist he would have to leave Ireland. To remain, he knew, would serve only to cripple him as an artist. If he did not leave Ireland, he would simply wither on the vine, his talent unfulfilled. And he did indeed leave Ireland as a young man, and with one short exception, lived on the continent of Europe for most of his life. The boys in "An Encounter," the second story in the child stage of Dubliners, also long for escape, especially the narrator, who like Joyce himself lacked physical "robustness." He was also very intellectual and might find a more satisfying escape in detective stories than the far more raucous Westerns because "they opened doors of escape" (10). America in this regard represents freedom and a sense of adventure, which is what the two boys crave most. They spend a good part of their day watching the ships coming in and going out to sea and wish one day they could themselves take part in such an adventure: "Mahony taught it would be right skit to run away to sea on one of those big ships and.school and home seemed to recede from us" (13).
However, their chance at adventure, to escape in other words, is a disappointment. Joe Dillon fails to show
up entirely, and the other boys get caught up not so much in a day of thrill and adventure, but in disappointment and perversion. They live not on the Western plains, but in a dirty, impoverished and dangerous city and they are not heroic cowboys and Indians, but children in need of protection. Consider Dublin: the Ringsend neighborhood has children far poorer than the narrator and Mahony; Protestants and Catholics are intolerant of each other; the old man is a lurking sexual predator who could pounce on the children at any time.