Two gentlemen attempt to lift a drunken third man who has fallen down the stairs in a pub. They carry the unconscious man upstairs and place him on the floor. His friends have left and the police arrive. Young Mr. Power approaches, wipes the blood off the man and he regains consciousness. His name is Tom Kernan, an unsuccessful commercial traveler. Mr. Power, who works the Royal Irish Constabulary Office, takes him home where his wife Mrs. Kernan puts him to bed. Mr. Power stays for a while and Mrs. Kernan admits her worries. He assures her he will bring around some friends to see if they can help. Mrs. Kernan sadly remembers how that although she was tired of marriage after mere weeks, she has hung in there for over twenty-five years: "when she was beginning to find it unbearable, she had become a mother (131). She is upset when Kernan stays in bed the next day. Two nights later Powers, Mr. M'Coy and Mr. Cunningham come to see him. They are intent on tricking him into taking him on a religious retreat so he can quit drinking. His wife is dubious: "I'll leave it in your hands, Mr. Cunningham" (132).
The likeable, highly regarded Cunningham, who has an alcoholic wife, is to lead the meeting. At first the men make small talk about their lives. Mrs. Kernan brings up drinks. Her husband tries to get on her good side but she rebuffs him. Then the others begin to talk in front of Kernan about an event they are planning, and Kernan becomes interested. It's a Jesuit retreat, they remark, and Cunningham asks if Kernan, who is a convert to Catholicism, would be interested in attending. Kernan says he likes Jesuits but not priests in general and the other men defend Irish priests. Kernan says okay, he'll go and they carry on talking about Catholic doctrine without paying much attention to the facts until Mr. Fogarty, the grocer enters with a pint of whiskey. They continue their factual talk that is just plain wrong. For instance, Cunningham maintains that it is a historical fact that "the Jesuit order was never once reformed," when it was perhaps the most criticized and reformed Catholic order ever. Mrs. Kernan enters, listens, and hears that Kernan has agreed to go on the retreat with them: "we'll all go to renounce the devil" (144). She doesn't react outwardly but feels happy inside.
At first Kernan is uncomfortable at the church but feels better when he spies people he knows. Finally he "presents an attentive face to the preacher (146). Father Purdon's sermon is light and he calls on the men to "verify accounts," for their "spiritual accountant."
In the fourteenth Dubliners story, Joyce juxtaposes alcoholism and religion. Grace, as the title suggests, is a gift granted by God in an effort to help man reach heaven, a gift Mr. Kernan is much in need of, especially when we consider his condition at the beginning of the story. It should be remembered that Kernan converted or chose to become a Catholic. Now, however, he has fallen not just down the stairs, but metaphorically he has fallen into sin. The title, however, is also a pun. Grace is also the ability to move with great physical agility which Kernan hardly could do when, dead drunk, he took a tumble down the stairs. So, what to do to insure Kernan recovers grace, in both senses of the word? His alcoholism has escalated lately and caused both the spiritual dearth of grace and his physical decline. His wife is suffering, his fortunes are low, and his children are not properly supervised as evidenced by their "bad accents" which they have acquired associating with lower-class people.
Now his friends decide that his return to grace, his cure, involves staying away from drink and that the
Church is the way to make this happen. However, while all the men respect their religion, clearly they don't know anything about it. They speak with great authority, but they have the facts all mixed up and combine superstition with Catholic dogma. And the Priest Father Purdon, named after Dublin's brothel district, seems to think of religion in financial terms, with Christ as the chief accountant whose job it is to rectify one's final accounting, or balance the final books. However, at the end Joyce shines a light once more on Kernan as a troubled soul in need of grace.