In a busy law firm, one of the partners, Mr. Alleyne, angrily orders the secretary to send Farrington to his office. Farrington is a copy clerk in the firm, responsible for making copies of legal documents by hand, and he has failed to produce an important document on time. Mr. Alleyne taunts Farrington and says harshly that if he does not copy the material by closing time his incompetence will be reported to the other partner. This meeting angers Farrington, who mentally makes evening plans to drink with his friends as a respite. Farrington returns to his desk but is unable to focus on work. He skirts past the chief clerk to sneak out to the local pub where he quickly drinks a beer.
Two clients are speaking with the chief clerk when Farrington returns to the office, making his absence apparent. The clerk asks him to take a file to Mr. Alleyne, who is also with a client. Farrington realizes that the needed file is incomplete because he has failed to copy two letters as requested. Hoping that Mr. Alleyne will not notice, Farrington delivers the incomplete file and returns to his desk to work on his project. Again unable to concentrate, Farrington dreams of hot drinks and crowded pubs, only to realize, with increasing rage, that completing the task is impossible and that he has no hope of getting an advance on his paycheck to fund his thirst. Meanwhile, Mr. Alleyne, having noticed the missing letters, has come to Farrington’s desk with his client, the jovial Miss Delacour, and started another abusive critique of Farrington’s work. Farrington claims ignorance and wittily insults Mr. Alleyne to the amusement of Miss Delacour and his fellow clerks.
Forced to apologize to Mr. Alleyne, Farrington leaves work without completing his project and dreading the sure backlash at the office. More determined than ever to go to the pub, Farrington pawns his pocket watch for drinking money. At his first stop he meets his friends Nosey Flynn, O’Halloran, and Paddy Leonard, and tells them of his shining moment insulting his boss. Another clerk from the office arrives and joins them, repeating the story. Soon the men leave the pub, and O’Halloran, Leonard, and Farrington move on to another place. There Leonard introduces the men to an acrobat named Weathers, who happily accepts the drinks the other men buy for him. Farrington becomes irritated at the amount of money he spends, but the men keep drinking and move to yet another pub. Weathers meets the men there and Farrington begrudgingly buys him another drink out of courtesy. Farrington’s frustrations build as he flirts with an elegant woman sitting nearby who ultimately ignores his advances. Leonard and O’Halloran then convince Farrington to arm wrestle with Weathers, who has been boasting about his strength to the men. After two attempts, Farrington loses.
Filled with rage and humiliation, Farrington travels home to Shelbourne Road, a lower-middle-class area southeast of the city center. Entering his dark house, he calls to his wife Ada but is met by one of his five children, his son Tom. When Tom informs him that Ada is at church, Farrington orders Tom to light up the house and prepare dinner for him. He then realizes that the house fire has been left to burn out, which means his dinner will be long in coming. With his anger at boiling point, Farrington begins to beat Tom, who plaintively promises to say a Hail Mary for Farrington if he stops.
While many characters in Dubliners desire something, face obstacles that frustrate them, and ultimately forfeit their desires in paralysis, Farrington sees everything in the world as an obstacle to his comfort and never relents in his vitriol. The tedium of work irritates Farrington first, but so does everything he encounters in the story. The root of Farrington’s violent and explosive behavior is the circular experience of routine and repetition that defines his life. Farrington’s job is based on duplication—he copies documents for a demanding boss. His job, in other words, is to produce replications of other things, and the monotony of this job enrages him. Farrington envisions release from such deadening activity in the warmth and drink of public houses, but his experiences there only beget further routine. He repeats the story of the confrontation with Mr. Alleyne to his friends, who then also repeat it. Following the “round” tradition in which each person in a group takes turns buying drinks for all companions present, he continually spends money and consumes more alcohol. The presence of Weathers, who takes advantage of this system, makes Farrington realize how such tradition and repetition literally rob him. His anger mounts throughout the story.
Farrington hurtles forward in the story without pausing to think about his actions or why he feels such discontent. As a result, his circular activities become more and more brutal. When he loses two arm wrestling matches to Weathers, a “mere boy,” he goes home only to beat his own boy. What begins as mundane copying, the story hints, spins out of control into a cycle of brutal abuse. While other characters in the collection acknowledge their routine lives, struggle, then accept their fate passively, Farrington is unaware and unrelenting. The title, “Counterparts,” refers to a copy or duplicate of a legal paper, the stuff of Farrington’s career, but also to things that are similar or equal to each other. Farrington lives a life of counterparts, to dangerous ends. His pawning of his watch may symbolically release him from the shackles of schedules and time demands, but the frustrations of work only take on new and more extreme forms at the pub and at home. For Farrington, life repeats itself: work is like the pub is like home. As “Counterparts” illustrates, this bleeding between different areas of life inevitably exists. When maddening routine and repetition form the backbone of experience, passivity may result, but so too might volatile frustration.
The abuse that other stories in Dubliners allude to becomes explicit in “Counterparts,” and the consistent emotional theme of anger underpins every event in the story. Joyce uses adjectives like heavy, dark, and dirty to describe Farrington—he is quite literally worn out by frustration and anger. Not even the desperate servitude and piety of his son touch him, signaling that spirituality fails to save and protect. Farrington is unable to realize that his own actions are far worse than the mocking cruelty of his boss. Joyce refers to Farrington both by his name and as “the man” throughout the story. In one sentence he is the familiar character of Farrington that the reader follows throughout the story, yet in another he is “the man” on the street, on the train, in an office. Farrington, in a sense, acts as an exchangeable or general type, both a specific man and everyman. Joyce’s fluid way of addressing him thus serves to weave Farrington into the Dublin streetscape and suggest that his brutality is nothing unusual.