Imagining they are in the Wild West, a group of schoolboys stage mock “cowboy and Indian” battles. The narrator, an unnamed boy, explains that Joe Dillon, the host and consistent winner, always ends his victory with a dance. Such games and the fictional adventure stories on which they are based bond these boys together, both in leisurely release and secrecy. As the narrator explains, he and his fellow students surreptitiously circulate the magazines that carry the stories at school. The narrator recalls one time when Father Butler caught Leo Dillon, Joe’s younger brother, with one such publication in his pocket. Father Butler scolded Leo for reading such material instead of his Roman history.
The narrator yearns for more concrete adventures and organizes a plan with Leo and another boy named Mahony to skip school one day and walk through Dublin, visiting the ships along the wharf and finally the Pigeon House, Dublin’s electrical power station. He confirms the pact by collecting sixpence from Leo and Mahony, and they all promise to meet at ten the next morning. However, only Mahony arrives as agreed. While the narrator and Mahony walk south through North Dublin, two poor boys approach them and yell insults, thinking them Protestant. Resisting retribution, the boys continue until they reach the river, and there they buy some food and watch the Dublin water traffic and laborers. They cross the river in a ferryboat, buy some more food on the other side, and wander the streets until they reach an open field where they rest on a slope.
The boys are alone for a while until an older man appears in the distance, walking toward them leaning on a stick. He gradually approaches and passes the boys, but then backtracks and joins them. The man begins to talk, reminiscing about his boyhood and talking about books, such as the works of Lord Lytton, who wrote romances. The conversation then turns to “sweethearts” as the man asks the boys if they have many girlfriends, a question that surprises the narrator. As the story continues, the narrator notes the peculiar appearance and behavior of the man: his yellow-toothed, gaped smile, how he twitched occasionally, and, most of all, his monotonous repetition of phrases.
When the man leaves for a moment, the narrator suggests that he and Mahony assume the code names of Smith and Murphy, to be safe. As the man returns, Mahony runs off to chase a stray cat, leaving the narrator to listen to the man’s peculiar monologues alone. The man remarks that Mahony seems like the kind of boy that gets whipped at school, and from there launches into a diatribe about disciplining boys who misbehave, insisting that any boy who talks to a girl should be whipped, and that he himself would enjoy executing the punishment. At a pause in the man’s speech, the narrator rises and announces that he must depart. He calls for Mahony, using the name Murphy, who runs across the field toward him in response.
“An Encounter” suggests that although people yearn for escape and adventure, routine is inevitable, and new experiences, when they do come, can be profoundly disturbing. The narrator and his friends play games about the Wild West to disrupt the rote activity of school, and venture into Dublin for the same reason. However, the narrator and his friends never fully reach escape. Though the narrator bemoans the restraint of school, his attempt to avoid it leads him to the discomforting encounter with an old man whose fixation on erotic novels, girlfriends, and whipping casts him as a pervert. This creepy figure serves as an embodiment of routine and suggests that repetition exists even within strange new experiences. The man walks in circles, approaching and passing the boys before retracing his steps to join them. He mimics this action in his speech by repeating points already raised and lingering on topics uncomfortable for the narrator. Although these boys seek an escape, they must suffer monotony, in the form of an excruciating afternoon with a frightening man. The rather mundane title for the story suggests that this deeply awkward and anxious meeting is not so atypical of Dublin life, nor of childhood.
The troubling presence of a strange older man recalls the ambiguous relationship between Father Flynn and the narrator of “The Sisters,” but this story clearly shows the man exploiting and abusing the innocence of youth. The man’s conversation becomes more and more inappropriate and threatening, culminating in his fantasy about whipping Mahony. Most dangerous, the circular manner of his speech paralyzes the narrator. The man’s orbit of words both mesmerizes and disturbs him, and he can do nothing but stare at the ground and listen. When the man abruptly rises to walk away and, presumably, exposes himself to the boys, the narrator remains frozen like a startled victim. In this state, the narrator knows something is wrong, since he suggests to Mahony that they assume fake names, but he does not run away. Even when the man returns and Mahony runs away to chase a cat, the narrator stays rooted to the ground. Exactly why the narrator experiences this paralysis is not explained, but its effects are anything but neutral.
Many references to religion hover in “An Encounter,” demonstrating that religion is a fixture in Dublin life that even the boys’ imaginations cannot elude. When Father Butler chastises Leo about the magazine, he scolds that only Protestant boys, not Catholic boys like Leo, would read such fanciful stories. This insult introduces the tension between Catholics and Protestants that Joyce alludes to throughout Dubliners, and reveals it to be a routine fact of life in Ireland. Religious tension appears again when two poor boys throw rocks at the narrator and Mahony and mistake them for Protestants, an incident that suggests that the line between these staunchly opposed groups is blurry. The narrator, using words like chivalry and siege, pretends that he and Mahony are in a battle, but the playfulness of such imaginary games only reinforces the authenticity of the scene. Imagination can mask experiences, Joyce suggests, but it cannot reverse them or make them disappear.