James Joyce’s “An Encounter” is both an adventure story and a bildungsroman, which is a coming-of-age narrative that follows a young protagonist on their intellectual and moral journey from childhood to young adulthood. The text is told from a first person point-of-view by a young, unnamed boy who dreams of adventure in the American Wild West. Eager to play the hero and have an adventure of his own, he concocts a plan with some of his friends to skip school and explore the streets of Dublin without adult supervision.  

“An Encounter” opens with the narrator explaining that he and the rest of the boys in their neighborhood, led by an older boy named Joe Dillon, are obsessed with reading adventure stories (typically about the Wild West, or detectives) and staging elaborate and heroic make-believe battles. The young narrator characterizes himself as a shy and timid soul who is drawn to this type of literature because it “opens doors” and allows him to live vicariously through the characters. He is particularly drawn to action-packed and heroic tales because they disrupt the dull monotony that he experiences in his daily life and allow him to play the part of the hero. 

Eventually, however, the narrator grows bored of simply reading and play-acting adventures and longs to have a real one of his own. He acknowledges that, to do so, he must leave the routine of home and school and seek adventure on the Dublin streets. He and three of his friends decide that they are going to skip school and go exploring. This decision is the story’s inciting incident; it sets the rest of the plot in motion. It is also a significant moment because it adheres to genre conventions. “An Enounter” is a coming-of-age story but it is also an adventure story, and a protagonist’s departure from the safety of home is the first step in any hero’s journey narrative. 

The remainder of the short story takes place on the narrator and Mahony’s quest through Dublin. The rising action portion of the short story can be divided into two distinct phases that are set in two contrasting settings. The first phase is set in the bustling streets and canals of Dublin. This portion of the narrative is filled with detailed descriptions of Dublin city life and commerce as the two boys have run-ins with sailors and laborers, ride a ferry, look at ships, get into scrapes with groups of poor children, and purchase snacks from local shops. While the two boys are interested in their surroundings, these descriptions of everyday life in Ireland’s capital grounds their journey in a mundane reality as opposed to the action-packed adventures that they are used to reading about in fiction. This contributes to one of the text’s central ideas, which is that reality does not often live up to our fantasies. 

The second phase of rising action involves an abrupt tone shift with a complementary setting change. The crowded and lively Dublin streets are substituted with an empty field, with no visual indicators of humanity. The empty field creates an unnerving tone because the two young boys are vulnerable in their isolation. Joyce’s use of setting and tone is effective; it sets the stage for the entrance of the text’s antagonist, the sadistic and perverted old man who preys on the two boys. 

The old man, who could be classified as the text’s titular character because he is clearly the “encounter” referenced in the short story’s title, approaches the two boys and starts to ask them a series of questions. The interaction starts out innocent enough (he begins by asking the boys about books) but quickly strays into concerning territory as he makes a series of sexual comments about young girls, interrogates the boys about their love lives, and rhapsodizes about whipping boys for misbehaving. Joyce also implies that the old man exposes himself to the children from a distance, when he leaves them momentarily, but it is not explicitly stated. The narrator is clearly afraid of the old man but he is so disarmed by his disturbing and circular speech that he is essentially paralyzed in his shock and unable to move. However, the short story’s rather mundane title suggests that this deeply awkward and anxious meeting is not so atypical of Dublin life, nor of childhood.

In the climax of the short story, the narrator is finally able to break out of his stupor and run away. He calls for Mahony as he runs so that the two of them can get away from the old man. As the falling action builds to a conclusion, Mahony heroically runs toward the narrator as if to “bring him aid” and save him from the old man after hearing him call out. This humiliates the narrator because he realizes, in that moment, that Mahony is the actual hero in their friendship dynamic and that real-life adventures are nothing like what he reads about in fiction. This depressing epiphany marks the narrator’s departure from childhood to young adulthood because he reaches a higher plane of understanding—even though said understanding is painful for him.