Thoughts on Joyce's 'An Encounter'

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Thoughts on Joyce's 'An Encounter'


Some preliminary thoughts on Joyce’s

An Encounter


The central theme and leitmotif of the story is an archetypal one: the quest for one's identity.

Two school boys – one of the original three doesn’t turn up at the appointed time and place for whatsoever reason – want to ‘get away from it all’, the dreariness of everyday school life. They want to have an “adventure”.

They subconsciously feel they have to ‘go on a journey’ like so many (famous and legendary) persons did before them: Parsifal, Odysseus, Siegfried – to enumerate just a few. Their temporary “escape” from school, an institution standing for the constraints of life (to a lot of persons, not just those two boys), resembles a search for their respective identities. School stands for a world of order contrasted with one of ‘adventure’, with breaking away from conventionality so as to make discoveries into oneself. You can only find yourself if you look at yourself from a distance in time and space. And this is exactly what the boys are about to do (though without being aware of it). By embarking on a journey for something new they are bound to meet themselves in another light, in a new and altered form. The boys (initially) set out for a specific aim/goal they have in mind, the Pigeon House. In the context of the first-person narrative it doesn’t matter that the boys never arrive there. What counts is that they meet = encounter the ‘unknown’.

The ‘unknown’ is life as it reveals (unveils) itself: a ‘mystery’.

The old man the boys incidentally ‘encounter’ by the riverside is a ‘riddle’ to them (at least to the reasoning first-person narrator) in what he says and the way he behaves.

This funny-looking man represents something “queer”. He is not really able to communicate with the boys on a level the boys could cope with. Therefore he is ‘strange’. Yet I don’t think that we can consider him odd or strange in a perverse way just because he would like to beat any boy who was untrue to his “sweetheart”.

So what is the moral of the boys’ experience to us?[1]

I believe there are several messages connected to this.

In the first place, life is an ‘adventure’ (unforeseeable, unpredictable), a ‘mystery’.

Life consists of inexplicable things. It is characterized by contradictions. How, for instance, can a boy who “fiercely” plays blood-curdling Red Indian war games at the same time have a “vocation for the priesthood” (p.9 in the Wordsworth Classics edition)?

Does the author want to suggest to us that the Church and Christianity as such do not stand for order, ‘order’ in the sense of logical explanations to what we meet/find/encounter in life? Or does he conversely insinuate that we are destined to be on a life-long quest for an answer to our identities and life in general? (This reminds me of Angelus Silesius when he says, “Freund, so du etwas bist, bleibe ja nicht stehn. Man muss von einem Licht fort in das andre gehn”, which rendered into appropriate English means, “ Friend that hast [Shakespearian form] achieved something don’t remain standing where you are. You’ve got to keep on moving ahead into another light [= insight] step by step.”)

So by lying, by playing truant the boys break with the rules of society (identical in that case with those of the Church). But this is something they have got to do in order to unfold and develop their personalities. It is life that teaches us, not just school. And we learn for life, not for school (cf. Latin “Non scholae discimus, sed vitae.”). School is largely seen as a form of ‘punishment’ instead of something enjoyable[2], a prison, from which the boys have to flee. The boys’ “miching” (p.10) is an act of (self-)liberation.

Therefore I can see a symbolic link between the Pigeon House and the ‘flight’ of the boys. Like any bird which can fly where it wants to, the boys choose to ‘escape’ into their freedom of the mind and soul.




My tutor’s comment on this piece of writing:

Fine, but don’t lose the quotidian amid all the philosophy.


[1] My tutor’s annotation of this question: ”Why must there be a moral?”
(Quite justified – I find from hindsight.)

[2] Corporal punishment is ‘administered’ from time to time in line with the age-old rule:
“Spare the rod, spoil the child.”
Some people still today hold the mythical view that “ A good flogging will knock some
sense into them.”