An Encounter by James Joyce, 1914
The magic trick:
Turning a cliché on its head
I read this story of two boys playing hooky from school anticipating the cliché. And maybe that’s not fair. Maybe I brought the cliché to the pages before Joyce even had a chance, but in any case, I read this story as your classic “bad kid leads innocent narrator astray” situation. When they encounter the old man, the narrator is polite and agreeable, while Mahony (the bad kid) looks askance from afar.
Well, these attitudes were in keeping with the paradigm I already had in my head for the story. Imagine my surprise then when things go very definitely in a certain direction, shall we say, and Mahony’s distrust is proved prudent. Shame on the narrator for being so naive. Shame on me for being so trusting. And that’s quite a trick on Joyce’s part.
After a long while his monologue paused. He stood up slowly, saying that he had to leave us for a minute or so, a few minutes, and, without changing the direction of my gaze, I saw him walking slowly away from us towards the near end of the field. We remained silent when he had gone. After a silence of a few minutes I heard Mahony exclaim:
“I say! Look what he’s doing!”
As I neither answered nor raised my eyes Mahony exclaimed again:
“I say…He’s a queer old josser!”