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"An Encounter" is a short story by James Joyce. It is second in a collection of Joyce's short stories called Dubliners.
An Encounter Wikipedia
The story involves a boy – the narrator – and his friend Mahony taking a day off from school and going to the shore, to seek adventure in their otherwise-dull lives. As the narrator says, "The mimic warfare of the evening became at last as wearisome to me as the routine of school in the morning because I wanted real adventures to happen to myself. But real adventures, I reflected, do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad."
The episode revolves around their trip and the people that they see. There are enormous social events that the boys witness and the narrator, in an act of maturity, seems to at least be able to notice the situations. For example, the boys are mistaken for Protestants by some local children. The narrator also notices that many of the children are "ragged" and extremely poor.
Near the end of their day, the boys are approached by an older man who gives them an odd feeling. Previously, it seems to the reader that the man had been 'sizing them up' and then began to talk of mundane subjects, such as Sir Walter Scott and young sweethearts. At one point, the man excuses himself and it is implied that he touches himself before returning to the boys. He then begins a drawn-out monologue on the subject of whipping and other such corporal punishments. Deeply unsettled, the narrator looks to his friend Mahony for comfort, although he admits to harbouring negative feelings about him.
There is no textual proof that the man does in fact masturbate: all is left to the reader to judge — an example of Joyce's use of Gnomon, an avoiding form often encountered in Joyce's writing, most succinctly expounded in Stephen's remark in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that "absence is the highest form of presence". Note: this reference is apocryphal. 'Absence is the highest form of presence' was in fact a jibe directed at Joyce by students at St. Stephens College, Dublin due to speech in which he said that 'Death is the highest form of life'. This phrase was used both by Joyce himself and later by 'The Cap' in Ulysses, appearing as '[d]eath is the highest form of life. Bah! (p.622)' in an argument with Stephen Dedalus. (See Ellmann, R. James Joyce. 1982. pp.95-96)
The tale depicts many aspects of Dublin society at the time - antagonism and violence between Catholic and Protestant communities, Irish poverty, lecherous old men, foreigners and the schooling of boys. The boys encounter all these in this short story, giving us a broad view of Dublin itself.An Encounter – From the book Dubliners.