“An Encounter”: The Crossroads of Individuality and Expectation

Rachael Crowe, https://unsplash.com/photos/jK8JZGgBtHM

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James Joyce’s short story “An Encounter” holds a compelling exploration of the crossroads of societal expectations and the pursuit of individuality.

The nameless narrator, a young boy, in one sense goes where he belongs. Although playing Indian is not his preference, he does it in fear of being seen as, essentially, a nerd. It may defy the more general societal standards of his teachers, but it is exactly in line with the expectations he values more: those of his peers.

However, in another sense, he rejects this same idea. The boy quickly expresses a desire for “wild sensations” and “real adventures”, not for the sake of fitting in but for his own self-fulfillment. When he skips school to embark on his ‘adventure’, he takes a step outside of his community’s expectations and halfway into his own wants and desires. He describes a beautiful scene, light falling through the leaves against the water, and says he is happy. In almost the same breath, he explains how he is shouted at by workers for being a nuisance on the streets. At the same time he is fulfilling his personal dreams of adventure, he’s simultaneously being disruptive to the expectations of the other people around him.

Later, he searches sailors’ eyes for green, something the footnote remarks is possibly a reference to the dauntless Odysseus of legend. He finds none. Instead, he comes across a strange man who speaks to him about touching little girls with the same vigor as he speaks about whipping little boys, which is quick to make him incredibly uncomfortable. Here is where he finds the green eyes he was looking for. Here is the individuality and gusto that the sailors, who were just going about their jobs like anyone else, lacked. They’re not quite so appealing anymore.

In the end, both sides of the spectrum are criticized. To act according to the status quo is to be made to do things you don’t enjoy, and yet to ignore it is to bring trouble to everyone else. There is no simple answer to balancing between the two, only a warning that one must try.

Prompt: Write a 250-word paper about how James Joyce’s short story “An Encounter” explores the concept of societal expectations and norms vs individualism

James Joyce’s short story “An Encounter,” a part of his collection “Dubliners,” is a profound exploration of the tension between societal expectations and individualism. Set in early 20th-century Dublin, the narrative follows an unnamed young narrator and his friends as they navigate the constraints of a conservative society while yearning for personal freedom and adventure.

The story vividly portrays the rigid societal norms of the time. The boys are trapped in a monotonous routine of school and church, symbolizing the suffocating grip of Dublin’s conventional expectations. They are expected to conform, maintain their innocence, and avoid any deviation from the prescribed path. This societal pressure is represented by their teacher’s stern demeanor and their classmates’ mockery of anything unconventional.

However, the boys’ desire for adventure and individuality challenges these norms. Their daydreams of escapades, typified by wild-western fantasies, reflect their longing for experiences beyond the ordinary. The encounter with the Pigeon House attendant, though unsettling, represents an attempt to break free from the confines of societal expectations. It’s a risky venture into the unknown, driven by their longing for something more.

Joyce’s narrative brilliantly captures the internal struggle of the young narrator, torn between conforming to societal norms and embracing individualism. When the encounter turns sinister, he retreats, recognizing the importance of self-preservation within the bounds of society.

In “An Encounter,” James Joyce demonstrates how societal expectations and individualism are in constant conflict, especially during the formative years of adolescence. The story serves as a poignant reminder of the human desire for individuality and adventure while grappling with the pressures of conformity, making it a timeless exploration of this enduring theme.

One thought on ““An Encounter”: The Crossroads of Individuality and Expectation

  1. First of all, this is an interesting way of framing the story. So kudos for thinking of this angle. Second, I’m pretty impressed with ChatGPT this time around. It misses some of the finer details (the boys never get to the Pigeon House), but it’s otherwise more or less on target.

    What do you make of the fact that the boy is happiest before Mahony arrives?

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