Eight years ago Little Chandler saw his friend Gallagher off at the North Wall. Gallagher went off to London, and since then has become a great journalist. Chandler is to meet him that night, and he's growing increasingly excited.
He's called "Little Chandler" despite his more or less average height because he gives the impression of being small and childlike. He waits at his desk in the King's Inns, where he works as either a scrivener or clerk, thinking of the people outside the office window and the melancholy of life. He thinks of the books of poetry on his shelves; sometimes he is seized by the desire to read something to his wife, but his timidity holds him back.
His workday ends and he sets off for Corless's, one of Dublin's most cosmopolitan bars and the appointed meeting place. He remembers Ignatius Gallagher as he was eight years ago. He had always been wild, mixing with rough fellows, borrowing money on all sides. Something in him suggested future greatness.
Little Chandler nurses vague dreams of being a poet. The dominant note of his poetry would be melancholy; perhaps some of the English critics would recognize him as one of the Celtic school.
At Corless's, Gallagher greets him enthusiastically. He has aged badly. They talk about their old gang of friends; most have either settled down for unremarkable careers or have gone to the dogs. They talk, Little Chandler shy in the company of his outspoken friend; among the topics is how Little Chandler has never traveled. The farthest he's been from Ireland is the Isle of Man. Gallagher has knocked about the great cities of Western Europe. Little Chandler finds something upsetting about Gallagher: "There was something vulgar in his friend which he had not observed before" (72). While Gallagher is on the subject of Paris, and the vivacity of its life, Little Chandler keeps asking if Paris is "an immoral city" (72). Gallagher laughs at Chandler's provincial attitudes and shocks him with stories of religious houses in Europe and the wild revelries of the aristocracy.
The conversation turns back to Chandler. He has been married for over a year, and they have a baby boy. Chandler invites Gallagher over to see the wife and child, but Gallagher time in Ireland is too short and busy to permit a visit. The next time Gallagher comes, the men say, and to clinch it, at Chandler's insistence, they have another drink. Little Chandler feels the difference between his life and Gallagher's. He can't help but be jealous; he's Gallagher's superior in birth and education, but Gallagher has been so much more successful.
The subject of marriage comes up. Gallagher says he may never get married, and that if he does it won't be for a while yet. He has no plans to "put my head in the sack"; Chandler says with a touch too much vehemence, "You'll put your head in the sack . . . like everyone else if you can find the girl" (76). Gallagher says that if he does marry, it will be for money.
Later that night, Chandler is at home holding his baby. He came home late and forgot to get the coffee for his wife. His wife Annie went out herself to do some late shopping, putting the sleeping baby into his arms. Looking at his wife's picture, he resents her for not being a voluptuous exotic woman of the continent. All of the furniture, chosen by Annie, seems "prim and pretty." He feels as if he is imprisoned. He opens a volume of Byron's poems, and reads a rather trite poem with a melancholy tone. He wonders if he could express himself in such a way. As he tries to get through the poem, the child wakes up and starts to cry. He tries to soothe it, but when the child keeps crying he bends toward the child's face and screams "Stop!"
After that, there's no calming the child. Annie comes home, and the boy is still crying. She angrily asks Chandler what he's done to it. She tries to calm him. Chandler stands by, tears of remorse in his eyes.
Chandler's paralysis is thrown into sharp contrast by Gallagher's remarkable career. The key to Gallagher's success, naturally, has been leaving Ireland. Little Chandler can only delight so much in his old friend's position. Mostly, Gallagher serves as a reminder of how trapped Little Chandler really is. Chandler has vague aspirations of publishing his poetry, but it soon becomes obvious that Gallagher is not the man to help it.
The entrapment on Little Chandler is more than geographical. As Joyce depicts it, Ireland forms a kind of mental prison for him. His melancholy temperament and his aspirations of being recognized as part of the Celtic school reveal him as, at best, a hackneyed and provincial poet. The "Celtic Twilight" poetry, which catered to English stereotypes and preconceptions, has since been judged as tritely melancholy and whimsical poetry of dubious quality. Joyce himself was known to have contempt for their brand of writing.
Chandler's mental imprisonment extends to his questions about Gallagher's travels. He asks again and again if Paris is a "moral city," as if that were a simple question, as if morality were something to be measured on a scale of one to ten. Of course, his provincial standard for evaluating a city's morality uses Dublin as the example of an ethically upright town. (This position is all the more amusing because of the last few stories we've read, in which we've been treated to a broad spectrum of cheating, manipulation, abuse, and unkindness.)
Gallagher is not exactly a charming figure, either. He seems to delight in shocking Little Chandler, and he is rather offhand in his treatment of his friend. While he has made the big move to London, which has enabled his career to go places it would never have gone in Dublin, gaining worldliness does not always guarantee tremendous gains in kindness or compassion.
But Gallagher's off-putting character traits only make Chandler more resentful. He feels that Gallagher does not deserve the success he's had. And because he feels his imprisonment all the more acutely, he takes it out on his child. We learn about the many things restraining Chandler: the furniture is still being paid for, and his wife decides how to decorate the house. The child's needs make it impossible for Chandler to make time to read. As he tries to read the Byron poem and the child cries, Chandler realizes that he will not be able to break free of his obligations. His abuse of his son, his one small moment of freedom, is followed by the natural negative consequences, including remorse. Moreover, the little outburst does not make Chandler any less trapped.