The story opens with the end of a race in Dublin. The Irish onlookers have no Irish cars to cheer for, but they pour their enthusiasm into supporting the French, their fellow Catholics and (usually unreliable) allies.
In one of the French cars, four young men are in particularly high spirits: Charles Ségouin, the owner of the car; André Rivere, a French-Canadian electrician; Villona, a Hungarian; and Jimmy Doyle, a "neatly groomed" young Irishman.
Jimmy Doyle's father, we learn, was once an advanced Nationalist (a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party, in its heyday led by Charles Parnell, which favored legislative independence for Ireland). Very quickly, he modified his views. He became rich in the butchering business, winning a police contract and becoming sufficiently wealthy to be called a "merchant prince" in local papers. He sent Jimmy to a Catholic college in England, to Dublin University to study law, and to Cambridge for a term "to see a little life." At Cambridge he met Ségouin, whose father is rumored to be one of the wealthiest men in France. Villona is another Cambridge friend, charming enough, but unfortunately he is very poor.
Villona and Jimmy go to Jimmy's house to dress before going to dine at Ségouin's hotel. At Jimmy's house his parents are full of both pride and trepidation, eager to impress their continental guest. At dinner that night, the four young men are joined by Routh, an English acquaintance of Ségouin's from Cambridge. Ségouin is an excellent host. At one point, an argument between Jimmy and the English Routh threatens to spoil the evening, but Ségouin aptly defuses the situation.
That night on their walk, the young men run into Farley, a wealthy young American. All six men go out in a car, take a train, and then head out to the American's yacht. They sing and dance, and then take a light supper. They drink endlessly. They play cards, while Villona goes to the piano and plays for them. Jimmy is so drunk he's not sure what's happening, but he knows he's losing. At the end of the game, he and Farley are the heaviest losers; Jimmy has no idea how much he's lost. He knows he will regret it the next morning, but for now he is grateful for the fog of his drunkenness. As he leans his elbows on the table and rests his head in his hands, the cabin door opens and Villona stands in the early morning light, telling the men that daybreak has come.
The title of the story is the tale's first metaphor. "The race" refers not only to the automobile race but also to the race for empire played out by the great European powers in the nineteenth century. By the dawn of the twentieth century, this race was more or less over. The imperialist powers had carved up a substantial portion of the world, with England and France having taken many of the choicest bits of territory.
Joyce expresses Ireland's position in the world concisely with the implicit parallel between the automobile race and the race for Empire: in the automobile race, there is no car from Ireland. The Irish have no choice but to cheer on the cars from France, as the French are fellow Catholics and a traditional Irish ally. Historically, however, the French were abysmally unreliable allies for the Irish; the French Republic's support never brought Ireland an inch closer to liberty. But the Irish, not having a place in the race (imperial or automobile), have little choice but to cheer on the French.
As the title indicates, we are dealing with the world after the consolidation of the great colonial empires. What place, then, does Ireland have in the world? What place does a young Irishman, the son of an upwardly mobile rich merchant, have in the cosmopolitan world of wealthy international elites?
As Joyce depicts it, wealthy Irish are naturally at a disadvantage when rubbing elbows with the elites of the continent or America. Joyce lampoons Jimmy's parents rather mercilessly. We learn that Jimmy's father is far less interested in the political good of his country than in protection of his own interests. Though in his youth he was an advanced Nationalist, he quickly became more conservative. The family's ascent begins with this act of compromise. And their real wealth comes when he takes a police contract, supplying meat to the forces that upheld British rule. Young Jimmy, no matter how wealthy, is the citizen of a colony. His nation cannot walk as an equal among others, and his father has a role in keeping their country a colony.
The Doyle family's emphasis on riches is somewhat distasteful. They evaluate Jimmy's friendships in terms of his friends' wealth. Ségouin's fabulous wealth is reason enough for Jimmy to befriend him. Joyce takes on a wry tone when he tells us the Doyles' opinion of Villanova: "Villanova was entertaining also a brilliant pianist but unfortunately, very poor" (36). The crassness of their evaluation emphasizes that the Doyles are not part of Ségouin's world. The Frenchman does not need to evaluate people based on their money. He has plenty of it, and has never worked for it. The Doyles cannot say the same. In their eagerness to please their son's friends from the Continent, they only prove their provinciality. Their inability to maintain the wealthy Frenchman's charm, ease, and pleasant detachment highlights the difference between their nouveau riche Irish background and Ségouin's old money.
Jimmy is less than impressive. He is something of a dilettante, a mediocre student without any outstanding characteristics. He is relegated rather firmly to sidekick status among these men: never does Jimmy plan anything, though Dublin is his city. Ségouin is the one playing gamemaster and host. Jimmy's only along for the ride.
And Jimmy's evening costs him. Though he is allowed to play with the rich, he cannot afford their expenses. Although he has a wonderful time early in the evening, he loses badly in the card game, and his heavy drinking will lead to a throbbing headache. We are reminded by Jimmy's night of Dublin's provinciality. As this story depicts it, part of Irish identity is a peripheral status compared to the centers of world power. This status transfers to her people. Powerlessness is a theme: throughout the whole story, the Doyles play by the rules others have made. They can prosper and play, but never on their own terms.