In the lavatory, a man lies at the foot of the stairs down which he fell. The floor is filthy, and the man has injured his head. Three men carry him upstairs and lay him on the floor of the bar. The manager asks if the unconscious man had friends with him; there were two, but they are gone now. Blood is trickling from the man's head, and a policeman is sent for. A constable arrives and asks questions.
A young man in a cycling suit comes through the crowd. He washes the blood away and tends to the injury. Finally, the injured man comes to. He tries to make light of his accident. A friend of the injured man comes forward and asks what has happened. We learn that the fallen man is named Tom Kernan. Once again, Tom makes light of his fall. The friend, one Mr. Power, offers to take Tom home. With Mr. Power supporting him on one side and the young man in the cycling suit supporting him on the other, Tom makes his way out of the bar. The young man goes off and Tom and Mr. Power take a cab home. On the way back, Mr. Kernan shows Mr. Power the inside of his mouth. It's bloody, and part of his tongue has been bitten off.
Mr. Kernan is a commercial traveler who strives to maintain dignity of dress while at work. His methods are old fashioned, and he has not been a success. Mr. Power is in the employ of the Royal Irish Constabulary Office. His social ascent has been in juxtaposition to Mr. Kernan's decline.
When they get back to the Kernan home, Mr. Kernan's wife puts him to bed. Mr. Power stays for a moment, chatting about the children with their mother and then playing with them. He is surprised by their accents. Mrs. Kernan is worried about her husband; lately, he's been a drunkard. Mr. Power suggests bringing over Martin Cunningham, a respected friend. Mr. Kernan's friends will get together and try to help him with his problem.
Although the Kernans have recently celebrated their silver anniversary, and Mrs. Kernan still remembers her wedding day with great joy, just a few weeks after her wedding she already found the role of wife tedious. Still, she has been a devoted and competent wife and mother. The next day, Mr. Kernan sends a note in to work and stays in bed. His wife is not pleased.
Two nights later his friends come to see him. He does not know that Mr. Cunningham, Mr. M'Coy, and Mr. Power have plotted with his wife to bring him along to a retreat. Mr. Kernan was a Protestant before his marriage, and he is not unknown to make little jabs at Catholicism. It has been more Mr. Cunningham's idea; Mrs. Kernan does not believe that her husband will change. She herself is moderate in her faith.
Martin Cunningham is to lead the assault. He is respected and liked. His wife is a drunkard. His legal experience and occasional bits of reading have won him the respect of his circle as the resident brain.
The men make small talk about the accident. We learn about M'Coy, who has had a colorful life working all manner of jobs. The subject of his two companions that night comes up: one was Harford, a man disapproved of because he works for Jews (and it is felt by his fellow Catholics that he acts like one). The men start complaining about the constables. Mrs. Kernan brings drink, and her husband tries to joke with her; she scolds him. Then Mr. Kernan's friends began to talk in front of him about a get-together they're planning. Naturally, Mr. Kernan's interest is piqued. He asks what's going on, and they tell him they're planning a little retreat. Then, as if it had just occurred to him, Mr. Cunningham asks if Mr. Kernan would like to come. Mr. Kernan remains silent while the men start to discuss the Jesuits. None of the men are particularly well-informed; they discuss Jesuit trivia without much accuracy. Mr. Kernan chimes in, saying he likes the Jesuits because they're learned and cater to the upper classes. But when he starts to criticize priests in general, the other three men defend the Irish priesthood.
Mr. Kernan admires Cunningham tremendously and is swayed. The retreat is being led by one Father Purdon, and it's for businessmen. The men slip back into a conversation about Church doctrine and history, getting the facts all nicely muddled.
Mr. Fogarty enters. He is a local grocer with a generous heart; despite debts Mr. Kernan owes him, Mr. Fogarty brings with him a pint of whisky. The amusing conversation continues, with the men muddling names, Latin phrases, and historical events in often humorous ways. The men get to discussing Papal infallibility. Despite the fact that some Popes were "up to the knocker" (bad), Mr. Cunningham says that not one ever spoke a word of false doctrine. "Isn't that remarkable?" he asks. The men keep talking, and they don't get any better a handle on facts or history. Mrs. Kernan returns, and she listens to part of their conversation. Mr. Kernan mentions John MacHale, a famous Irish clergyman whom he saw in real life. Mr. Power tells Mrs. Kernan that Mr. Kernan is coming on the retreat with them. She hides her satisfaction. The men talk about renewing their baptismal vows, and Mr. Kernan objects strenuously to the idea of holding a candle.
Later, at the church, Mr. Kernan initially feels ill at ease. It is full of businessmen. Mr. Kernan feels more and more comfortable as he sees some familiar faces (including Mr. Hendrick, who appeared in "A Mother"). Father Purdon gets up to speak. His sermon is rather undemanding. Nothing in it would make a businessman uncomfortable. He goes so far as to call Christ a "spiritual accountant" (175). He asks the men to "verify accounts," and if something is not right, to set it right by God's grace.
"Grace" is another tale that deals with alcoholism, but the real focus of the story is religion. By making Mr. Kernan a convert, and a rather unzealous one at that, Joyce can use this additional perspective to deal with religious life in Dublin. We see that Mr. Kernan is most definitely in need of some kind of help. The title of the story refers to the supernatural gift conferred by God on rational beings (man) so that they might be able to attain salvation. But the title is a play on words: it also refers to physical dexterity and elegance, here with a bit of a sneer, seeing as the first time we meet Mr. Kernan he has fallen down the stairs, and is passed out with a head wound and lying in the muck of a filthy lavatory floor.
Mr. Kernan needs help. His alcoholism has come on him after a long period of social decline. Mr. Powers, when seeing the children, "is surprised at their manners and at their accents" (153). Apparently, Mr. Kernan's children speak with the accent of less educated, poorer classes, showing how Mr. Kernan's fortunes have taken a turn for the worse. He has taken comfort in booze, and can no longer drink safely.
And his friends Mr. Power, Mr. Cunningham, and Mr. M'Coy react in a typically Irish Catholic way: religion, they promise Mrs. Kernan, will help Mr. Kernan with his problems. Religion in this case is something everyone seems to respect but no one seems to understand very well. The characters of this story are not particularly religious, and they certainly aren't thoughtful when it comes to spiritual matters. In a memorable sentence, Joyce tells us that Mrs. Kernan, if put to it, "could believe also in the banshee and in the Holy Ghost" (157). The banshee is a fairy spirit from Irish folklore, whose wailing is a premonition of death. Mrs. Kernan apparently puts faith in the banshee at the same level as faith in the Holy Ghost; Catholicism and superstition are jumbled together hopelessly. Later, that theme of superstition intertwining with Catholic belief comes up again, when Mr. Kernan refuses to light a candle. To his formerly Protestant mind, such a ritual smacks of silly superstitious practices.
The men are no better than Mrs. Kernan. Although Mrs. Kernan puts banshees and the Holy Ghost on a similar plane, the men have a somewhat pretentious conversation on Catholic doctrines and history, and in the process they get every important fact wrong. Their religious life, as we see in their humorous conversation, is not a life of study or reflection. Though they speak snobbishly of the lower classes, and Mr. Kernan expresses a liking for Jesuits because they preach to the educated, these men know next to nothing about their own Church's theology and history.
When we reach the Church itself, it becomes clear that perhaps a correct grasp of doctrine and history would not make them any more aware spiritually. Joyce's tone is biting. For one thing, he names the priest Father Purdon. Purdon Street in central Dublin was the heart of the red-light district. And Father Purdon's speech seems antithetical to the spirit of Christianity. Nothing difficult is proposed, and he does not make the men listen to any of Christ's more difficult or revolutionary teachings. He goes so far as to compare Christ to an accountant.
After having spent a good deal of the story blasting Catholicism and religious life in Dublin, Joyce shifts rather abruptly in tone at the end of the story. The priest addresses the businessmen in this simple, moving passage: speaking as if he were one of them, he says, "Well, I have looked into my accounts. I find this wrong and this wrong. But, with God's grace, I will rectify this and this. I will set right my accounts" (174).
Though he is continuing with his ludicrous metaphor of Christ as an accountant of the soul, this final passage still manages to end the story with a softer tone. The effect is not to pardon the Catholic Church, but rather to refocus our attention on Mr. Kernan. We have by this point nearly forgotten why Mr. Kernan has come here; our energy, like Joyce's, has been spent enjoying the thorough ribbing the story gives to the Catholic Church. But at the end of the tale, we are reminded that Kernan has come as a man with real problems. He has been forced into this retreat by social pressure, and will probably get nothing from it. But by shifting the focus at the last minute from the Church to a single, troubled man, Joyce keeps "Grace" from turning into a diatribe. His critique of Dublin's spiritual life exists alongside a solid portrait of an individual man.