On a mild August evening, two young men are on a walk. The listener is squat, ruddy, dressed like a young man, but his body and face are prematurely aged. He seems to enjoy tremendously the other man's story. The listener's name is Lenehan. The teller's name is Corley. Corley is telling Lenehan about a girl who works as a housekeeper. She's his new amusement. In crude terms, he talks about how they met and the fun they've had. He thinks she's up to the task of avoiding pregnancy. He's told her that he has no job with the aim of stifling any desire she might have had to marry him.
Corley is the son of an inspector of police, who is probably dead (although Joyce is unclear about this). He's inherited something of his father's walk and manner. He's a large, oily man, always sweaty, who speaks without listening to others. When he's talking, he's usually discussing himself.
The two men continue to discuss women. A good "slavey" (servant girl), they agree, is the best kind of girl to have. Corley used to go for girls off the South Circular, a once-elegant road where the girls would accept his gifts but refuse his sexual advances.
His girl is now engaged in prostitution, Corley believes. Lenehan keeps asking if Corley can "bring it off" all right. Corley keeps replying that he can.
The time for Corley's meeting with the girl approaches. Lenehan keeps asking if he can have a look at the girl, which makes Corley nervous. The two men have planned for Corley to go with the girl and meet later with Lenehan. While Lenehan walks around, he regrets having to wait so long alone; he's not sure how to amuse himself. The loneliness makes him moody, and he reflects on his age (31) and the fatigue he already feels. He's horribly poor, and has few prospects for improving this condition. He thinks about the friendships and loves of his life, and how in the end these intimates proved unreliable. He eats a miserable supper of peas and ginger beer, but he finds this meal satisfying.
When he returns to meet Corley at the appointed hour, he sees Corley with the girl and judges their expressions to mean that Corley will fail to "bring it off." But when Corley finally arrives alone, and Lenehan asks eagerly if he succeeded, Lenehan grimly presents a beautiful golden coin.
Undoubtedly the seediest story in Dubliners, "Two Gallants" hammers home the fact that Joyce had no interest in presenting Dublin in a positive light. The two directionless young men are repulsive on every level. The title has a bit of gleeful irony, and Joyce gives neither man so much as a single redeeming quality. Joyce even makes them ugly.
Poverty is never romanticized in Joyce's work, perhaps because his experience with it was personal. In creating his multifaceted portrait of Dublin life, he used stories like "Two Gallants" to show the aimlessness of many young urban men. Unlike the dilettante Doyle of the last story, these men cannot indulge themselves during their directionless days. Neither man has a good job, and neither man has many opportunities for advancement. So all energy is directed in search of easy money for drink, and easy women for sex.
Lenehan's time alone gives Joyce a chance to hammer home the tawdriness of the men's existence. Lenehan's lessons in life have been hard and ugly. He cannot count on friends or women, and he believes his poverty will endure. This is Dublin for a large class of people, according to Joyce's vision. With little to count on or aim for, the pursuit of easy women and drink is the logical course of action.
The ending comes as a bit of a surprise: what Corley is attempting to "bring off" is never made clear until he presents the coin. His grim expression is ambiguous, and indicates at least the possibility of guilt, though nothing more than speculation is possible. At any rate, even if Corley feels guilty, it has not stopped him from keeping the money. Corley has sweet-talked the girl into giving both her body and some cash, after speaking of her with his friend without the slightest bit of respect.