Farrington, a scrivener in a legal office, is called to see his tyrannical boss, Mr. Alleyne. After a few solid minutes of abuse, he is allowed to return to work with a strict deadline for copying a contract. Farrington returns to work, but as soon as he sits down the tedium of his job gets to him. He goes out for a drink. He goes down the street into dark, comfy O'Neill's shop. He takes a glass of plain porter. The respite is short, however, because Farrington has to return to work. On his way in he notices the smell of the perfume of one of the clients, Miss Delacour. The chief clerk tells him sharply that Mr. Alleyne has been looking for him. The copy of the correspondence for the Delacour case is needed. Farrington gets the correspondence, hoping that Mr. Alleyne won't notice that the last two letters are missing. Miss Delacour is a wealthy middle-aged woman, and Mr. Alleyne is said to be sweet "on her or her money."
Farrington drops off the correspondence and returns to work. Glumly, he realizes that he will not be able to meet his deadline for the contract he's currently copying. He begins to think longingly of a night of drink. His pleasant dreams are interrupted by a furious Mr. Alleyne. With Miss Delacour standing by, Mr. Alleyne abuses Farrington about the missing letters. Farrington plays dumb. Mr. Alleyne asks rhetorically, "Do you think me an utter fool?", to which Farrington replies, " I don't think, sir . . . that that's a fair question to put to me" (87). Miss Delacour smiles. Mr. Alleyne goes bezerk, demanding an apology.
Later, Farrington waits around a corner hoping to get the cashier alone, so that he can ask to borrow some money. But when the cashier exits the office, he's with the chief clerk. Now, there's no hope in getting a bit of cash. The situation is grim: he had to apologize abjectly in private to Mr. Alleyne, and now the office will be a treacherous place for him.
It dawns on Farrington that he can pawn his watch. He gets six shillings and goes out drinking with his friends. He tells them the story of his triumph over Mr. Allyene, leaving out his abject apology. He repeats the story to various friends as they come in. First Nosey Flynn, sitting in his usual corner of Davy Byrne's, and then O' Halloran and Paddy Leonard come in. The men are buying each other drink after drink. Higgins, one of Farrington's colleagues at work, comes in, and does his own rendition of the tale, making Farrington's feat seem even greater. The men leave the bar to go to another establishment called the Scotch House. Leonard introduces them to a young fellow named Weathers, who's an acrobat and an artiste. More drinks are shared. When the Scotch House closes, they go to Mulligan's. One of the women catches Farrington's eye, but when she leaves she does not look back. He curses his poverty and all the drinks he's bought. He particularly thinks that Weathers has been drinking more than he's been buying.
The men are talking about strength; Weathers is showing off his biceps. Farrington shows off his, and then the two men arm wrestle. Weathers beats Farrington. Farrington is angry, and accuses Weathers of having put the weight of his body behind it. They decide to go two out of three, and Weathers, after a struggle of respectable duration, beats him again. The curate, who was watching, expresses his admiration and Farrington snaps out of him. O'Halloran notices the anger in Farrington's face and wisely intercedes. He changes the subject and calls for another drink.
Waiting for his tram home, Farrington is full of fury. He's not even drunk, and he's spent almost all of the money from his pawned watch. He's lost his reputation as a strong man, having been beaten in arm wrestling by young Weathers. As he goes home, his anger mounts.
He comes home to find the kitchen empty with the fire nearly out. His small son Tom, one of five children, comes to greet him. His wife is out at church. Farrington orders the boy around, telling him to cook up the dinner his wife left for him. The boy obediently gets to work. Then Farrington sees that the fire has gone out. He chases the boy with a walking stick and begins to beat him brutally, despite the child's pleas for mercy.
This story, like "The Dead," is difficult to summarize because of Joyce's amazingly concise group scenes. Among authors, Joyce is among the best for conveying the atmosphere of boisterous social gatherings with clarity and charm.
The themes of imprisonment, powerlessness, and resentment are all weaved together in this well-wrought story. Farrington spends a good part of the tale simply trying to scrape together enough money for a night of drink. It becomes clear rather quickly that he is an alcoholic, and that each day must be spent seeking out a way to get drunk.
His powerlessness comes through in his great confrontation with Mr. Alleyne. Farrington is allowed his moment of triumph, but it is followed by a forced abject apology. He endures humiliation in the end, with the assurance that if life at work was already hell, it is bound to become even worse.
Farrington is not allowed to triumph anywhere. At work, his boss forces him into submission. At the bar, the woman who catches his eye ignores him. He is bested by the young Weathers in a contest of strength. Emasculated at work, he is further emasculated by the woman and among his friends. He excels in no arena of masculinity.
He does not even succeed in his original aim, which was to get drunk. After the considerable quantity of alcohol he has consumed, we can only see his increased tolerance as another sign of his alcoholism. He refers to his desire for alcohol as "thirst" throughout the whole story.
As Little Chandler does in the previous story, Farrington takes out his anger on the nearest helpless target: his son. The beating scene is awful, especially as the boy has been touchingly attentive to his father's needs. We are left with the impression that this day is unfortunately typical in Farrington's life.