James Joyce is one of the most descriptive authors, yet the one of the most ambiguous at the same time; he seems to say so much with so little. The beauty behind Dubliners is that each of the short stories deals with some aspect of humanity or human nature, though the reader generally has to devote him or herself to a large quantity of analysis and thought. In “An Encounter” what is more important is what Joyce does not say.
Several times throughout the course of the story, Joyce makes use of gender and sexuality amongst the boys and their interactions with others. From the mention of “green eyes” with the sailors, the footnote mentioning the possibility of the eye color as a signal for homosexuality, to the conversation with the old man. There is a constant theme of the eyes as a signifier, in which the main character seeks to satisfy his curiosity of the sailors’ eye color and notices the green eyes of the old man.
However, interestingly, the boy resigns to avoid looking into the man’s eyes during the course of their conversation, or rather, the monologue on behalf of the old man. In the text, the boy notices that “His attitude on this point struck me as strangely liberal in a man of his age. In my heart I thought that what he said about boys and sweethearts was reasonable. But I disliked the way he shivered once or twice as if he feared something or had a sudden chill” (Joyce 18). This scene displays sexual interaction or thoughts on the part of the old man because of his speech and apparent tone when making it. The boy, now alone with him while Mahony the protector is off in the distance, epitomizing stereotypical masculinity as chases cats and occupies himself within the contents and expansion of the field, wants to believe that the man has the best of intentions. Yet, he cannot help but notice the awkwardness that the man has caused by the things he is saying and movements.
It is apparent that the man is performing masturbatory practices as he talks about boys and sweethearts in an inappropriate way, bringing images to mind that he obviously calls on regularly, explaining the rehearsed sound of his speech. After he goes to finish off by himself, the man begins to scold the boys for thinking about that which was previously the main topic of conversation. His threats of violence serve to scare the boys into a type of submission so that they will not tell anyone about what he has done.
Because of his lack of strength to combat the man if he tries to force himself upon him, the boy deems it necessary to not give the man any contact or signal that he knows what is going on, avoiding drawing attention the act and causing the man to react violently. At the end of the story, the boy mentions some detestation for having to depend on Mahony for protection, which further emasculates him.