The story begins with Lily, Julia, Mary Jane, and Kate welcoming guests to their annual Christmas party in Dublin. Lily is taking the men’s coats, while Julia and Kate are attending to the female party guests. It is already after ten o’clock when Gabriel—the protagonist and nephew of Julia and Kate—and his wife Gretta finally arrive. When Lily takes Gabriel’s coat, he notices that she has matured into an attractive young woman and remarks that she is approaching the age for marriage, but Lily snaps at his remark. Gabriel offers her a tip, which he insists she accept in the Christmas spirit. She awkwardly thanks him as he heads upstairs to the party, still brooding over her bitter retort. As he joins the party, Gabriel glances at the notes for the speech he is to make later on that night, wondering whether quoting Robert Browning will be too obscure and complicated for his audience. Gretta and Gabriel’s aunts come out of the dressing room and greet Gabriel, who is their favorite nephew. Gretta tells Kate and Julia of Gabriel’s strange preference for galoshes, and he explains that they’re very popular on the continent. Freddy Malins arrives and the conversation dissolves. Aunt Kate asks Gabriel to keep an eye on Freddy, as he is known to show up intoxicated. As the waltz finishes, another man, Mr. Browne, takes three younger women into the back room and serves them all strong drinks, flirting until the women lose interest. Kate and another party guest enter the room and announce it is time to pair up for the next waltz.
As Mary Jane is finishing her piano performance, Gabriel’s mind drifts to his dead mother to whom he attributes many of his accomplishments but also resented because of her disapproval of Gretta. The next dance begins and Gabriel finds himself paired with his colleague, Miss Ivors. He notices that she is wearing a Celtic knot broach and she almost immediately brings up the fact that she has seen Gabriel’s column in The Daily Express, a publication known for its unionist and conservative leanings. She jokingly calls him a “West Briton” and scolds him for his anti-nationalist sentiments. Then, quickly trying to lighten the mood, Miss Ivors invites Gabriel and his wife to come along on a summer trip to the Aran Isles in the west of Ireland. Gabriel declines, informing her of his plans to go on a cycling trip somewhere on the continent, and Miss Ivors accuses him of a lack of interest in his own country. Gabriel grows agitated and snaps back that he is sick of Ireland. The exchange leaves him in a bitter mood, as he believes Miss Ivors was trying to humiliate him. Gabriel tells Gretta about Miss Ivors’ invitation and Gretta is disappointed at his refusal. Gretta leaves to socialize and Gabriel resolves to get revenge on Miss Ivors by subtly insulting her in his speech.
Aunt Julia sings a song, which leads to a discussion about the pope’s decision to ban women from the Church’s choirs. Aunt Kate passionately criticizes the decision but is clearly hesitant to critique the pope, while Mary Jane tries to defuse the tension from Aunt Kate’s passionate outburst by declaring it time for dinner. As the guests head to the dining room, Gabriel catches sight of Miss Ivors collecting her coat while Gretta and Mary Jane try to persuade her to stay. Miss Ivors insists on leaving, so Gabriel offers to walk her home, but she definitively declines and hurries out the door. He wonders if their unpleasant interaction is what caused her to leave. Aunt Kate calls Gabriel in to carve the goose, which puts his mind at ease, as he feels very comfortable at the head of the table. The guests discuss opera, but Gabriel does not participate in the conversation, and he is the only guest to pass up the brown pudding that Aunt Julia has prepared. After the guests finish eating, dessert is served and drinks are replenished in preparation for Gabriel’s speech. In his speech he praises his aunts and the values of their generation, emphasizing the importance of maintaining traditional values like hospitality. The speech ends with a toast, and the guests sing “For he’s a jolly good fellow.”
The guests gather in the hall to say goodbye. Gabriel tells a story about his grandfather Patrick Morkan, who was a glue-boiler, and who once took his horse, Johnny, out to the park. The horse began walking in circles around the statue of King Billy incessantly, as though he were back in the mill or had fallen in love with the stone horse King Billy was riding. The guests laugh at the story and then start to say goodbye. As the guests leave, Gabriel notices a woman on the stairs whose face is hidden in the shadows and soon realizes it’s his wife, listening to piano music drifting down the stairs. The music stops and the remaining guests head out into the cold, dark night to find a cab together. Gabriel watches Gretta walking next to Mr. Bartell D’Arcy up ahead and feels a sudden tenderness towards her. He is struck with nostalgia, and is flooded with all of their earliest memories together. He wishes they could escape from their dull present-day life and go back to these early times together.
The group catches a cab and rides mostly in silence until Gretta and Gabriel get out. As Gretta leans on Gabriel, he is suddenly overcome by lust. They approach the entry to the hotel where they are staying, and Gabriel feels as though they are escaping from their dull lives. The porter lights a candle and leads them to their room, which is mostly dark except for a “ghostly light” coming through the window. Gabriel can see that Gretta is preoccupied by something, and so he momentarily suppresses his feelings of lust and asks her what she is thinking about. Gretta unexpectedly bursts into tears and admits that she was thinking of the song she was listening to on the stairs. She tells Gabriel it reminds her of her childhood love, Michael Furey. Gabriel is angered by the idea that Gretta was thinking of another man while he had been thinking of no one but her. He asks if she had wanted to join Miss Ivors on the summer trip to Galway in order to visit this boy, and Gretta tells Gabriel the boy is dead. She says that Michael was employed in the gasworks, and that he died from visiting her in the rain while he was ill – he died for her. Gabriel is filled with terror by the idea that another man loved his wife enough to die for her. Gretta falls asleep and as Gabriel watches her, he suddenly realizes that he has never experienced a passion worth dying for, and that his wife is an individual with her own past experiences, and he has played a relatively small role in her life. Gabriel suddenly senses the world of the dead, and sees his own life fading, meaningless, into this “grey impalpable world.” He hears the snow falling outside, indiscriminately covering all things living and dead.