Cars are speeding towards Dublin and people have gathered to watch the race. While the cars are from the continent—that is, continental Europe—the race is taking place in Ireland. As the cars race down a street called Naas Road, the narrator describes it as a “channel of poverty and inaction.” The spectators occasionally cheer for the cars, especially the French cars, which are blue. The French are doing relatively well in the race: they won second and third place. The first-place car, although a part of the German team, was driven by a Belgian. The drivers and passengers within the French cars nod and smile politely as the locals cheer them on.
Joyce captures Ireland’s predicament at the beginning of the 20th century with the symbolism of a car race taking place in Ireland. Cars represent the “wealth and industry” of the countries of continental Europe, who are competing in this race for economic and industrial power. Ireland is the setting for the race, but has no participating cars, which suggests that Ireland, while still under exploitative English rule, is too impoverished to compete. In a cruel twist, Ireland, as the host for the event, will nonetheless bear the burden of providing the resources to accommodate and execute the race, symbolizing one way in which Ireland is used by other countries in their capitalist pursuits. But Joyce doesn’t just call attention to the irony of a poor country hosting an event for richer countries to show off their industrial power—he criticizes the Irish too. The narrator calls Ireland a “channel of poverty and inaction.” As larger, wealthier nations compete, the Irish submissively watch from the sidelines and “raise the cheer of the gratefully oppressed,” phrasing that implies that the Irish have resigned themselves to this state of things, solidifying their national paralysis. Furthermore, without any cars representing them, the Irish root for “their friends, the French,” which Joyce uses to show how the Irish, instead of trying to achieve their own industrial success, are settling for mere association with a wealthier and more powerful country.
Within one of the French cars are four men who are each very excited for different reasons. The French owner of the car, Charles Ségouin, is pleased with the good prospects for the motor company he is going to start. His Canadian cousin André Rivière is in high spirits because he is going to be the manager of Ségouin’s company. The third man is an optimistic Hungarian man named Villona who is still feeling content from his delicious lunch. The final man is named Doyle, and he is “too excited to be genuinely happy.”
Here Joyce introduces four of the main characters, each of whom represents their home country: Ségouin for France, Rivière for Canada, Villona for Hungary, and Doyle for Ireland. Politics of power are also laid out. Ségouin owns the car, which signifies that the French wield the most capital compared to the other countries represented in the car. Rivière, whose family ties to Ségouin reflect France’s colonization of Canada, is planning on receiving a position of power in his cousin’s motor company (which, importantly, does not actually exist yet). Rivière and Ségouin’s relationship raises the question whether Rivière would have had this influential position had he not been related to the man in power, which speaks to how colonial wealth is kept in the hands of the ruling group. Additionally, Rivière’s proposed appointment suggests that he may be capitalizing on his and Ségouin’s relationship. Villona’s happiness, on the other hand, springs from a much simpler source: he had a pleasant lunch. Villona, then, appears to be more focused on meeting basic needs, very different from Ségouin and Rivière’s capitalistic goals. The last man in the car, Doyle, doesn’t have this happiness—he is more agitated than truly content (but at this point, the reason is unknown).
Doyle, whose first name is Jimmy, is an innocent-eyed twenty-six year old who comes from a well-to-do Irish family. His father was once an Irish nationalist, but he “modified his views early” and became wealthy by establishing a thriving chain of butcher shops starting in Kingstown before spreading across Dublin. His success was furthered by contracts with the police and he has since gained local renown as a rich man. With his father’s money, Jimmy attended a college in England and Dublin University for law. He was never a very good student, instead spending his time socializing with people in the music and motoring scenes. Jimmy’s father, although seemingly upset with his son’s spendthrift behavior, is secretly proud of his extravagance.
Jimmy’s father’s backstory paints him as a man wrapped up in the capitalist economy and society of the time. Although he had once been a part of the political party that was fighting for Irish Home Rule, the narrator implies that he exchanged the hope of Irish sovereignty for money. Not only did he start his butcher business in Kingstown, a part of Dublin known for its English sympathies, but he also worked with the police who, as upholders of English law in Ireland, are fundamentally tied to England’s imperialist rule. By working with them, Jimmy’s father sells out Ireland in order to make a profit for himself. He then puts this Irish money (which is desperately needed to combat the poverty that plagues Ireland) back in the pockets of the British by sending Jimmy to an English college and to Dublin University, which was known for its English and Protestant influences. On top of this, Jimmy doesn’t even make the most of his father’s investment—instead of studying, Jimmy spends his University days being social. Jimmy’s interest in motoring also implies how he is attracted to the allure of industry and money, both of which are symbolized by cars in this story. But Jimmy’s father isn’t bothered by Jimmy’s frivolous behavior. He is actually proud of his son’s extravagance, illustrating how he is more interested in appearing wealthy (and thus a participant in the capitalist competition from which the Irish are usually excluded) than investing his money in Ireland, where it could do practical good.
Jimmy also spent one term in Cambridge to “see a little life,” and it is there that he met Ségouin. Jimmy and Ségouin are just acquaintances, but Jimmy enjoys spending time with the charismatic and worldly Frenchman; that Ségouin also apparently owns several big hotels in France is meaningful to Jimmy, too. Both Jimmy and his father agree that Ségouin is a person “worth knowing.” Villona, on the other hand, is poor, but he is a talented piano player and is very entertaining.
Jimmy’s relationship with Ségouin reveals that Jimmy values this connection because he can gain something from it: proximity to money and prestige. The narrator’s use of the phrase “worth knowing” is particularly telling, as it captures Jimmy’s commodification of the relationship. He is attracted to Ségouin because of Ségouin’s apparent wealth and his worldliness. Jimmy’s belief in Ségouin’s wealth also shows his gullibility, or his belief that when things appear to be a certain way they must be true. But he has no proof of Ségouin’s wealth, just word that it is supposed to exist. In fact, Jimmy doesn’t even know Ségouin well—they’re just acquaintances—but he isn’t being as skeptical as he should be. As for Jimmy’s being impressed by Ségouin’s worldliness, he clearly finds it appealing to be closely connected with someone who has seen more than just Ireland, which implies that Jimmy views his home country as second-rate. In contrast to Ségouin is Villona, who is described as being “unfortunately very poor,” a description that emphasizes that, to Jimmy, not having money is a significant misfortune. But Villona is not written off; he has earned his association with Jimmy by being an extremely talented pianist, which may suggest the undeniable value of the arts, even in a social circle as consumed by capitalism as Jimmy’s. On the other hand, Jimmy’s companionship with Villona may just be another example of how Jimmy seeks to surround himself with people who he finds interesting, which indicates insecurity.
The car drives along. Ségouin and Rivière, who are in the front seat, are speaking in French and laughing to each other. Jimmy, who is in the backseat with Villona, has a hard time understanding what they are saying and has to lean forward to get the gist of the conversation before crafting a reasonable reply that he has to shout to get heard over the noise of the wind. Villona’s humming, plus the noise of the car, make it even harder for Jimmy to understand the two cousins.
The fact that Jimmy can’t keep up with Ségouin and Rivière is symbolic for how Ireland can’t keep up with wealthier nations. Even upper-class Irish like Jimmy are stuck in the metaphorical back seat when they try to be a part of the capitalistic competition symbolized by the automobile race. So even though Jimmy is technically included in the race, he’s not a full participant. He’s in a Frenchman’s car (as opposed to independently having one of his own) and he is left out of the conversation that his companions are having. This suggests that the wealthy Irish class’s attempts to socially and economically engage with continental Europeans are unsuccessful.
Jimmy’s excitement comes from three sources: the speed from driving, the notoriety he has gained from having European friends, and having money. Jimmy delights in knowing that his local friends have seen him with these three men from the European continent. Earlier that day, Ségouin had introduced him to one of the other French drivers, which had earned Jimmy plenty of attention from the Irish onlookers, whom Jimmy sees as making up “the profane world of spectators.” As for money, he knows he has quite a lot, even if the amount wouldn’t impress Ségouin. Jimmy takes comfort in knowing that his awareness of “the labour latent in money” has kept him from making very large financial mistakes, even if he has made small ones. Now that he is on the verge of a big investment, he is especially conscious of how hard-earned money is.
While analyzing Jimmy’s three reasons for his excitement, it is important to remember that he is agitated, but not actually happy. Each of these three sources of excitement represent what Jimmy gets from participating in capitalism: the sense of speed (the symbolism of the car connects this speed to the thrilling pace of industrial and economic advancement), fame and seemingly impressive connections, and money. These three sources of excitement, however, betray their superficiality in Jimmy’s lack of genuine joy. Jimmy’s fixation on having European acquaintances illustrates both his sense of validation from being associated with continental Europe and his desire to separate himself from Ireland. Jimmy likes knowing that his local Irish friends have seen him with Ségouin and other foreign men. It gets him attention and it distinguishes him in both the eyes of his fellow Irishmen and in his own eyes. Their shared reaction captures the shame felt regarding Irish identity. The narrative’s focus then skips back to Jimmy’s thoughts on money, demonstrating its dominant presence in his consciousness. His assumption that his “great sum” of money wouldn’t impress Ségouin once again reveals Jimmy’s sense of inherent inferiority, a feeling Joyce suggests is pervasive for the Irish at this time in history.
Jimmy is confident in the large investment he is about to make in Ségouin’s company. Ségouin has implied that it is thanks to their friendship that Jimmy even has the lucky chance to invest “the mite of Irish money” into such an important venture. Jimmy is comforted knowing that it was his business-savvy father who first suggested this investment; his father is confident that there’s a lot of money to be made in the car industry. Jimmy’s confidence is also bolstered by the fact that Ségouin appears to be very rich. As they drive, Jimmy tries to figure how much work was spent to make the car that he is riding in, but instead he marvels at how smoothly it drives and how stylish he feels being in it.
Here is where Jimmy’s confidence in Ségouin seems most suspect. Not only does his company not exist yet, but Ségouin reveals himself to be especially shady when he manipulates Jimmy by leveraging his sense of Irish inferiority against him. He does this in two ways: he dismisses Irish money as being just an insignificant “mite” and he implies that Jimmy is the lucky one because he, an Irishman, actually “gets” to invest and be included in the venture. Jimmy doesn’t seem aware of the possibility of foul play and instead takes the bait. By investing with Ségouin, Jimmy, like his father, would be reallocating Irish money to fuel a foreign country, even though Ireland urgently needs the economic boost that Jimmy’s money could provide. Through this investment, Jimmy represents the greed of the Irish upper class that Joyce criticizes in the story. Jimmy, like the wealthy Irish, is more focused on making money for himself than on helping bring progress to his home country. Jimmy’s unwillingness or inability to think deeper about his actions is reflected in his failed attempt at estimating how much work went into making the car he’s riding in. He is too distracted by the “style” and speed of the car—representative of the glamour and thrill of capitalism—to think of the time, resources, and human lives that contributed toward making the machine. Clearly, as a rich man and a capitalist, he is actually very far removed from the real “labour latent in money.”
When they arrive in Dublin, Ségouin drops Jimmy and Villona off at the bank. The car draws lots of attention from passersby, who gather “to pay homage to the snorting motor.” The group of men will be having dinner together at Ségouin’s hotel, but first Jimmy and Villona must go to Jimmy’s parents’ house, where the two men are staying, to get dressed. While they walk to the northern part of the city, Jimmy and Villona are strangely disappointed at needing to walk after the thrilling drive.
Joyce misses no opportunity to call attention to the characters’ obsession with money, even having Ségouin drop the two men off at a bank. Meanwhile, for the nearby Irish onlookers, the car has a god-like allure. They pay it “homage,” a word that elevates it to a lordly status. In a story otherwise lacking religious figures, the devotional attention that the car receives shows how, in a capitalist society, industrial and economic power (as represented by cars) have a god-like importance. The Irish, without cars of their own, passively admire the mighty car of a different country, thereby demonstrating the resignation and inactivity that Joyce saw as instrumental in producing Ireland’s nation-wide paralysis that kept it politically and economically behind other European countries. Jimmy, a wealthy Irishman with foreign connections, does have the chance to experience the capitalist power of other countries and is enchanted by it. After the thrill of the car ride, which is symbolic of him enjoying (even if second-hand) the profits of capitalism, he finds walking underwhelming. Joyce concisely captures the wealthy Irish class being captivated by the thrill of capitalistic wealth and industry.
At the Doyle household, Jimmy’s dinner with Ségouin is viewed as a special occasion. While his parents are a bit nervous, the family is both proud and eager at his opportunity to engage with these continentals. When dressed, Jimmy looks very handsome, and his father is proud that he has given his son such “qualities often unpurchaseable.” Jimmy’s father is in such good spirits that he is “unusually friendly” with Villona and speaks of his admiration for “foreign accomplishments.” Villona, however, isn’t listening; he is hungry and is looking forward to having dinner.
The wealthy Doyle family’s excitement at Jimmy’s dinner with continental Europeans is representative of how, according to Joyce, the upper-class Irish of the early 20th century were focused on connecting themselves with people from more “powerful” European countries. Their apprehension and pride hints at their insecurity surrounding their Irish identity: they see these continentals as being out of their league and are therefore proud that their son has “made it” this far. Jimmy’s father is also “commercially satisfied” with his son’s handsome appearance, whose good looks he commodifies by calling them “often unpurchaseable.” Joyce’s word choice communicates how capitalism has a knack for prompting people to place monetary value on everything and everyone around them. Jimmy’s father’s good spirits result in him being “unusually friendly” with Villona, which suggests that he typically isn’t very nice to him. While Joyce doesn’t explicitly provide a reason why, it is likely because Villona is poor, which means, according to Jimmy’s father, that he has nothing to offer and therefore is not worth friendly attention.
The dinner with Ségouin is delicious and confirms Jimmy’s confidence in the Frenchman’s sophistication. At dinner, the four men are joined by an Englishman named Routh, who was a friend of Ségouin’s at Cambridge. Jimmy notes how Routh, Ségouin, and Rivière make an elegant and powerful group—a “graceful image . . .and a just one.” The five men talk loudly and with increasingly less reserve. While Villona discusses the value of old instruments with the unenthused Routh, Rivière begins to speak to Jimmy in a way that seems calculated about the genius of French mechanics. Ségouin then switches the topic to politics, which leads to a heated argument between Routh and Jimmy, who feels his father’s old nationalist views stirring within him. Ségouin carefully averts disaster by proposing a toast to humanity and then opening the window.
Jimmy’s consideration of Ségouin, Rivière, and Routh’s chemistry signifies an Irish admiration for the cultural and economic power of France and England. He even calls this “graceful image” a “just one,” which suggests his own resignation to (what he sees as) their superiority. The men become quite drunk, as is suggested by their “loosened” tongues. While Routh is clearly uninterested in talking about music with Villona, Rivière seizes the opportunity to convince Jimmy to invest in Ségouin’s supposed company. Rivière’s behavior exposes him to be yet another man in the story who is using his connections with people to increase his own wealth; he is, after all, to become manager of Ségouin’s business. When Ségouin brings up politics, Jimmy at last shows signs of Irish pride. Notably, it takes him being drunk before the “buried zeal of his father wake[s] to life.” This language is indicative of how deeply suppressed Jimmy’s sense of Ireland’s needs is. Until now, Jimmy hasn’t shown any signs that he ever reflects on the obstacles that Ireland faces, nor the factors (namely, English rule) that are dooming it to poverty. In fact, just moments before, Jimmy had been admiring Routh, who is now arguing with him, doubtlessly in favor of England’s continued control of Ireland. But Jimmy’s Irish nationalism is easily dissipated by Ségouin’s toast, which suggests that, although Jimmy harbors Irish nationalist sentiments, they aren’t strong enough for him to actually do anything about it. He isn’t even willing to make his dinner companions uncomfortable. Because these companions include Ségouin, with whom he hopes to align himself in hopes of making money, it is clear that accomplishing his own financial goals is more important to him than fighting for Ireland’s independence.
After the dinner, Ségouin, Jimmy, Rivière, Routh, and Villona take a walk by Stephen’s Green (a public park), where they smoke and talk. It is a beautiful night and, at this moment, Dublin “[wears] the mask of a capital.” Suddenly, the group crosses paths with an American named Farley, whom Rivière appears to know. The group of now six men is talking so loudly and animatedly that there is no thread of conversation and nobody really knows what anyone else is talking about. They get into a car before taking a train to Kingstown, where a ticket collector salutes Jimmy and comments on the pleasantness of the evening. They head for Farley’s yacht and, along the way, they sing a satirical French song called “Cadet Roussel.”
Dublin was and is the capital of Ireland. It was also called the “second city” of the British Empire while it was under English rule. But Joyce’s saying that it “[wears] the mask of a capital” undermines the sense that Dublin is a worthy or important place. As Joyce has implied throughout the story, Ireland is paralyzed by English rule and the resulting poverty and internalized sense of inadequacy that comes with it. To Joyce, Dublin is lacking the political and economic independence to merit the designation of being a capital. Now that Jimmy is drunk, however, Dublin appears more desirable. As he and the other men go to Farley’s yacht, they sing a French song that makes fun of a French cadet while calling him (the cadet) “un bon enfant,” or “a good kiddo.” Joyce may be using this song to suggest something sinister about that the other men’s treatment of Jimmy, that they may be humoring him while they make a mockery of him.
When they get to the yacht, Villona starts playing the piano that is in the cabin. He plays waltzes and songs for square dancing while the other men dance. Jimmy merrily joins in and thinks that “this [is] seeing life, at least.” Eventually, Farley gets worn out and stops the dancing. They settle down for a small supper, but they really just end up drinking more. They make toasts to each of their home countries and Jimmy makes a very long speech that results in a lot of clapping from the other men. Judging by this reaction, Jimmy assumes that his speech was a good one. Delighted, he thinks of how they are such wonderful company.
Jimmy’s general sense of aimlessness is reflected in his self-consoling statement that dancing drunkenly is “seeing life, at least.” By adding the “at least,” Joyce suggests that Jimmy is feeling discontented beneath his reassurance to himself that he is “seeing life” with these men. The vague consolation of “seeing life” betrays his vapidity (he misjudges the profundity of simple diversions), as well as his assumption that time spent with these continental men is valuable simply because they are not Irish. Jimmy’s drunkenness is highlighted by his not being sure what his speech is about. He clearly doesn’t recall what he said but assumes that it was great because the other men applauded for him. Their reaction actually suggests that they are just humoring him without much concern for his well-being. He is clearly very drunk, yet they cheer him on as he makes a fool of himself.
Jimmy, Ségouin, Rivière, Farley, and Routh begin to play cards while Villona plays the piano. The games continue end-to-end while the players keep drinking. As they play, bets are raised higher and higher, and I.O.U.s begin to be exchanged. Jimmy, his mind increasingly foggy from all the drinking, isn’t sure who is winning, but he knows that he’s losing. He is so out of it that the other men are keeping track of his I.O.U.’s for him. He blames himself for not paying better attention to his cards and wishes that the game would end. Finally, one of the men declares that they will play one more game to finish the night.
The card game symbolizes a capitalistic competition between countries. The participants gamble their resources to try to profit off others, with the stakes being constantly raised. Jimmy enters this competition and represents how the upper Irish class is playing with Irish money when trying to compete with countries that possess more resources and power than the Irish do. Jimmy’s drunkenness is an impediment to his success (he can’t keep his cards straight) and this symbolizes the fact that Ireland is at a huge political and economic disadvantage when competing with countries like England and France. Not only is Jimmy unable to keep track of his cards, but he can’t control his own I.O.U.’s. Instead, the other men take it upon themselves to manage his debts for him, suggesting foul play on their end. Instead of doing the ethical thing and kindly releasing him from the game, they let him drunkenly bet away more money that goes into their pockets. Through Jimmy’s participation, Joyce criticizes how the wealthy Irish, in their eagerness to engage with foreign countries in the “game” of capitalism, end up pouring Irish money and resources into other nations, despite the fact that Ireland urgently needs these resources. When things take a turn for the worse, Jimmy doesn’t try to leave or quit the game, once again showing his (and the Irish’s) inaction in the face of a dire situation.
At this point, Jimmy feels terrible about the game. He is dimly aware that the leading winners are Routh and Ségouin and he musters some excitement for them, even in the face of his heavy losses. Worryingly, he isn’t even sure of how much money he has bet away. He realizes that Villona is no longer playing the piano and is likely outside on the deck. At last, Routh wins the game, and the debts are settled: Farley and Jimmy are the biggest losers. Jimmy rests his head in his hands, beginning to feel his hangover coming in and knowing that he will regret everything in the morning. For now, though, he is glad to sink into forgetful sleep before then. Abruptly, the cabin door opens to reveal Villona, who announces the dawning day.
In a display of emotion that echoes the Irish spectators’ cheering and admiration for foreign cars during the race, Jimmy, who is losing terribly, manages to be excited for the winners of the game, Ségouin and Routh. The comparable success of the two men demonstrates how France and England are leaders in the global economy. Routh’s final victory symbolizes England’s dominance. Meanwhile, Jimmy has no idea how much he has lost, a failure that can be seen as both an economic and a spiritual one. In regard to the former, Jimmy’s heavy debts illustrate Ireland’s utter failure in the economic competition between countries. As for the latter, Jimmy knows that his behavior has lost him money, but he still isn’t aware of the extent to which the evening has been bad for him. By playing in the game of capitalism, he hasn’t just lost money—he’s lost dignity, the true sense of friendship, and the opportunity to help his home country. In contrast to Jimmy is Villona, who chose to not participate in the game. Through the Hungarian pianist, Joyce illustrates what he believes to be Ireland’s way out of its dismal situation. At the time that the story had been written, Hungary had achieved some economic and political independence from Austria. (Joyce glorifies the situation at the time, although the arrangement between Austria and Hungary was actually resented by many Hungarians.) What the Irish need to accomplish, according to Joyce, is both economic and political independence from England and, preferably, an alternative to capitalism. Until then, Joyce uses Jimmy’s failure to represent the fate that awaits Ireland: despair and poverty.