Gabriel has trouble paying attention to Mary Jane’s piano piece, and as his gaze wanders he notices a picture of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet hanging next to a picture made by Aunt Julia of the two princes who were murdered in the Tower of London. This reminds Gabriel of his mother, who had learned to embroider similar things while in school with Aunt Julia. Gabriel thinks it strange that his mother did not share the same musical talent as her sisters, but instead was lauded for her brains. There is a photograph of her with her other son, who she had named Constantine in keeping with her decision to name her sons in honor of the “dignity of family life.” Gabriel attributes his and Constantine’s accomplishments to his mother, but resents his mother’s lack of respect for Gretta. Gabriel lets his hostility go as Mary Jane ends her performance.
Gabriel’s mother represents another influential deceased character. Gabriel attributes his accomplishments to his mother and remembers how strongly she valued family life and had high expectations for her sons. Gabriel also briefly reflects on his mother’s lack of respect for Gretta, and while this genuinely upsets him, he lets his bitter feelings go. Rather than dwelling on the negative experiences he had with his mother, Gabriel choses to bask in the positive ones. This is often the impulse of the characters in the text, who have glorified memories of their dead loved ones. This early reference to the “balcony scene” from Romeo and Juliet foreshadows Gretta’s later memories of Michael Furey.
Gabriel finds himself paired up with his colleague, Miss Ivors, for the next dance. She is a talkative young woman with striking brown eyes. She is wearing an Irish symbol on her collar. As they begin dancing she announces that she has something to discuss with Gabriel, and reveals that she has seen his column in “The Daily Express,” a known anti-Nationalist publication. Miss Ivors scolds Gabriel, calling him a “West Briton.”
Gabriel’s pride is wounded by yet another negative interaction with a woman. Instead of conforming to her role as a polite woman and avoiding conflict, Miss Ivors brings up a touchy subject with Gabriel and provokes him. He resents her audacity and is especially embarrassed since she is a woman and she is criticizing his political views in front of the other party guests. Miss Ivors’ brown eyes perhaps reflect her connection to Ireland and Dublin, and the name she teases Gabriel with—“West Briton”—refers to an Irishman who sympathizes more with England than his own country.
Miss Ivors then changes to a friendlier tone, and asks Gabriel to come on a trip to the Aran Isles in the coming summer. He declines, as he already has plans to go on a cycling tour somewhere on the continent. Miss Ivors asks why he is not interested in exploring his own country, and Gabriel responds harshly, saying he is sick of his own country. He remains agitated even after their conversation ends, believing that Miss Ivors intentionally humiliated him in front of the other guests.
Miss Ivors continues to agitate Gabriel by questioning his desire to travel outside of Ireland. Gabriel, who seems to be outwardly in denial of his distaste for Dublin, is finally pushed to admitting he is sick of Ireland. Gabriel takes this interaction with Miss Ivors as a personal attack, rather than what was perhaps simply her attempt to make a political statement.
Gretta joins Gabriel after the dance, and when he says Miss Ivors invited them both on a trip to western Ireland, his wife becomes disappointed that he declined such an offer. Gretta leaves to go socialize and Gabriel’s attention turns toward the window, where he can see that the snow has covered everything outside. He imagines how pleasant a solitary walk along the river and through the park would be, and how the snow will look coating the branches and the top of the Wellington Monument. He imagines it is more pleasant outside than it will be at the supper table. Gabriel’s mind drifts back to the speech he is to give and he decides to make a subtle comment to offend Miss Ivors as an act of revenge.
Gabriel’s pride is still wounded after his embarrassing interaction with Miss Ivors, and he snaps at his wife when she expresses enthusiasm about joining Miss Ivors on the trip to Western Ireland. Gabriel’s admiration of the snow falling outside serves as a reminder of the larger world outside the insulated party—a world where the snow, like mortality, falls silently on everyone and everything. Gabriel sees the beauty in this as he looks through the window, which acts as a kind of porous barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead. In a way, he seems to already envy the dead, or at least longs for the peace that would come with escaping the awkward and frustrating interactions he’s had at the party thus far. Yet even as he contemplates this larger space outside, Gabriel still cannot escape himself, and he feels a petty and selfish desire to have “revenge” on Miss Ivors for her perceived slight against him.
Aunt Julia enters the room and begins to sing “Arrayed for the Bridal.” Freddy seems particularly moved by Julia’s performance, and Mr. Browne refers to her proudly, as though she is his prodigy. However the mood quickly changes when Mary Jane makes a comment about singing for the honor of God and Aunt Kate snaps, bringing up the Catholic Church’s recent decision to ban women from the choirs. Kate concedes that if the pope made the decision, it must be for the good of the Church, but does not really seem to be convinced of this. Mary Jane tries to ease the tension by pointing out that Mr. Browne is Protestant and the conversation may be making him uncomfortable. Aunt Kate backtracks, calling herself a “stupid old woman” and reasserting the pope’s infallibility. Mary Jane interrupts and suggests they all go to dinner.
Though Aunt Julia is elsewhere described as old, confused, and nearing death, she still has an interior richness and vivacity in the form of her music (though Mr. Browne also seems to want to take credit for her talent). In response to this moving performance, then, Aunt Kate’s passionate denouncement of the Church’s decision to ban women from choirs draws the conversation back into the political sphere, calling attention to women’s role in Catholicism. As the Catholic Church plays a significant role in Dublin society, the fact that women are excluded in such a large way from the Church is almost as if they are being excluded from society itself. Aunt Kate clearly feels torn between her loyalty to her religion (which holds that the pope’s decisions must be infallible, and thus shouldn’t be questioned) and her belief that talented women deserve a place in the choir. While she does voice her opinion, she ultimately degrades herself and dismisses her previous statements so as to avoid making a fuss. Mary Jane too would seemingly rather silence or distract from her aunt’s opinions rather than make a man (Mr. Browne) uncomfortable.
On the way to the dining room, Gabriel sees Miss Ivors putting on her coat to leave. Gretta and Mary Jane are trying to convince her to stay, and since she continues to insist on leaving, Gabriel offers to walk her home. But Miss Ivors laughs and leaves in a hurry before they can protest any more. Gabriel wonders if he caused her hasty departure but soon dismisses the notion. Aunt Kate enters looking for Gabriel, as it is time to carve the goose. Gabriel feels like he is in his element at the head of the table, which is set with a decadent feast.
Gabriel’s pride prevents him from seeing how his interactions with women affect the women themselves. Miss Ivors, who has perhaps been upset by Gabriel, merely laughs and leaves rather than causing more of a fuss—stepping back into her role as a polite woman. While Gabriel briefly wonders if he is the reason Miss Ivors is leaving the party early, he gladly abandons the idea when Aunt Kate asks him to carve the goose. Aunt Kate is reaffirming Gabriel’s masculinity by assigning him the patriarchal seat at the head of the table.
After everyone has been served, Gabriel sits down to eat, but does not participate in the conversation. The guests are discussing the opera, and Mr. Browne begins to talk of earlier times when there were more talented singers in Dublin. Mr. Bartell D’Arcy counters that there are still talented singers, but they are probably in London, Paris, or Milan. The pudding that Aunt Julia has prepared is served, and she remarks that it is “not quite brown enough.” Mr. Browne makes a joke about being “all brown.”
Mr. Browne’s nostalgic attitude towards the earlier days of the opera reinforces the romantic view of the past that almost everyone in the story seems to adopt. The other party guests confirm that Dublin is perhaps not the most desirable place for talented people to live. Aunt Julia’s brown pudding and Mr. Browne’s name are emphasized here, perhaps referencing the color’s symbolism of dullness and Dublin life.
Gabriel is the only man who does not eat the pudding, as he does not like sweets, and prefers instead to munch on celery. Mrs. Malins announces that in a week her son is going to visit a monastery at Mount Melleray, which provides care for alcoholics at no charge, and explains that most people give a donation when they leave. Mr. Browne is shocked to learn that monks take a vow of silence, get up at two in the morning, and sleep in their coffins.
Gabriel’s refusal to eat the brown pudding might represent his distaste for Dublin life and refusal to actively participate in it. The fact that all of the other men eat the pudding indicates that they do not have the same discontentment with Dublin that Gabriel has. The monks, who sleep in coffins and take a vow of silence, represent a way of life that is very close to death—a purposeful mingling of the living and the dead.
Dessert is passed around and drinks are poured in preparation for Gabriel’s speech. In his speech he praises his aunts (calling Kate, Julia, and Mary Jane the “Three Graces”) and recognizes their hospitality, attributing it to an Irish virtue disappearing with the new generation. He thinks of the fact that Miss Ivors left “discourteously” and feels a surge of confidence knowing that he “won.” Gabriel mourns the replacement of this former generation with the new, misdirected generation. He stresses the importance of remembering the virtues of the dead and not dwelling on the negative aspects of the past. The speech ends with a toast as his aunts beam with pride, and Mr. Browne leads the guests in singing “For he’s a jolly good fellow,” Freddy singing with a bit too much drunken enthusiasm.
Gabriel gets a surge of confidence remembering that Miss Ivors left the party early, and he realizes that even though she embarrassed him, he feels that he “won” their argument since she was upset enough to leave. The fact that this gives Gabriel confidence is an affirmation of his need for women to be subordinate for him to nurture his pride. His speech addresses the past, and he emphasizes the need to remember the good times and the lost loved ones during social gatherings. Gabriel and many of the party guests view the past through a nostalgic lens, and this often distracts them from or gives them a negative view of the present.