Joyce's A Little Cloud: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

As a child, did you ever consider running away from home but ended up too scared to follow-through? The protagonist of Joyce's short story, 'A Little Cloud', faces a similar situation that we'll follow closely in this lesson.

Synopsis of 'A Little Cloud' by James Joyce

Although class reunions are supposed to be happy occasions, they often make us envious of anyone from our past who appears to be better off than us. And in this short story from James Joyce's famous anthology Dubliners, just the thought of meeting up again with an old friend has protagonist Thomas 'Little' Chandler contemplating the lack of success in his own life. The reader learns how 'Little' earned his nickname: Though refined, well-groomed, and not much shorter than average, Chandler 'gave one the idea of being a little man.' Aside from his 'childishly white' teeth, he also possesses childlike personality traits, including a certain innocence and general timidity, which we'll discuss momentarily.

As the time of their meeting approaches, Chandler looks out his office window and thinks about life - something that always leaves him a little depressed, since he feels unable to improve his own. Nevertheless, he later feels a little giddy as he traverses the streets of Dublin, on his first trip to a swanky club where he's to meet his friend Ignatius Gallaher, who left Ireland for London eight years ago.

Considering Gallaher's success at the London Press, Chandler decides that if he wants a shot at a better life, he'd have to leave Dublin too. He fantasizes about becoming a famous poet, and believes this would be possible for him, if only the circumstances of his life were different. Chandler is still caught up in this dream when he arrives at the club. Stepping inside, he finds Gallaher waiting.

They order two whiskies - though Chandler isn't much of a drinker - and discuss the various fates of acquaintances from the old days. Though he is obviously a successful journalist, Gallaher appears a little worse for wear, which he attributes to the rigors of 'press life.' This life, though, has allowed him to visit exotic places like Paris, which intrigues Chandler. He appears particularly interested in the city's reputed immorality, and Gallaher is only too happy to tell him sordid stories from both experience and rumor. Despite his interest, though, Chandler's naïve innocence makes him blush at these tales of debauchery and intrigue.

The conversation shifts to more mundane topics, as Gallaher asks Chandler about his own life. Chandler again blushes as he reports on having a wife and infant son, whom he hopes Gallaher will meet. Gallaher - who has commented on the 'staleness' of married life and adamantly claimed he has no plans to wed any time soon - declines due to a prior engagement, but gives a half-hearted promise to visit again. The friends have a final drink before parting, and Chandler reflects on how unjust it is that Gallaher has such a fascinating life, since he feels superior to him.

Back at home, Chandler contemplates the evening's events as he holds his son. His wife Annie has left to fetch things from the store which he forgot to pick up. He looks at her picture and begins to mentally criticize her. He blames her for his failure to become a poet and live the kind of life Gallaher does. In a dark mood, he turns to reading poetry. His son wakes and starts to cry. Unable to quiet the fussy child, Chandler loses control of himself and screams at the baby, causing him to wail breathlessly in fright. Annie returns to find the baby in this state, and berates Chandler as he cowers in the shadows, crying 'tears of remorse.'

Love it or Leave It: Analyzing Joyce's 'A Little Cloud'

If you live in America, you've probably heard the phrase 'love it or leave it', perhaps to express the sentiment that one should either appreciate what the country has to offer or live elsewhere. In James Joyce's 'A Little Cloud,' Chandler doesn't seem capable of either when it comes to his native country of Ireland. This inability to either appreciate or to escape life in Dublin, however, isn't the fault of fortune, as Chandler would have us believe. Instead, his own pessimism and timidity prevents the protagonist from achieving anything except self-pity.

Pessimism

In some ways, it would appear that Chandler does in fact appreciate his life in Ireland. He daydreams of being counted among the 'Celtic school' of poets and even considers using his mother's maiden name to make his own sound more Irish. However, Chandler clings to these associations with his Irish heritage not because they're close to his heart, but because they could advance his imaginary career as a poet. This would ultimately allow him to accomplish his real goal: getting out of Ireland, and having a more adventurous life.

Chandler's preoccupation with London, and his old friend's lavish lifestyle, causes him to take a cynical stance on 'old jog-along' Dublin and his own life there. In fact, on his way to meet Gallaher, Chandler's thoughts are so centered on life outside of Dublin that he becomes disgusted by the city's dullness and inelegance, even silently considering the Irish children playing in the streets to be 'vermin-like.' His pessimism leads him to decide that 'There was no doubt about it: if you wanted to succeed you had to go away. You could do nothing in Dublin.'

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