Centered on a holiday party on a cold January night, Joyce presents to the reader a number of characters who reflect this stagnation. The hostesses, the Morkan sisters, have held the same party every year, singing the same songs for the same people. Those people being Freddy Malins, chained to his ancient and decaying mother, the irreverent Mr. Browne whose jokes, though witty within their closed world, never rise beyond the boundaries of middle class niceties, the rare new addition Mr. D'Arcy the famous tenor who refuses to sing until the very end of the evening, the nationalistic but largely harmless Molly Ivors, and the muddling academic Gabriel Conroy with his wife Gretta.
Of all the characters, Gabriel best demonstrates the debilitating effects of this ideology of paralysis. A college lecturer, his biography similar to that f Joyce in that he also took a degree in modern languages, at the time thought a woman's discipline, he perpetually finds himself stymied by others despite the desire to assert himself and his control. It starts with a fumbled joke directed at the Morkan housekeeper Lily at the beginning of the evening, which Gabriel attempts to brush off with the conspicuous magnanimity of a hefty tip. However, it fails to endear Lily to him or convince her of his mastery, as she later displays an impertinence towards him in front of his wife, who laughs it all off.
Worse still is Gabriel's encounter with Molly Ivors. She chastises him for his ignorance of the Irish language, his penning of articles for an English periodical, and for never seeing the rest of the country. She sneeringly dubs him a "West Briton," a moniker she relishes rubbing his nose in even during a dance. Shaken, Gabriel cannot even respond but rather broods over the injustice of Molly breaking the social niceties of the party. He only feels his manhood redeemed later when he takes up his traditional role of carving the meat for dinner. In performing an old and familiar role, he finds both his confidence and sense of place in the world.
However, no one else has a more debilitating effect on Gabriel than his own wife Gretta. Feeling invigorated by performing his masculine duty with dinner, Gabriel wishes to make love to her though he lacks the strength of will to forcefully take her as he truly wishes. Instead, he affects a nonchalance and superiority, all while yearning for Gretta to open herself to him. In the process, he elicits a confession from Gretta of a youthful fling with another. This boy, Michael Furey, once sand the same song as Mr. D'Arcy, "The Lass of Aughrim," to Gretta and hearing it again reminded her of the affair.
The confession is a trifle to Gretta but absolutely debilitating to Gabriel. The thought of his wife having a life and emotions independent of him only heightens his own sense of littleness, already foremost in his mind following his bumbling with both Lily and Molly Ivors. Gabriel wanted to seize his wife in the street, to boldly show his love and possession of her, but could not move beyond the strict proprieties of Irish social life even when in private.
In this, Gabriel proves to be the apotheosis of Joyce's critique of Irish life and culture at the time of Dubliners. An educated, intelligent man but held in place by his own inability to act and his fixation on things past. Instead, he finds his only sense of self in old and worn out roles – carving the meat for dinner or patronizing the help with a generous gratuity. Though educated and styling himself a clever man of letters, Gabriel can conceive of no place for himself but the traditional roles for which he proves ill-suited, causing himself only grief. And though dead and gone, like Parnell, Michael Furey exerts an influence over Gabriel Conroy, sapping his will with his own wife and leaving him to agonize over his own mortality, rushing ever onwards to the grave while standing still