Most of us are comfortable with the notion of failure (epitomized perhaps by the maxim "Fail better" from this Irishman); the only matter left to define is failure itself. We accept failure at a certain age because our body signals that it can no longer improve, that actions once easy and insouciant have now become concerning and treacherous. The lightness of youth seems long gone. In its place come for the privileged among us more cerebral tasks and, indeed, more responsibilities. The mind develops, strengthens, maybe even never ceases to peak, but the body descends into simpler routines, longer rest and more fervent adherence to medical advice. Failure can also be perceived as relative, an unfortunate byproduct of a world in which we constantly wonder about the other side and its emerald hills. Which brings us to this nasty, brutish, and short tale.
Our protagonist acts anonymously most of the story, but is eventually revealed as a Dubliner by the name of Farrington. Farrington is a large and violent man in frame and temperament. The aspirations of his youth, while unabandoned, seem distant although their aspirer is not old. His elbows twitch atop a desk he detests beneath the office of a man he hates even more, and all that he seeks in his mind has as little to do with his reality as we are permitted to imagine it. Since this is a tale of petty failure the details of the story are appropriately frivolous, yet a few deserve mention. As in this famous story Farrington labors as a scrivener, spending his time copying out the words and ideas of others without the slightest possible amendment of his own other than proper spelling. Such work may be vapid, but it also suggests living in the shadows of those who have succeeded. They have succeeded because their words mean action; and action signifies movement in life, change, improvement, the approbation of others, their consent and, finally, authority over them and power. It would hardly be exaggeration to claim that all these qualities are lacking in Farrington's professional life. What we learn, however, is that this effeteness extends into all aspects of his ineluctable modality.
As we begin our brief glimpse into what must be a daily plight, we find Farrington summoned to the office by Mr. Alleyne, his boss. Alleyne is a typical boss in the sense that he offers little to support his statements other than his mandarin authority. He is slight, bald, and redolent of something distinct yet unpleasant. Alleyne has nothing nice to say to our man: according to Alleyne, Farrington lunches too long, copies poorly, shirks the menial tasks he accrues, resorts to that most despicable habit of quoting others as sources of information (a great way to offend your boss), and in general evinces little interest in his work or the well-being of the firm that so graciously hired him. Upon hearing this tirade, Farrington's thoughts are opened to our inspection:
Mr. Alleyne bent his head again upon his pile of papers. The man stared fixedly at the polished skull which directed the affairs of Crosbie & Alleyne, gauging its fragility. A spasm of rage gripped his throat for a few moments and then passed, leaving after it a sharp sensation of thirst. The man recognised the sensation and felt that he must have a good night's drinking. The middle of the month was passed and, if he could get the copy done in time, Mr. Alleyne might give him an order on the cashier. He stood still, gazing fixedly at the head upon the pile of papers. Suddenly Mr. Alleyne began to upset all the papers, searching for something. Then, as if he had been unaware of the man's presence till that moment, he shot up his head again, saying: 'Eh? Are you going to stand there all day? Upon my word, Farrington, you take things easy!' 'I was waiting to see...' 'Very good, you needn't wait to see. Go downstairs and do your work.' The man walked heavily towards the door and, as he went out of the room, he heard Mr. Alleyne cry after him that if the contract was not copied by evening Mr. Crosbie would hear of the matter.
A paterfamilias – Farrington is the resentful father of five – should not, in a logic-fitted world, yearn to go boozing with the boys; nor should he, in that same world, pawn off a watch chain to afford such debauchery. Were the author himself not Irish, he might be accused of cheap stereotyping (there is no expensive variant). But Joyce knows the kind he describes because Farrington contains a lot of him, and even more of more common men. That is to say, perhaps it is indeed natural for a man burdened by insatiable accountability to want to return to lighter days, evenings that lasted as long as one's thirst, dreams that extended those evenings down rich and glorious paths. But what Farrington undertakes later that evening with a bacchanalian crew, and then at home with his children, makes us lose all hope for his redemption.
Had the story been entitled "Farrington," "The Family Father," or "The Long Night after the Long Day," we might have concluded our analysis at the aforementioned points; failure, after all, has been one of literature's most enduring topics because, over time, tragedy and failure slip into synonymity. Yet "Counterparts" is as curious a headline as Farrington's actions are almost egregiously predictable. It has been proposed that the foil to our surly scribe is none other than his young son, who has little of his father so far, trapped in some narrow, infantile bliss that permits many to survive their childhoods. One might just as rationally argue for the ostensible pleasures gained by Alleyne as he hosts a female guest in his office, and then Farrington when he encounters a woman from London during his pub crawl. Another duo, however, can be taken into consideration, one of whom is certainly Farrington and the other of whom may well have been Farrington in an idealized future whose energy comes purely from the past. The only question is to what degree they have decided to co-exist in this plain and awful present.