Exile is Joyce's major theme in both Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners. In the former, it was self-induced exile, an imperative coming of age story. In Dubliners, the exile is moral and psychological. Each character in these stories linger on the crest of transcendence-- all of them wanting more, but too tired, scared, and resigned to do anything about it. While this may seem cynical and drab, Joyce's love for the human spirit resonates deeply with each described gesture, however sad they may be.
'An Encounter' follows a boy on the beach, having cut a day of school with his brutish friend, who meets an old man and is in turn humiliated by what he witnesses, only to retreat back to his friend, who he secretly despises. In 'Araby' a young boy begs to go to a fair in order to buy a trinket for a girl he is smitten for, and having arrived minutes too late, cannot bring himself to it when he is met by an apathetic saleslady. 'A Painful Case' is about a lonely man who, self-deluded that he is content, rejects his lover after an ephemeral tryst. He continues to bear the isolation, though the outcome for the distraught woman is much more tragic. The last story, 'The Dead', is of a husband who, after a funeral procession, is awakened to his own mortality and the transience of life, and rekindles in his heart a flame for his wife, only to discover she is distracted by her own thoughts of another man.
Joyce is not merely interested in sad stories. When the story ends, the love each character had continues onward after the page is turned. These stories mirror common failures of our own lives and give meaning to them, as if our own stories, however menial and benign, are worth being told.