One night around Christmas time, Gabriel Convey, a youngish writer with gilt-framed round glasses, goes with his wife Gretta to the Christmas dance held at the home of the Misses Morkan: his aunts, Kate and Julia, and their niece, Mary Jane. A cheerful chaos reigns at the old women's house, with Lily, the caretaker's daughter, scampering about, and Gabriel's aunts worrying whether Freddy Malins will turn up drunk. A piano plays in a parlor full of dancing couples. Gabriel tells his aunts that on account of the cold, he and Gretta will be staying in a hotel nearby rather than returning home that night. Gretta laughingly confides to the old women that Gabriel has made her wear galoshes to the party and that he makes their son Tom lift dumbbells. The women laugh merrily.
Freddy Malins arrives slightly drunk but not disastrously so. Gabriel goes downstairs to check on him, and Freddy heads into the parlor to talk to the gregarious Mr. Browne. The group assembles to listen to Mary Jane play a difficult piano piece, and Gabriel's mind wanders to his mother, who had opposed his marriage and described Gretta as "country cute." Gabriel remembers how Gretta nursed his mother through her long and ultimately fatal illness.
The group pairs off for dancing. Gabriel finds himself with a young woman named Miss Ivors, who inexplicably becomes cross with him because he writes reviews for The Daily Express. An Irish Revivalist, she asks sharply if he is a West Briton; then, she seems to be joking; then, she seems to be truly cross. Gabriel is baffled and reflects that he has never had any trouble with Miss Ivors before. Gabriel goes to talk to Freddy Malins' mother, who is visiting from Glasgow, and who tells Gabriel that she had a wonderful crossing. Gretta materializes to ask Gabriel if he will cut the goose.
Old Aunt Julia sings a song, and the crowd assembles for dinner, though Miss Ivors unexpectedly leaves early.