The Dead (Dubliners) by James Joyce

The Irish author, James Joyce (1882-1941), wrote Dubliners, a collection of fifteen short stories set in Dublin, while he was working as an English teacher in Pola (Croatia), then in Trieste; followed by a job at a bank in Rome. He returned to Dublin in 1909 where he attempted to operate a cinema and submitted his manuscript to a publisher, Maunsel and Company. The cinema project failed, and the publisher decided not to publish Dubliners. Finally, in 1914, Maunsel & Co. changed its mind and printed Dubliners. Although Joyce is probably more famous for Ulysses (1922) and Finnegan’s Wake (1939), it is really Dubliners that forms the artistic foundation for Joyce’s later works (Scholes & Litz), and it is one story from the collection, The Dead, that I am going to discuss in this post.

Dubliners cover

I read the Viking Critical Library edition of Dubliners (pictured above), edited by Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz. The text of Dubliners is approximately 200 pages long, but the Viking edition includes an additional 300 pages of material: biographical information, a chronology, maps of Dublin, notes explaining Irish colloquialisms and culture, and a number of critical essays. Although casual readers do not need all of the extras to enjoy the gist of Joyce’s stories, I found much of the information very useful–particularly because I may include one of the stories in the English class I am teaching. It is this edition that provides much of the factual and critical information forming the basis of this essay, so page numbers appearing by themselves refer to the Viking edition. I have also relied upon How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster, who is much more knowledgeable than I am regarding the history and symbolism in Dubliners.

Rather than analyze every single one of the fifteen stories in Dubliners, or attempt to criticize the entire work in a general way, I will focus on the final story, The Dead. It is set at a Christmas party attended by Gabriel Conroy and his wife, Gretta (178). Specifically, it is the Twelfth Day of Christmas, January 6th–also known as “Epiphany” (Foster, 233). Further, the theme of epiphany appears at the end of The Dead (Scholes & Litz, 249). The midwinter setting allows for the use of weather as part of the story, and the story’s title almost mandates its placement at the end of the collection. As I was thinking about these things, it occurred to me that the beginning of January would be a similarly fitting time for me to write about The Dead.

Along with the two hostesses (Gabriel’s aunts) the guests include Freddy, a young man known for showing up drunk, Mr D’Arcy (who sings), and various others from the community. Gabriel, as one of the more educated and cultured guests, is somewhat of a VIP, and wonders if he should bother to go through with a speech he had prepared because it would include poetry “which they could not understand” (179). Joyce describes him this way to give us a sense of Gabriel’s egoism.

After a piano performance, the guests begin dancing and Gabriel has to defend himself from the various recriminations of his dance partner, Miss Ivors, who has discovered that when he isn’t teaching at the university, he spends some of his time writing a column about literature for a local newspaper. Ivors gently insults Gabriel by calling him a “West Briton” after he snobbily declines her invitation to spend a month with her family in West Ireland by saying he preferred to vacation on the continent. Not long afterward, Gretta expresses an intense interest in accepting Ivors’ invitation to West Ireland, but he insists on sticking to his other plans; his self-centered nature winning out over his wife’s travel wishes.

The dinner portion of the party begins with Gabriel sitting at the head of the table where he has been given the honor of carving the goose. Once the meal has been finished, Gabriel gives a moving speech about good manners, hospitality, and how his relatives exemplify these qualities. At one point, he mentions the sadness of “absent faces,” then warns that “were we to brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go on bravely with our work among the living” (104). As he concludes his speech, some of the guests are moved to tears and begin singing. Then the guests begin leaving and the party starts to wind down. And it is here where one would ordinarily expect a story set at a party to wind down, too, but Joyce is just getting started.

Up to this point, the party seems like a normal holiday party (albeit an extravagant one considering the modest means of the hosts and guests)  except that Gretta has not really appeared in the story, yet. Now, though, Gabriel notices his wife standing on a flight of steps, positioned above him, listening to Mr. D’Arcy singing a song that includes an expression of grief (210). It has an effect on Gretta, and Gabriel notices how beautiful his wife is. Although they are middle-aged and have been married long enough to have children, he is still attracted to her. It is a quality in Gabriel that endears him to us, despite his otherwise arrogant nature. They leave the party and as they walk together through the slushy snow to their hotel, he continues to think about how much he is in love with her. He begins anticipating their time alone together, and feels a “keen pang of lust” (215).

The tension builds as the couple enters the hotel and are escorted to their room by the porter. And as readers, we think we know what is going to happen once Gabriel and his wife are finally alone. We are there with Gabriel, caught up in his emotions:  lust, impatience, anxiety, elation, then…frustration. He can tell that Gretta has something on her mind and begins asking her about it. She suddenly begins crying as she explains that the song she heard earlier was once sung by Michael Furey, a young man who had fallen in love with her. At first, Gabriel becomes jealous and suggests that Gretta wanted to vacation with the Ivors so she could see him again. Gretta does not respond to her husband angrily, though. Instead, she pauses, then explains that Furey was dead. Gabriel feels humiliated and “ludicrous” at first (220), surmising that while he had been recalling their happier times together, she was probably thinking of her old lover.

Gabriel is also irritated, and cannot stop himself from questioning Gretta regarding the nature of Furey’s death at a young age. It turns out that although Furey had been very sick, he had visited her one night by standing in the rain outside her window after she had told him that she would not see him for several months. In response, he said he did not care to live if he could not see her. She sent him home, anyway, where he died one week after she left.

Once she finishes telling her husband about the young man who risked his life for her love, she is guilt-ridden, exhausted, and cries herself to sleep. Gabriel is still too self-absorbed to feel sympathy, though:  “It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life” (222). He watches her sleep, and tries to imagine what she looked like as the young woman Furey had fallen in love with. “He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful, but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death” (222).

When we reach this point in the story, Joyce has us convinced that Gabriel is a complete jerk. However, this also means that Joyce is going to rehabilitate his main character through the use of an epiphany.

Joyce accomplishes this by noting how Gabriel “thought of how she…had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live,” and how “[g]enerous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love” (223).

Once Gabriel realizes that he loves his wife despite the fact that he is competing with her memory of another man, The Dead concludes with Gabriel thinking about how the snow is falling not only their hotel, but on all of Ireland and, in particular, the grave of Micheal Furey, miles away. An irony for Gabriel, of course, is that a short time after he gave a speech cautioning everyone that they must not let memories of the dead prevent them from getting on with their own lives, the memory of Michael Furey is doing exactly that to Gabriel and his wife. Nevertheless, Gabriel now has a clearer understanding of his more modest place in the universe:  just as the snow falls everywhere and on everyone, death will descend upon us, too, regardless of how important we think we are.

The very last line of The Dead is beautiful and often quoted. But I am not going to spoil that for you here if you have not read it yet….

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