The Dead by James Joyce, 1914
by James Joyce, 1914
"The Dead" is the capstone story of James Joyce's Dubliners, first published in 1914. It centers on the consciousness of Gabriel Conroy, a teacher and literary man in turn of the century Dublin. Gabriel and his wife, Gretta, are attending a holiday party given each year by his aunts Kate and Julia Morkan and their niece Mary Jane. Gabriel is relied upon annually to keep things in order and to provide the traditional after-dinner speech. It is in Gabriel's interactions with several of the guests and in his talk with Gretta in their hotel room after the gathering that Joyce presents a portrait of a representative, ineffectual twentieth-century consciousness. The story is a triumph of literary modernism.
Despite the fact that Gabriel would seem to be confident and in charge, things do not go well for him right from the start. As Lily, the caretaker's daughter, helps him off with his overcoat, he jokes that she will probably be married someday soon, but he is confused and taken aback by her bitter reply. ("The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you.") He can only thrust a coin at her to resolve an awkward situation, and even this gesture is more insulting than considerate. Later Gabriel is chided by Molly Ivors, an Irish nationalist, about writing reviews for an English newspaper and taking his vacation on the Continent rather than in the west of Ireland. Once again he is uncomfortable and unable to reply: "Gabriel glanced right and left nervously and tried to keep his good humour under the ordeal which was making a blush invade his forehead." He is even unsure of his upcoming after-dinner remarks, pompously assuming that they will be too intellectual for his low-brow audience.
Irritated and out of sorts, Gabriel will reveal, without perhaps knowing it, the extent of his paralysis and alienation as he attempts to deal with Gretta after the party. Driven by a rush of sexual desire for his wife, Gabriel does not realize that she is in a different mood altogether. As the festivities are breaking up, the tenor Bartell D'Arcy sings an old Irish ballad that reminds Gretta of Michael Furey, a young suitor of hers who died when he was only 17 years old. Nostalgia for the past has made Gretta sad, but Gabriel is totally unable to empathize with her. At first angry that she would think of anyone else but him, his mood changes quickly from coldness to awkwardness to humiliation. He is unable to reach outside of his own consciousness. He is immersed in his own solipsistic world and can respond to others only as they have some relation to his personal feelings. Gabriel's utter egoism is the culmination of the series of dissociated pictures that Joyce has drawn throughout the Dubliners collection.
Ultimately, Gabriel can only revel in self-pity as he celebrates what he considers to be his own worthlessness. In something of a masochistic way he negates the reality of his relationship with his wife and family, choosing yet again to see himself as the suffering victim and not realizing how ridiculous he looks. His many years of marriage mean nothing if he has not been the one and only center of his wife's existence: "It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life. He watched her while she slept as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife." His childish reaction to the events of the evening turns his thoughts from the exuberance of life to the gloom of death. Just as he sees that Gretta is growing older, Gabriel notes that Aunt Julia and Aunt Kate will soon be dead and that he too will eventually join them. Rather than striving to celebrate his own life for what it is, with all the significant milestones that have accrued over the years, he gives up passively to the sleep that absolves him from the responsibility of objective self-examination: "His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence."
The narrational point of view of "The Dead" has been firmly lodged in the mind of Gabriel Conroy, but in the final paragraph Joyce moves the reader back and away from the immediate action, like a movie camera receding from a close-up to an objective overview. The focus is upon the snow, falling "general all over Ireland," and it is "falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead." The ultimate irony in this concluding description is that Joyce has upended the meanings of both "living" and "dead." Though Michael Furey may indeed be dead in body, he lives on in the memories of both Gretta and Gabriel; his significance cannot be erased. Conversely, though alive in the flesh Gabriel has proven to be dead in spirit, and it seems that nothing can be done to resurrect his essence. An overwhelming self-involvement has dulled Gabriel's ability to interact productively with the other human beings around him. He has joined the ranks of the contemporary walking dead, inhabitants of what T. S. Eliot called a modern wasteland. "The Dead" sums up the dilemma that Joyce would confront head on later in his artistic career in A Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses.
—Michael H. Begnal