The Dead, James Joyce
"The Dead" Joyce, James
The following entry presents criticism of Joyce's short story "The Dead," published in his collection Dubliners (1914). See also James Joyce Short Story Criticism.
Joyce was the most prominent writer of English prose in the first half of the twentieth century. Many critics maintain that his verbal facility equaled that of William Shakespeare or John Milton, and his virtuoso experiments in prose redefined the limits of language and the form of the modern novel. "The Dead," the final and longest story of his collection Dubliners, is considered one of the most beautifully executed stories in the English language and the culmination of Joyce's critical and ironic portraits of everyday life in turn-of-the-century Dublin. Its subject is the epiphanic revelation of Gabriel Conroy, who, as his illusions are dispelled, realizes the shallowness of his love for his wife, Gretta.
Plot and Major Characters
"The Dead" takes places on the religious feast of Epiphany, at the holiday party of Julia and Kate Morkan, the spinster aunts of Gabriel Conroy. Gabriel, a teacher and literary reviewer, favors continental culture to that of his native Ireland, and thus arrives at the party with an attitude of disdain for the provinciality of his aunts and their guests, although he keeps his thoughts largely to himself. His pomposity and self-centeredness appear in his several encounters with the other guests, including Miss Ivors who playfully rebukes him for his loyalties to England as a reviewer for the pro-British newspaper Daily Express, calling him a "West Briton." Gabriel mistakes this banter for a personal attack, and attempts to redeem himself before the gathered attendees in his annual speech, a smug and highly self-conscious display of rhetoric and cliché. Near the close of the party, Bartell D'Arcy, a noted tenor in attendance, sings an old Irish song, "The Lass of Aughrim." Later, after retreating to the Hotel Gresham, Gabriel speaks to his wife, Gretta, a beautiful woman from the Irish west. Distracted from the conversation, Gretta is haunted by the song, which has reminded her of a former love. When Gabriel presses the subject, she reveals that many years ago she knew a young man who worked in the gasworks named Michael Furey. Afflicted with consumption, Furey died after leaving his sickbed on a rainy night to keep vigil outside Gretta's window on the eve of her leaving Galway for Dublin. Gretta later observes, "I think he died for me." Gabriel, contemplating himself in a mirror, becomes aware of his own pettiness, and realizes that he has never loved his wife as Michael Furey did. At the close of the story Gabriel looks out the window of his room and watches the snow; "His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."
The title of "The Dead" points to its underlying subject, though critics have continued to argue exactly which "dead" are to be emphasized in explication, and even which characters comprise the "dead." To some, "The Dead" refers only to those mentioned in the story as dead, most notably Gretta's tragic love, Michael Furey. To others, "The Dead" signifies everyone at the Morkan's party but Gabriel, and through association, everyone in Ireland. Also widely debated is the ambiguity surrounding Gabriel's epiphany at the conclusion of the story, which closes with his assertion that it is time to begin his journey westward and his vision of the snow falling over all Ireland and metaphorically throughout the universe. The meaning of the journey westward is sometimes associated with death, but a more prevalent recent view is that Gabriel's journey westward signifies a rejuvenated view of life. Similarly, the meaning of the snow, which in some readings signifies the pall—or even shroud—of death covering Ireland, in others represents universal cleansing, bringing expanded consciousness and renewed life to all upon whom it falls. Florence L. Walzl has asserted that ambivalence and ambiguity were purposefully written into the narrative by Joyce to reflect his changing, somewhat more positive attitude toward Ireland at the time he wrote the story.
When it was first published, and for several decades thereafter, Dubliners was considered little more than a slight volume of naturalist fiction evoking the repressive social milieu of Dublin at the turn of the century. It was overlooked in favor of Joyce's later, highly innovative works, most notably A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Ulysses (1922), and Finnegans Wake (1939). In the ensuing years most critics have recognized that Dubliners holds a greater significance than had previously been attributed to it, and subsequent studies have examined the symbolic significance, structural unity, and autobiographical basis of the stories. Critical interest in "The Dead," in particular, has remained intense in recent decades as scholars debate the thematic importance of this final story in the volume, especially its presentation of Gabriel's spiritual awakening—a theme which likely transcends the moral and spiritual paralysis of the entire cast of Dubliners. Likewise, the story is the primary focus of this collection, which has been said to illustrate the multidimensional narrative method that would revolutionize modern literature. Overall, "The Dead" is thought the masterpiece of Joyce's most accessible collection of work.
SOURCE: "The Wings of Daedalus: Two Stories in 'Dubliners,'" in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring, 1958, pp. 31-41.
[In the following excerpt, Kaye examines "The Dead" as a study of Gabriel Conroy's epiphany and traces Joyce's ironic religious symbolism in the work. ]
"The Dead" is the acknowledged masterpiece ofDublin'ers. Even those critics who have poohpoohed many of Joyce's stories as mere sketches have expressed admiration for it; and it has probably received as much critical attention as all the other stories put together. It is therefore surprising that students of Joyce have left so many questions unanswered. They have not even been able to agree on what happens to Gabriel Conroy: some think he suffers spiritual death; others believe that he is reborn.
Several critics have pointed out that "The Dead" contains the ultimate epiphany of Dubliners; but no one has observed that the story takes place on Epiphany. The Misses Morkan's annual dance takes place at the end of the Christmas season. Aunt Kate says of Mr. Browne that '"He has been laid on here like the gas . . . all during the Christmas'." She also comments on the fact that Freddy Malins has come drunk to her party: '"Now, isn't he a terrible fellow!' she said. 'And his poor mother made him take the pledge on New Year's Eve'." In Europe the end of the Christmas season is not New Year's Day—which...
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SOURCE: "The Backgrounds of 'The Dead,'" in The Kenyon Review, Vol. XX, No. 4, Autumn, 1958, pp. 507-28.
[In the following essay, Ellmann uses biographical details to illuminate Joyce's highly autobiographical approach to "The Dead. "]
Works of Art begin before the writers who create them are born; they cling to their childhood and pierce their maturity. To write seems to be unable not to write. As the pressure of hints, sudden insights, and old memories rises in the mind, the artist, like King Midas' barber, is compelled to speech.
"The Dead" is a story with such a long waiting history, depending as it does upon two generations of Joyces. But its immediate gestation began in Galway, Ireland, in 1903. A young woman there named Nora Barnacle used to walk out with a handsome, black-haired young man called Sonny Bodkin—his real name was Michael Bodkin. His father had a candy shop, her father a bakery. They were "great" with each other at the time, but Bodkin contracted tuberculosis and had to be confined to bed. Shortly afterwards Nora, because of family difficulties, decided she would have to go to Dublin to live, and when Bodkin heard of her plan he stole out of his sickroom, in spite of the rainy weather, to bid her goodbye. Soon Nora learned in Dublin that Bodkin was dead, and not long afterwards she met a young man who first attracted her because he resembled Sonny Bodkin; his name...
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SOURCE: "Structure and Sympathy in Joyce's 'The Dead,'" in PMLA, Vol. LXXV, No. 9, March, 1960, pp. 149-51.
[In the following essay, Loomis interprets the structure of "The Dead" as a vehicle for reader sympathy.]
James Joyce's "The Dead" culminates in Gabriel Conroy's timeless moment of almost supreme vision. The fragments of his life's experience, of the epitomizing experiences of one evening in particular, are fused together into a whole: "self-bounded and self-contained upon the immeasurable background of space and time."1 Initiated by a moment of deep, if localized, sympathy, his vision and his sympathy expand together to include not only himself, Gretta, and his aunts, but all Ireland, and, with the words "all the living and all the dead," all humanity.
Gabriel's epiphany manifests Joyce's fundamental belief that true, objective perception will lead to true, objective sympathy; such perception and such sympathy, however, ultimately defy intellectual analysis. Joyce carefully avoids abstract definition of Gabriel's vision by embodying it within the story's central symbol: the snow, which becomes paradoxically warm in the moment of vision, through which Gabriel at long last feels the deeply unifying bond of common mortality.
Gabriel's experience is intellectual only at that level on which intellect and emotional intuition blend, and the full power of the...
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SOURCE: "Color and Light in 'The Dead,'" in James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. II, No. 4, Summer, 1965, pp. 304-09.
[In the following excerpt, Smith explores dichotomies of color and light as essential symbolism in "The Dead. "]
There is one feature of "The Dead" that has gone, for the most part, un-noticed—the possible symbolism in Joyce's various references to color and light. Admittedly they constitute a minor motif until the end of the story, but I submit that they are important, and that if one sees the pattern of meaning implicit in them, he can more fully understand the significance of the snow in Gabriel's vision. That pattern is basically simple—references to pale colors on one hand, references to dark and vivid colors on the other, suggestions as to complementing these opposites, and a final reconciliation of opposites in the whiteness of the snow.1
"The Dead" opens and closes with pale people in a pale light. Lily is described as "a slim, growing girl, pale in complexion and with hay-coloured hair. The gas in the pantry made her look still paler."2 Joyce is much less specific about Gabriel Conroy's coloring, but paleness as a normal condition is hinted in the fact that Lily's rebuff causes Gabriel to blush. Moreover, "the high colour of his cheeks pushed upward even to his forehead, where it scattered itself in a few formless patches of pale red; and on his...
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SOURCE: "Gabriel and Michael: The Conclusion of The Dead,'" in James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 1, Fall, 1966, pp. 17-31.
[In the following essay, Walzl investigates the ambiguous symbolic qualities of "The Dead, " seeing the story both as the penultimate tale of paralysis in Dubliners, and as one of spiritual development and final redemption.]
Dubliners as a collection and "The Dead" as a narrative both culminate in the great epiphany of Gabriel Conroy, the cosmic vision of a cemetery with snow falling on all the living and the dead. As an illumination, it follows Gabriel's meeting with the spirit of Michael Furey and seems to evolve from it. Though commentators generally agree on the structural design of Dubliners and the plot pattern of "The Dead," they have not agreed on the interpretation of this conclusion, or even of the principal symbol, the snow, which to some represents life, to others death, and to still others life or death depending on the context of the passage. Such lack of agreement at the crux of a work seems surprising. The purpose of this study is to suggest that the ambiguity of this conclusion was deliberate on Joyce's part and that it arose from the history and development of Dubliners as a collection.
The context in which "The Dead" is read affects interpretations of the story. For the reader who approaches "The Dead" by way of the preceding...
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SOURCE: "A Reading of Joyce's 'The Dead,'" in Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXVII, No. 1, Winter, 1969, pp. 193-216.
[In the following essay, Lytle analyzes "The Dead, " arguing that Christian symbolism is crucial to understanding the story.]
"The Dead" has obviously been put together by a master craftsman. The form and the subject make a perfect joinery. Nothing is left dangling; no part of it is inert. This is the mark of a master's work Some of the stories in Dubliners are more moving than others, but they all produce that shock of surprise which comes from an old truth, once again reborn into the full radiance of its meaning. The occasion for the action of this story is that celebration which is Christ's birthday; yet the reason for the festivity is forgotten, unnoticed by all who attend. These are the dead, but the dead in a Christian sense. Aside from the stopping of the heart the many ways to be dead have as a common ground a spiritual hardening, to be shown in the action here as a kind of death in life; and yet as the action advances, the hardening enlarges its meaning. The guests' worldly interests, their carnal natures, so absorb them that the Word Incarnate, any sense they may have had of it, is absent. The Christian miracle has been interred in the lifeless forms of Church and State. The communicants worship by rote as they would attend thoughtlessly to any routine. Or they look upon the...
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SOURCE: "Joyce's The Dead,'" in Modern Fiction: A Formalist Approach, Southern Illinois University Press, 1971, pp. 29-61.
[In the following excerpt, Handy examines the thematic nature of "The Dead, " particularly its theme of spiritual death.]
"The Dead" is certainly one of the masterpieces in the Joyce canon. Its themes, recognizably present in the later works, are embodied in a much more direct manner of presentation: the theme of spiritual death, of spiritual rebirth, and the theme of the freedom of the human spirit as a necessary condition for living and loving. It would be folly for the critic of whatever persuasion not to grant that a sound reading of "The Dead" is an obvious prerequisite to the reading of Joyce's later works. I would like to examine some scenes and episodes from the first half of the story which is intended to suggest the way Joyce has built his meanings to a climactic embodiment in the second half.
When we examine the opening episode, in the light of the work itself taken as one large presentation, one major contrast with subsequent episodes immediately emerges: the opening episode is an objective presentation of the world of the action. That is, here is the way the world actually is before Gabriel enters. Once Gabriel is present, the objective view diminishes, sometimes clouded by his responses, sometimes altogether distorted by its presentation through...
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SOURCE: "'The Dead' and the Generosity of the Word," in PMLA, Vol. 101, No. 2, March, 1986, pp. 233-45.
[In the following essay, Pecora approaches the question of whether Gabriel acquires a level of self-understanding at the close of "The Dead," maintaining that Gabriel "in no way overcomes or transcends the conditions of his existence."]
Headed toward death, language turns back upon itself; it encounters something like a mirror; and to stop this death which would stop it, it possesses but a single power: that of giving birth to its own image in a play of mirrors that has no limits.
Michel Foucault, "Language to Infinity"
James Joyce's story is opened by a "caretaker's daughter"; filled with the physically aging, the psychologically repressed, and the emotionally arrested; and closed in a flurry of bewildered sensation and "confused adoration" that recalls in one way or another nearly every preceding story in Dubliners. Thus Joyce's readers have been more than just well prepared for a leap out of this world, for a transcendent glimpse, no matter how ambiguous, of a possible escape from the intolerable, suffocating tomb of Joyce's Dublin. Indeed, it may be precisely the production of this desire for escape at all costs that is the most difficult response to come to grips with, for it inevitably clouds our understanding...
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SOURCE: "The Dead' as Novella," in James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 2, Winter, 1991, pp. 485-97.
[In the following essay, Loe contends that the true genre of "The Dead" is the novella, and explores the work's theme and narrative technique in terms of this genre. ]
The fact that "The Dead" is a novella has been too long neglected or casually noted. Besides the length necessary to qualify it for the 15,000 to 50,000 word category usually assigned to the novella or short novel, "The Dead" possesses a form that resembles the typical novella, a form significantly different from Joyce's other fiction. While viewing the story from this perspective may not radically change its interpretations or resolve its ambiguities, it may strengthen the view that "The Dead" represents a distinct stage in the development of Joyce's art and attitudes, perhaps as a progression from the lyrical towards the more embracing epical that Stephen describes in his theory of genres in A Portrait. In any case, approaching "The Dead" as a novella should help define its formal patterns and its orientation toward theme and, at the same time, support the notion of its deliberate thematic ambiguity that has been observed by a number of interpreters.
William York Tindall has observed that, in contrast to the other stories in Dubliners, "The Dead" is
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SOURCE: "Distant Music: Sound and the Dialogics of Satire in 'The Dead,"' in James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 2, Winter, 1991, pp. 473-83.
[In the following essay, Avery proposes that close attention to the language used in "The Dead" reveals a crucial separation of the narrative voice from that of the main character, Gabriel ]
"The Dead" stands in curious relation to the other stories of Dubliners, Joyce added it late to the collection, after a letter of May 5, 1906, to Grant Richards, in which Joyce declares his intention to write "a chapter in the moral history" of Ireland (Letters of James Joyce, vol. II, 1966). "The Dead" does not seem to share the same moral perspective as the stories comprising the original version of Dubliners. On the contrary—Ellmann, citing the evidence of the letters, asserts that Joyce "had to come to a more indulgent view of Ireland" (James Joyce, 1982; Letters of James Joyce, vol. II, 1966) to write "The Dead." Many critics, in fact, claim that "The Dead" offers a breath—albeit a chilly one—of hope that someone, at least, can escape from the psychic death enshrouding Dublin.1 Others reject this reading, arguing that Gabriel, like the rest of the Dubliners, remains locked within a prison of self-regard. 2 Either way, most critics argue that the story creates a perspective that invites some kind of...
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Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. Revised edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982, 887 p.
The essential biography of James Joyce, considered the among the most important biographies of the twentieth century.
Bogorad, Samuel N. "Gabriel Conroy as 'Whited Sepulchre' : Prefiguring Imagery in 'The Dead,'" Ball State University Forum XIV, No. 1 (Winter 1973): 52-8.
Discusses "images of immobility, rigidity, and physicalmoral paralysis that have been so carefully and deliberately built up in the narrative development of The Dead.'"
Boyd, John D. and Ruth A. Boyd. "The Love Triangle in Joyce's 'The Dead,"' University of Toronto Quarterly XLII, No. 3 (Spring 1973): 202-17.
Examines the love triangle of Gabriel, Gretta, and Michael as central to "The Dead" and concentrates on the universalizing qualities of Gabriel's epiphanic revelation at the end of the story.
Brandabur, Edward. '"Ivy Day in the Committee Room' and 'The Dead': Paralysis as Pretense." In A Scrupulous Meanness: A Study of Joyce's Early Work, pp. 109-26. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971.
Closely observes thematic paralysis in "The Dead."
Brunsdale, Mitzi M. "The Dead." In James Joyce: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 37-47. New York:...
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