“The Dead” is the most obviously autobiographical story in the Dubliners (1914) collection in that Joyce offers through the character of Gabriel Conroy a speculation concerning the sort of person Joyce himself might have become had he chosen to build a career for himself in Ireland. Gabriel is a vain and frustrated man who can find no genuine joy or pleasure in a nation that can look only to its past and constantly cherish, as Gabriel proclaims in his after-dinner speech, “the memory of those dead and gone great ones.” Can a nation so obsessed with its past look forward to a promising future?
“The Dead,” then, offers the reverse image of Joyce’s optimistic (though also ironic) reflection of himself posed by Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), an untested but confident artist who leaves his family and his country to escape the environmental ties that would surely impede his artistic development. Joyce was working on “The Dead” at the same time he was transforming his fragmentary Stephen Hero (1944) into the more carefully controlled narrative that was to become his A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. No doubt his mind was playing on two extreme alternatives during this period following the most important decision he had made in his life to that point. “The Dead” can be seen as Joyce’s portrait of the failed artist as an older man (though not necessarily a wiser one).
There can be no doubt that the source of this story is autobiographical. Richard Ellmann devotes chapter 15 of his biography James Joyce (1959) to the genesis of “The Dead.” As a young girl in Galway in 1903, Joyce’s wife, Nora Barnacle, had been courted by Michael (“Sonny”) Bodkin, who suffered from tuberculosis. When Nora decided to leave Galway for Dublin, Sonny Bodkin left his sickbed in rainy weather to bid her farewell and to sing to her. After Nora arrived in Dublin, she heard that the boy had died. Knowledge of this courtship nettled Joyce, a jealous man by nature. The courtship letter that Gabriel quotes in the story is nearly a verbatim transcription of a letter that Joyce wrote to his wife, Nora, in 1904.
Ellmann offers an impressive list of biographical detail to support his point further. Every year, the Joyce family would gather for a Christmas party at No. 15 Usher’s Island, where the writer’s great aunts lived—Mrs. Lyons, Mrs. Callanan, and her daughter, Mary Ellen. According to Stanislaus Joyce, the writer’s brother, their father would perform the annual ritual of carving the goose, as Gabriel does in the story, and would address the dinner guests in the same florid style that Gabriel affects after dinner.
Like Gabriel, Joyce wrote book reviews for The Daily Express. Gabriel shares Joyce’s own disdain for west country provinciality and for the Gaelic League, represented by Miss Molly Ivors in the story. He shares Joyce’s frustration over having to compete with a dead man, idealized in his wife’s romantic memory, for his wife’s love and affection (though one suspects that this dilemma, heightened in actuality by the writer’s jealousy, was exaggerated in the story so that the futility of the dilemma would be more effectively dramatized).
Gabriel’s ego is bruised and his cultured self-image of superiority undercut when he learns that Michael Furey was employed by the “gasworks,” forcing on him the realization that there is no necessary connection between a man’s employment and his sensitivity. The man of learning may not in all respects be superior to the man of feeling.
The major themes of the story, then, are jealousy and intellectual pride, both major sins in Roman Catholic theology, and both of these sins attach to the character of Gabriel, who is as callow and unfeeling, as insecure and insensitive in his own way as Stephen Dedalus seems to be in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The theme of escape is understated in the story but insinuates itself into the basic fabric of Gabriel’s character. Gabriel’s frustration is shaped and exacerbated by his career decision to remain in Dublin and work there. His interests obviously tend elsewhere—toward England and the Continent. However, the story suggests that he can still learn important lessons through the intelligent exploration of native Irish culture and that he has been out of touch with the natural virtue and goodness that Michael Furey represents to his wife and with the instinctual understanding that makes his wife superior to him. Gabriel learns an existential moral lesson through his revelation and humiliation.
As a young man, Joyce scorned the provincial limitations of Dublin and the enthusiasm of the Irish nationalists for native culture and folkways. As an older and more mature writer, Joyce continued to draw on those elements, dominant in his memory and imagination, for the rest of his creative life. Joyce never really lost touch with the fact that he was Irish and Catholic by birth and background. Although the stories of Dubliners all document the spiritual impoverishment of Irish life, and “The Dead” is no exception in that regard, Gabriel is stunted in his human potential mainly because of his arrogant rejection of the culture in which he has chosen to live. His character shaped by frustration, rancor, and disappointment, this teacher still has much to learn about his country, his family, and himself.