Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“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.
(The entire section is 912 words.)
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