Explain how or whether the protagonists were able to change their circumstances in The Dead.

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In James Joyce's The Dead, the particularly poignant ending involves this very question. Gabriel does not change his circumstances but he does become aware of them. Specifically, Gabriel comes to realize (in a moment Joyce called an epiphany) that compared to Greta's young lover Michael of years prior, he is dead. Michael may have died of disease but lived with a passion Gabriel has and will never experience.

After a night of traditional Christmas feasting—punctuated by his sweet but somewhat silly aunts, a drunken friend, a colleague, and his own easily-hurt or embarrassed sensibilities—Gabriel discovers that his wife has had a far more interesting and meaningful relationship than he imagined. In the West Country, with traditional Irish language and customs, Greta enjoyed a life that Gabriel's status-conscious, Continental-looking values have underestimated.

The novella ends with Gabriel imagining that it is time for him to travel West (to Gaelic Ireland but also symbolically to death), with snow (symbolically another image of death) falling generally:

The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. 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.

This ending suggests a death within Gabriel, in his pompous sense of importance, to some extent in how he sees his relationship to Greta, and more broadly to the type of late-19th century Ireland that Gabriel also represents. There is no change but there is a hopeless resignation to the reality of his life, lacking in vitality.

For Joyce, rebuilding an Ireland not plagued by emotional and political paralysis requires a different perspective, and one likely derived from exile in Paris, as Stephen Daedalus imagines in Joyce's longer work Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and then Ulysses.

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