How does Gabriel compare himself with Michael Furey?"The Dead" by James Joyce

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Interestingly, the names of Joyce's main character in his story, "The Dead," contrasts greatly with the name of his wife's first love.  As biblical names of two archangels, Gabriel was the more passive, a messenger for God, while the archangel Michael was a warrior.  Even the last name of the boy who loved Gretta, Furey, denotes passion.

Throughout the narrative, Gabriel is meek and passive.  For instance, he merely smiles at the manner in which Lily, the caretaker's daughter, pronounces his last name with three syllables, and when he arouses her ire, he gives her money rather than trying to appease her with a more personal method.  Certainly, he is intimidated by the accusations of Molly Ivor that he is a West Briton who is sympathetic to the British rule and fears "risking a grandiose phrase with her" when most Irishmen would react passionately, rather than so passively, to such an argumentative statement.

In his relationship with Gretta, Gabriel clearly differs from Michael Furey.  Treating his wife in a foolishly condescending manner, he tries to make her wear galoshes to the party and he rents a room for the night because last year Gretta caught a cold--"The two aunts laughed heartily..."for Gabriel's solciitude was a standing joke with them."  He gives little attention to her until the party is over and, when he looks for her, he does not at first even recognize her.  Joyce writes,

Gabriel had not gone to the door with the others.  He was in a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase.  A woman was stading near the top of the first flightin the the shadow also.  He could not see her face, but he could see the...panels of her skirt....It was his wife.

Yet, after noticing her beauty as she has listened to the tenor, Gabriel feels a "wave of yet more tender joy," a resurgence of lust for his wife as they go to the lodging for the evening.  However, without understanding how she feels at the moment, Gabriel attempts passion with his wife after they reach the room.  She has been crying.  "A dull anger" enters Gabriel as he ironically asks his wife if she cries for someone she once loved.  Then, a "vague terror" seizes Gabriel as he feels defeated by some "vindictive power" when he is told that his wife has loved another and still thinks of him.

Unlike Gabriel, Michael Furey would not be defeated in his passionate love for Gretta.  He insisted upon living his life passionately, even dying for love.  As he talks with his wife, Gabriel realizes that while he has felt the effulgence of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness, joy, and desire, Gretta has been thinking of her lost love, Michael Furey.  Gabriel feels "A shameful consciousness of his own person" as one who

saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulagarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror.

Shame burns in Gabriel as he has not lived an authentic life as has Michael Furey, a young passionate boy willing to die for what he believed in, rather than compromising himself.

susan3smith eNotes educator| Certified Educator

You will find your answer in the paragraph beginning with "Gabriel, leaning on his elbow."  After Greta explains to Gabriel why she is crying and why the song she heard at the party moved her so, Gabriel has an epiphany.  He realizes that there is much about Greta that he did not know.  Michael Furey, a man of Greta's past, makes Gabriel realize his own shortcomings.  Unlike Gabriel, Michael was a man of passion, willing to die for the woman he loved.  While Gabriel had been focused on his sexual desire for Greta, Michael Furey had loved her with much finer and more intense love. In fact, Gabriel decides:

Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.

We see Gabriel, a man of cynicism and logic, declare that a short life of passion is superior to  his.   It is interesting that Michael is a man from Greta's past and from her hometown.  At the party, Gabriel had been disdainful of Ireland and spending any time in Greta's part of the country.  Yet, Gabriel is able to recognize the beauty and sacrifice of a young unsophisticated Irish lad.  Perhaps Gabriel's appreciation of the Irish represents Joyce's own softening in his judgment of his people.