Gabriel experiences painful personal growth at the end of the story. Through most of it, he is self-centered, seeing the world entirely from his own self-satisfied perspective. At the end of the story, however, he has an epiphany or awakening when he realizes his wife, Gretta, was in love with, and still thinks about, a young man, Michael Furey, who died years ago at age seventeen.
It is a shock to Gabriel that his wife was in love with someone before they met. He feels a sense of anger in having this dead lad as a rival for his wife's affections. Then his emotion turns to shame. At the Christmas party, he had been feeling good about himself and superior to some of his relatives, such as his aunts. Now he feels diminished. He thinks that:
While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she [Gretta] had been comparing him in her mind with another. A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a penny-boy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealizing his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror.
Gabriel also realizes that both he and Gretta are getting older. He looks at Gretta's face as she sleeps and realizes it is not a face a person would fall in love with anymore. He understands his own mortality too as he watches the snow fall, thinking about it falling on Michael Furey's grave. He realizes that:
His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.
In getting outside of his ego in recognizing his wife has a life apart from him and in facing his own limitations and eventual death, Gabriel matures as a person.
Before the narrator provides the beautiful image of the falling snow, he tells us that Gabriel’s “own identity was fading.” One reason his identity “fades” is that he understands his wife a good deal more after she tells him her story about the man who had “died for her sake.” His compassion enables him to merge with her rather than understand her only in relation to himself. In other words, he learns empathy. In this context, his “role” in their marriage changes (we surmise0 so that in the future he will be more humble and understanding. In the context of the short story, he experiences an epiphany, enabling him to “see” more than he did before—this, too, suggests a change in role, from that of one who does not understand (which the reader perceives through dramatic irony) to one who does
At the beginning of the party, Gabriel feels he's better than most of the people there. He's better educated and considers himself more sophisticated. He thinks Ireland is a backward country with backward traditions, embarrassed that his wife is from a rural part of Ireland. His life is very controlled and organized, but he has never been in touch with his passions and emotions. His experiences at the party and his wife's innocent memory of a former love force Gabriel to examine his life and life in general. He has always thought that the past should be left dead and the present was for the living. Gretta's memory forces Gabriel to rethink this view. As Gabriel looks out the window and sees the falling snow, he's able to connect with the past when he sees the snow as "general all over Ireland". He realizes the snow touches both the living and the dead, and we're left with the hope that Gabriel will change his attitude and embrace life to be able to free himself of his routines and passionless existence.