In Joyce's "The Dead," how is the image of snow/winter used to symbolize death?"The Dead" by James Joyce

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Arriving at the party at the home of Gabriel Conroy's three aunts late, Gabriel explains his tardiness as he scrapes the snow from his goloshes,

"...they forget that my wife here takes three mortal hours to dress herself."

Early, then, there is the suggestion of paralysis and death (the use of "mortal," )that the images of snow represent.  As Gabriel continues to scrape his shoes

a light fringe of snow lay like a cape on the shoulders of his overcoat and like toecaps on the toes of his goloshes, and....the buttons of his overcoat slipped with a squeaking noise through the snow-stiffened frieze.

The snow touches the outer parts of Gabriel, symbolizing the death of his and Gretta's passion for one another.  Near midnight when the party begins to end and guests depart, Gabriel enjoys the walk to the hotel room in the snow with Gretta, having found her alluring as she has previously leaned upon the banisters of the stairway in the house, listening with "grace and mystery" in her attitude.  As they walk along, however, Gabriel points to "the statue,"  a statue of Daniel O'Connell, who achieved Catholic emancipation in 1829, and was known as "The Liberator."  This, too, is covered with snow, a shroud over the real emancipation of the irish from the British rule.

At the hotel, Gabriel finally is alone with his wife; however, it is a night of ghosts and death as Gretta thinks of a young man from long, long ago. And, Gabriel feels humiliated as she reminisces about Michael Furey, who braved the cold to tell her of his love.  Then, just as the snow has hung on the shoulders of Gabriel's coat earlier,

[T]he air of the room chilled his shoulders....One by one they were all becoming shades.  Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passions, than fade and wither dismally with age....His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead.

As though dying himself, Gabriel watches the snow flakes "fall obliquely against the lamplight."  Sensing his paralysis and the paralysis of the Irish people, Gabriel realizes that the time has arrived for his "journey westward,." Thus, the shroud of snow lays "thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones as Gabriel feels himself united with the dead as he is not in control and the lines between real life and the illusionary are blurred.

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