In Joyce's "The Dead," who are the dead of the title?
The place to look at is the end of this amazing story that so powerfully introduces ideas of mortality and our own ephemeral nature as human beings. Having been told the story of Michael Furey by his wife, Gretta, and his tragic end, he comes to contemplate the way in which his Aunt Julia is going to be numbered among the dead soon, which in turn leads him to realise the way in which they are all slowly but surely dying:
One by one they were all becoming shades... His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. 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.
Note the way in which Gabriel Conroy at this point in the novel feels the way in which he too is heading to becoming one of the "vast hosts of the dead." As the story ends, the snow starts once again, falling on both the "living and the dead," uniting them together in a condition of paralysis that has been exhibited by Gabriel throughout the story.
Thus the title of this excellent short story draws our attention to our own mortality but also the way in which we live our lives. Gabriel Conroy is forced to realise how he has been living as if he were dead, in a state of constant paralysis, but as the story ends and after finding out about Michael Furey, he believes that it is better to "pass boldly into that other world" than to slowly dwindle away his life. The title then stands as a challenge to us as to how we live the few days that we are given before we die.