In order to help you with your question on examples of Modernism in James Joyce’s great short short story “The Dead,” let us first review some of the important aspects of the Modernist movement as it has been expressed in literature. Modernism first began to appear in the early twentieth century and continued through about the 1960s. Modernists were deeply influenced by the world-wide horrors of World War I (1914–1918) and its aftermath. The movement was also a reaction against the Victorian views and sense of aesthetic that had dominated popular culture for many decades prior.
Modernism is at times concerned with the repeated cycles of birth and destruction that allow new forms to appear and with themes of isolation from community. “The Dead” explores, with a surprising and profound conclusion, the meaning of life and death through the sudden revelation that comes to a character who is neither particularly wise nor insightful.
Modernist literature is at times marked by the rejection of what had been considered conventional rules of syntax, form, and structure in both poetry and prose. This gave rise to an important Modernist literary narrative technique that you will find in “The Dead”: stream-of-consciousness. Stream-of-consciousness narration takes the reader into the thought flow of the characters. The term itself was invented by psychologist Willam James and first appeared in his book Principles of Psychology. This method of narration is also sometimes called “interior monologue.” A stream-of-consciousness writing style captures the way that thoughts arise suddenly. To amplify this effect, Modernist writers sometimes omit punctuation. You can think of a flowing stream of water carrying along whatever may be already in it (or happens to fall in) as a metaphor that illustrates this literary technique. Characters voice their feelings, make free associations, and can take the reader through present, past, or future times without a specific order. As readers, we are taken into the natural flow of a character’s thoughts, and the author uses this internal view to guide the motivation and plot of the story.
In Joyce’s short story “The Dead” (the last tale in his 1914 short story collection Dubliners), you will find examples of the Modernist stream-of-consciousness method of narration. One especially powerful example comes up near the end of the story, and will be quoted after the following short review of the plot. You will be sure to find other good examples on your own.
“The Dead” takes the reader into the mind of a somewhat insensitive and self-absorbed character named Gabriel Conroy. Gabriel is a teacher and book reviewer who is married to Gretta. Gabriel is a bit of a snob. He considers himself better-educated that most, is not interested in his native Irish culture and independence, and is limited in his emotional intelligence. The couple attend a Christmas dinner and dance hosted by Gabriel’s aunts Julia and Kate, who are music teachers in Dublin. During the evening, Gabriel meets a variety of people and has a few awkward conversations on which he reflects.
Afterwards, his hopes of a romantic evening at a hotel with his wife are dashed. When Gabriel tries to initiate an intimate moment with Gretta, her thoughts are elsewhere. Crying, she explains that a song from the party brought up recollections of a young suitor who died at the age seventeen, giving in to illness because of a broken heart he suffered when Gretta moved away from her home in Galway.
His wife has never before shared this memory, and Gabriel is at first shocked and frozen with jealousy. However, this revelation leads him to think deeply about how the dead continue to influence the living. In the course of this reverie, we come across a fine example of stream-of-consciousness narration as Gabriel’s thoughts take him into the imagined future, in which he sees himself as a mourner for his elderly Aunt Julia:
Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade. … He had caught that haggard look upon her face for a moment when she was singing "Arrayed for the Bridal." Soon, perhaps he would be sitting in that same drawing room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees. The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died.
These thoughts lead to an epiphany for the emotionally stunted husband as jealousy gives way to understanding. He begins to see his place in the inevitable cycle of life and death—and continued life as a memory that influences the living.
One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live. Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that towards any woman, he knew that such a feeling must be love. … his soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. … His own existence was fading and into a gray and impalpable world.
This conclusion reflects an important Modernist theme on the constant cycle of destruction and remaking and is conveyed through the inner thoughts of one particular character who, though flawed, is redeemed by a sudden understanding that will change his life.