What helps Gabriel transform throughout the story?James Joyce's "The Dead"

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Although a shy man, Gabriel Conroy has a somewhat supercilious attitude about him.  For instance, he complains that he is late to the party given by his aunts because his wife "takes three mortal hours to dress herself."  But, when Lily replies snappily to his remarks about her soon getting married, Gabriel blushes. Still "discomposed by the girl's bitter and sudden retort," Gabriel tries to relieve the gloom by going over the speech he will soon give; however, he wonders if he should remove his quote from Robert Browning since the "grade of culture" of the other guests differs from his and his aunts are "only two ignorant old women." 

Then, when he is confronted by Molly Irvin's remarks that he is a British sympathizer, Gabriel is rather disconcerted, especially as Molly further interrogates him regarding his choice of vacation and his need to visit his own country and speak his own language. But, Molly departs before Gabriel gives his speech. Nevertheless, affected by the comments of Molly Irvin, Gabriel gives a stirring speech on the Irish tradition of hospitality and the remembrance of the dead, "whose fame the world will not willingly let die."  With this remark, Gabriel turns to the three aunts and praises them, suggesting that all toast them.

As he prepares to depart, Gabriel gazes up the staircase and see his wife standing near the top of the staircase where she leans, listening intently to Bartell D'Archy singing.  As Gabriel stands in the gloom, he sees his wife leaning as though she "were a symbol of something" listening intentl to "The Lass of Aughrim," and he is greatly stirring by this vision.  On the way to the hotel, Gabriel is filled with passion for his wife; as she walks before him,

...he longed to run after her noiselessly, catch her by the shoulders and say something foolishand affectionate into her ear....Moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory....He longed to be alone with her.

Once in the hotel room, as he romantically slips his arms around his wife, Gretta reveals what she has been thinking of, and she recounts the history of a young man who had once loved her, but is now dead.

"And what did he die of so young, Gretta?  Consumption, was it?"

"I think he died for me," she answered.

It is at this point that Gabriel begins to feel a terror of a vague, vindictive being coming for him.  He watches the snow fall, the sounds of the night fill him as he reaches an epiphany:

A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him....He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable famous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror.....It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life.

Gabriel reassesses his life, glancing at Gretta, and realizes that the boundaries between the living and the dead have started to blur.  Now, the condescension show to Gretta is now transferred to Gabriel while Gretta achieves a type of admiration.   Yet, Gabriel's understanding is still merely

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