What is significant or symbolic about the title "The Dead"?  

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Death is ever present in Joyce's "The Dead "—literally, figuratively, and most importantly of all, culturally. Yet meaningful communication dies a death too. Ireland's status as a British imperial backwater means that there is no longer a distinctive Irish voice that can tap into the age-old tradition of European...

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Death is ever present in Joyce's "The Dead"—literally, figuratively, and most importantly of all, culturally. Yet meaningful communication dies a death too. Ireland's status as a British imperial backwater means that there is no longer a distinctive Irish voice that can tap into the age-old tradition of European culture. This lack of a distinctive cultural voice manifests itself in either a parochial Irish nationalism or a supine acceptance of continued British rule. In his own writing, Joyce consciously set out to remedy the deficiency.

The death of meaningful communication is shown by Lily's tart response to Gabriel's polite inquiry as to when she might get married. Gabriel's unionist affiliations effectively cut him off from the lower orders in Irish society, as represented by Lily. This earns him the contempt of Miss Ivors, off to the Gaelic-speaking Aran Islands on a cultural jaunt. He is not an Irishman, she says, but a West Briton, a derogatory epithet for an Irish unionist.

Yet Gabriel cannot even communicate effectively with himself, cannot adequately express what he wants to say. He frets about his speech, thinking it a failure from first to last, although it goes down very well with the assembled party. In that speech, Gabriel insists that we must not linger on the past, on things that are dead. In making this point, Gabriel is once more cutting himself off from his Irish roots, resolutely affirming his need to live in the present.

But Gabriel cannot escape from the general malaise, the sense of cultural death and decay that falls gently but insistently upon Ireland in symbolic snowflakes. So long as he resides in a country of which he openly admits he's heartily sick, he too will be as dead as anyone else. He is caught between a rock and a hard place, cut off from the past of his Irish heritage, yet still at the same time trapped by it. To Joyce, this kind of death is so much worse than the physical death of Michael Furey all those years before. Although his life was short, it was at least lived to the full. In that sense, Michael, though comfortably ensconced beneath the snow-covered earth, is more truly alive than Gabriel Conroy or any of the other characters in "The Dead."

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The last story in James Joyce's Dubliners, "The Dead" combines all the categories of the other stories; that is, it combines childhood, adolescence, mature life, public life, and married life, unifying them in their spiritual paralysis.  In this story it is the defeated, colonial city that is dead; there is yet hope that the Irish people may have the spiritual resources to break this paralysis and counter the malaise in which they live.

The main character of the story, Gabriel Conroy, tries to escape squalid reality in reverie as he perceives his wife romantically as she stands at the top of the stairs, and then again he finds her attractive in the cab and while he watches the snow.  When they reach the hotel room, however, his wife confesses that she has been in love with a man who died for her sake, and the lines between the living and the dead begin to blur, just as the lines between reverie and reality have:

...the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.

While Gabriel looks westward and watches the snow falling,

he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Gabriel has had an incomplete recognition, but he has gained some admiration for his wife, Greta.  And, he offers some hope for the Dubliners who in this last story are united, living and dead:

Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. 

The title, "The Dead," symbolizes the inner death, the spiritual paralysis of those who escape their squalid reality in reveries, but they are yet limited in their imaginings.  At the party Molly Ivors calls Gabriel a "West Briton," accusing him of lack of loyalty, and he later learns that he does not really know his wife.  In short, Gabriel realizes later that he has been living his life as though he were dead.  However, he feels that it is better now to live life "in the full glory of some passion...."  So, with death, there is a resurrection of spirit in its recognition of the human condition.  And, this is the significance of the title of "The Dead": there can be a resurrection of spirit for the Irish although their capital city is as a colonial city is effete.

 

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