In "The Dead," why does Joyce choose the Christmas party to tell his story?

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A Christmas party is an appropriate setting for "The Dead " as it shows the extent to which the assembled guests have attempted to lay the ghosts of the past to rest. Just over half a century before the story was set, Ireland was devastated by an appalling famine...

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A Christmas party is an appropriate setting for "The Dead" as it shows the extent to which the assembled guests have attempted to lay the ghosts of the past to rest. Just over half a century before the story was set, Ireland was devastated by an appalling famine that decimated the population, killing millions and forcing millions more to emigrate. And yet now, in a shabby-genteel part of the nation's capital, Dublin, we have people gathering together at Christmas to stuff themselves with plump goose, crumbed ham, and "chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers".

Christmas, then, is a time of fun and enjoyment, an ideal time to lay to rest the ghosts of the past and look forward to a brighter future. But Gabriel Conroy is notably unable to do this. His marriage to Gretta is haunted by the memory of Michael Furey, Gretta's former lover who died of a broken heart at the age of 17 after she went away.

And the snow that falls upon Ireland that cold winter's evening is a symbolic reminder of the inability of the present generation of Irish men and women to escape from a past which, due to the continued status of Ireland as a colonial backwater, remains disturbingly ever-present.

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On a dramatic level, the cheer associated with the Christmas season makes for a great contrast with the alienation felt by Gabriel and the grief Gretta feels over her lost love. People are supposed to be joyful during Christmas and feel close with their loved ones. However, Gabriel is a subject of controversy and even contempt at the party due to his political sentiments, and his advances towards Gretta are met with a cool reception. Gretta's description of her lost love Michael is also a bit Christ-like since she describes him as a good young man who "died for me."

On the other hand, Christmas is in many ways the culmination of the year and a time of reflection upon the past. Traditionally, ghost stories were told during this season, making it fitting that Gretta is metaphorically haunted by the dead Michael. Because Christmas comes at the end of the year, it also represents a time of endings before a new beginning. This is reflected in Gabriel's arc over the course of the story: by the ending, he is moved by his wife's pain and becomes a more sensitive, compassionate person, no longer taking her for granted or seeing her as an object to possess.

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Joyce chooses the Christmas party setting for several reasons: first, the party brings together people of different generations, ranging from the young servant Lily to the middle-aged Gabriel's aunts. It also brings in memories of the dead, from Gabriel's dead mother, Ellen, to the generic dead Gabriel mentions in cliched terms in his speech—"we . . . still cherish in our hearts the memory of those dead and gone great ones whose fame the world will not willingly let die"—and after the party, the dead Michael Furey. At the story's end, the living and the dead are connected through the falling snow, which falls on both the living and the graves of the dead and which is strongly associated both with winter and with Christmas.

Second, Christmas is cyclical, a holiday that occurs over and over again as a reminder and celebration of an event, the birth of Jesus. The party is also cyclical, referred to as an "annual dance." Its cyclical quality reinforces the connection to the cycle of life between living and death.

Finally, the last day of the Christmas season is called Epiphany, a word which means "revelation" and refers to the Wise Men's revelation that the baby Jesus was the son of God. In this story, Gabriel has an epiphany, or revelation, that leaves him wiser, displacing his belief that he is the center of his wife's universe, when he learns of her dead first love, Michael Furey.

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The actual timing of the party in this story is of immense significance when we consider the central realisation experienced at the end of the tale by Gabriel Conroy. Many critics believe that the action of the story occurs on January 5th, which is the night before Epiphany. Epiphany is a Christian festival that occurs on 6th January and is supposedly when the wise men arrived to bring their gifts to the baby Jesus, but now the term refers in religious circles to a recognition of the manifestation of God's presence to the world. Joyce transformed this religious term into a literary one, as he uses the term to refer to a sudden moment of insight or awareness that reveals the true nature of a character. It is therefore entirely fitting that the action of the story should occur the night before the feast of the Epiphany, as the setting therefore is paralleled by the intense moment of self-realisation experienced by Gabriel Conroy at the end of the tale after his wife, Gretta, has told him about Michael Furey. Gabriel realises just how empty his life has been without love, and he recognises the paralysis that he has been subject to. Setting therefore finds its expression in character.

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