One of the primary tenets of the modernist period was the belief among artists that their artwork, including literature, could create social change and cure social ills. In American literature, much of modernist art tackled the evils that caused World War I. Joyce’s Dubliners examined the social ills of contemporary Dublin, Ireland.
Both stories, “The Dead” and “An Encounter,” examine the paralysis of Joyce’s Dublin. In his Dublin, characters are stuck, prevented from progressing in their lives by self-harm, such as alcoholism; by a devotion to the Catholic Church; or by duty and responsibility, as is the case in the final story in the collection, “The Dead.” This story explores the paralysis Gabriel Conroy, an educated, seemingly worldly man, suffers from because of his devotion to tradition in the city of Dublin.
Throughout the first half of the story, Gabriel ponders what type of speech he should give at his aunts’ annual holiday dinner. He wonders if the poem he plans on reciting would offend certain guests because they wouldn’t understand it. Then he becomes lost for words when the nationalist Ms. Ivors accuses him of being a “West Briton.” And the ultimate paralyzing action occurs when Gabriel and his wife return home from the party. At this part of the story, Gabriel intends to get intimate with his wife, but she is too busy thinking about a boy she dated when she was younger. This boy, a sickly one, sat outside her window in the snow and later became sick and died. This prompts Gabriel to inaction. How could he compete with this boy?
Ultimately, while staring out his window at the snow falling all around him, Gabriel has this epiphany about the nature of life and death:
His soul swooned slowly as 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.
This paralysis exemplifies the modernist period in that it demonstrates how a man such as Gabriel, who has so much potential, could find himself stuck in this city.