Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 929

‘‘The Dead’’ was first published in 1914 as part of Joyce's short story collection called Dubliners. Joyce had actually written all the stories by 1907, when he finished ‘‘The Dead,’’ but he struggled for seven years to get the collection published. The publishers were in a sense its first critics, refusing to publish the collection because some of the stories have mildly profane language and because they refer to real people and places in and around Dublin.

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When Dubliners was finally published, the first critics were struck by Joyce's meticulous concentration on the ordinary and drab details of life. Joyce's subject matter, which avoids any attempt at the sensational, was noticeably different to them. A 1914 review in the Times Literary Supplement said that Dubliners "may be recommended to the large class of readers to whom the drab makes an appeal, for it is admirably written.’’ Gerald Gould, writing for the New Statesman, had similar comments. He wrote that Joyce ‘‘dares to let people speak for themselves with awkward meticulousness, the persistent incompetent repetition of actual human intercourse.’’ Although he thought Joyce a genius, Gould deemed it a pity that a man could write as Joyce does while insisting upon ‘‘aspects of life which are not ordinarily mentioned.’’ But other critics approved of Joyce's examination of the mundane and ordinary. Ezra Pound praised Joyce for being a realist and not sentimentalizing over his characters, and in 1922 John Macy saw Joyce's work as superior to the usual stories of that time. Having little regard for the sentimental and genteel style found in most magazines of the period, Macy noted, Joyce's kinds of stories were ‘‘almost unknown to American magazines, if not to American writers.’’ Macy called ‘‘The Dead’’ a masterpiece, but argued that it would never be popular because it is about living people.

As Joyce's popularity grew, his stories became overshadowed by his longer and more complex works, such as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. By the 1940s, critics looked back to ‘‘The Dead’’ and saw it as an important work. Much critical attention has been given to it over the years, and critics have looked at the story in various ways. ‘‘The Dead’’ started getting more critical attention from academic critics in the 1940s and 1950s. These critics tended to be formalists, focusing on the story's shape and structure and the manner in which it was made. In 1950 Allen Tate wrote an essay which examines Joyce's method of presenting details in a way that goes beyond description to the level of symbol. His main example is how the snow appears in the story first as a physical detail on Gabriel's galoshes, then gradually encompasses the whole story when it is the central symbol in Gabriel's epiphany. Kenneth Burke writes in his ‘‘Stages of 'The Dead' " that the story is structured in stages. The first is one of expectancy, where all are preparing for the party and waiting for Gabriel. The second is the party itself, and the third is leaving the party. Finally, the fourth stage, when Gabriel and Gretta are alone, has many stages of its own, building up to Gabriel's final moment of revelation.

In 1959, Richard Ellmann wrote an important essay that examines "The Dead'' from the vantage point of Joyce's biography. In ‘‘The Backgrounds of 'The Dead'’’ Ellmann compares episodes in Joyce's life to similar ones in the story. Nora Barnacle, Joyce's lifelong companion and eventual wife, courted a man named Michael who was dying of tuberculosis when Nora decided to move from Galway to Dublin. This real-life Michael left his bed to visit Nora on a rainy night before she left for Dublin. Later, while she was in Dublin, she learned of his death. Ellmann also pointed out that Gabriel is similar to Joyce, as Gretta is similar to Nora. In fact, all the characters in the story seem to have real-life counterparts.

Another popular approach is a psychological reading of ‘‘The Dead.’’ Michael Shurgot sees the paralysis of the characters in terms of Freud's theory of the death wish. Shurgot argues that characters in the story follow what Freud said was the aim in life, to go toward a state of inactivity or death. Daniel R. Schwarz examines Gabriel's psyche in relation to the author's and in a cultural and historical context. Still other critics approach the story in relation to the works of the psychologist Jacques Lacan, who believed that the unconscious is structured as a language.

Critics have disagreed about the two most important aspects of the story: the meaning of Gabriel's epiphany and of the snow symbolism. The interpretation of Gabriel's epiphany falls into two camps: Some critics argue that Gabriel transcends his paralysis and will likely go on to live a different, less self-absorbed life; others think that Gabriel comes to understand himself, but this understanding is a reconciliation of who he actually is, rather than a beginning for growth. The snow seems to many critics a symbol of death or paralysis, while to others it is a symbol of Gabriel's transcending his own self-consciousness to see things more compassionately and be sympathetic to the state of humanity. Robert Billingheimer considers the snow a more ambivalent symbol. Ice, he argues, usually symbolizes death, while water symbolizes life. Therefore snow symbolizes a state of death in life or life in death.

Beneath the story's surface of meticulous realistic detail, critics have found in "The Dead'' many levels of meaning. Consequently the work has produced a large body of criticism treating the story from a variety of approaches.

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Essays and Criticism