(Short Story Criticism)

"The Dead" Joyce, James

The following entry presents criticism of Joyce's short story "The Dead," published in his collection Dubliners (1914). See also James Joyce Short Story Criticism.

Joyce was the most prominent writer of English prose in the first half of the twentieth century. Many critics maintain that his verbal facility equaled that of William Shakespeare or John Milton, and his virtuoso experiments in prose redefined the limits of language and the form of the modern novel. "The Dead," the final and longest story of his collection Dubliners, is considered one of the most beautifully executed stories in the English language and the culmination of Joyce's critical and ironic portraits of everyday life in turn-of-the-century Dublin. Its subject is the epiphanic revelation of Gabriel Conroy, who, as his illusions are dispelled, realizes the shallowness of his love for his wife, Gretta.

Plot and Major Characters

"The Dead" takes places on the religious feast of Epiphany, at the holiday party of Julia and Kate Morkan, the spinster aunts of Gabriel Conroy. Gabriel, a teacher and literary reviewer, favors continental culture to that of his native Ireland, and thus arrives at the party with an attitude of disdain for the provinciality of his aunts and their guests, although he keeps his thoughts largely to himself. His pomposity and self-centeredness appear in his several encounters with the other guests, including Miss Ivors who playfully rebukes him for his loyalties to England as a reviewer for the pro-British newspaper Daily Express, calling him a "West Briton." Gabriel mistakes this banter for a personal attack, and attempts to redeem himself before the gathered attendees in his annual speech, a smug and highly self-conscious display of rhetoric and cliché. Near the close of the party, Bartell D'Arcy, a noted tenor in attendance, sings an old Irish song, "The Lass of Aughrim." Later, after retreating to the Hotel Gresham, Gabriel speaks to his wife, Gretta, a beautiful woman from the Irish west. Distracted from the conversation, Gretta is haunted by the song, which has reminded her of a former love. When Gabriel presses the subject, she reveals that many years ago she knew a young man who worked in the gasworks named Michael Furey. Afflicted with consumption, Furey died after leaving his sickbed on a rainy night to keep vigil outside Gretta's window on the eve of her leaving Galway for Dublin. Gretta later observes, "I think he died for me." Gabriel, contemplating himself in a mirror, becomes aware of his own pettiness, and realizes that he has never loved his wife as Michael Furey did. At the close of the story Gabriel looks out the window of his room and watches the snow; "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."

Major Themes

The title of "The Dead" points to its underlying subject, though critics have continued to argue exactly which "dead" are to be emphasized in explication, and even which characters comprise the "dead." To some, "The Dead" refers only to those mentioned in the story as dead, most notably Gretta's tragic love, Michael Furey. To others, "The Dead" signifies everyone at the Morkan's party but Gabriel, and through association, everyone in Ireland. Also widely debated is the ambiguity surrounding Gabriel's epiphany at the conclusion of the story, which closes with his assertion that it is time to begin his journey westward and his vision of the snow falling over all Ireland and metaphorically throughout the universe. The meaning of the journey westward is sometimes associated with death, but a more prevalent recent view is that Gabriel's journey westward signifies a rejuvenated view of life. Similarly, the meaning of the snow, which in some readings signifies the pall—or even shroud—of death covering Ireland, in others represents universal cleansing, bringing expanded consciousness and renewed life to all upon whom it falls. Florence L. Walzl has asserted that ambivalence and ambiguity were purposefully written into the narrative by Joyce to reflect his changing, somewhat more positive attitude toward Ireland at the time he wrote the story.

Critical Reception

When it was first published, and for several decades thereafter, Dubliners was considered little more than a slight volume of naturalist fiction evoking the repressive social milieu of Dublin at the turn of the century. It was overlooked in favor of Joyce's later, highly innovative works, most notably A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Ulysses (1922), and Finnegans Wake (1939). In the ensuing years most critics have recognized that Dubliners holds a greater significance than had previously been attributed to it, and subsequent studies have examined the symbolic significance, structural unity, and autobiographical basis of the stories. Critical interest in "The Dead," in particular, has remained intense in recent decades as scholars debate the thematic importance of this final story in the volume, especially its presentation of Gabriel's spiritual awakening—a theme which likely transcends the moral and spiritual paralysis of the entire cast of Dubliners. Likewise, the story is the primary focus of this collection, which has been said to illustrate the multidimensional narrative method that would revolutionize modern literature. Overall, "The Dead" is thought the masterpiece of Joyce's most accessible collection of work.

Julian B. Kaye (essay date 1958)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Wings of Daedalus: Two Stories in 'Dubliners,'" in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring, 1958, pp. 31-41.

[In the following excerpt, Kaye examines "The Dead" as a study of Gabriel Conroy's epiphany and traces Joyce's ironic religious symbolism in the work. ]

"The Dead" is the acknowledged masterpiece ofDublin'ers. Even those critics who have poohpoohed many of Joyce's stories as mere sketches have expressed admiration for it; and it has probably received as much critical attention as all the other stories put together. It is therefore surprising that students of Joyce have left so many questions unanswered. They have not even been able to agree on what happens to Gabriel Conroy: some think he suffers spiritual death; others believe that he is reborn.

Several critics have pointed out that "The Dead" contains the ultimate epiphany of Dubliners; but no one has observed that the story takes place on Epiphany. The Misses Morkan's annual dance takes place at the end of the Christmas season. Aunt Kate says of Mr. Browne that '"He has been laid on here like the gas . . . all during the Christmas'." She also comments on the fact that Freddy Malins has come drunk to her party: '"Now, isn't he a terrible fellow!' she said. 'And his poor mother made him take the pledge on New Year's Eve'." In Europe the end of the Christmas season is not New Year's Day—which is, moreover, ruled out by the absence of New Year's greetings at the party 6—but Epiphany or Twelfth Night, traditionally associated with Christmas festivities.

The most convincing reason for reading "The Dead" as an Epiphany story, however, is that it works. Mr. Brewster Ghiselin has pointed out that in Ireland every one must accept material substitutes for spiritual values and that the feast in "The Dead" is a material substitute for spiritual communion. In my opinion, the principal incidents of "The Dead" are a bitter parody of the events celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church in its Epiphany Offices: the marriage at Cana, the visit of the Magi, and the Baptism of Christ. 7 In Joyce's Ireland, these revelations are mocked.

The marriage at Cana is represented in "The Dead" by the encounter of Gabriel with Lily, the caretaker's daughter. Gabriel gaily suggests that '"we'll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, eh?'

The girl glanced back at him over her shoulder and said with great bitterness:

'The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you.'

Girls who cannot afford enough wine for the wedding do not usually get married at all in Joyce's Dublin. And Gabriel is reduced to consoling Lily for the loss of love by giving her a gold coin—a poor substitute for the turning of water into wine.

The visit of the Magi to the Christ child and their showering of gifts upon Him becomes the Misses Morkan's annual dance. Gabriel refers to the three hostesses as "the Three Graces of the Dublin musical world" and praises them for their hospitality. But although they are genuinely kindly and hospitable, they are certainly not searching for a new revelation. Their name—Morkan—suggests that they are mawkins or spectres. They are the "three potatoes"—probably cold—which Lily reserves for Gabriel.

Mary Jane, the niece, saves the best slices of goose for her pupils. Her artistic gift to the party is an elaborate academy piece which no one enjoys and which is performed principally to exhibit her technical virtuosity and to advertise her merits as a teacher. Aunt Julia—who, like one of the Three Kings, is rather hard of hearing—sings Arrayed for the Bridal "with great spirit," but Gabriel sees her arrayed for the bridal of death.8 Her voice is alive, but she is not. Aunt Kate, although she gives piano lessons, has very little knowledge of music. She does not realize that the singer Bartell D'Arcy is hoarse, but she stoutly maintains that a tenor of her youth named Parkinson—which is also the name of a disease symptomatized by progressive paralysis9—is the greatest of all singers. One must admit that, despite their loyalty and lovableness, Aunt Julia and Aunt Kate are, in Gabriel's words, "only two ignorant old women"—mawkins rather than Magi.

Their world suffers, like the rest of Joyce's Dublin, from Parkinson's disease. The possibility of rebirth, of regeneration—the revelation commemorated in the Epiphany service as the Baptism of Christ—is very small indeed. Brother Pat (Patrick for Ireland, perhaps) has long been dead, and his daughter Mary Jane is a middle-aged spinster.

Their sister Ellen seemingly attempted to escape from the sterility of Ireland.10 At any rate, she married T. J. Conroy of the Port and Docks. Described as "the brain...

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Richard Ellmann (essay date 1958)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Backgrounds of 'The Dead,'" in The Kenyon Review, Vol. XX, No. 4, Autumn, 1958, pp. 507-28.

[In the following essay, Ellmann uses biographical details to illuminate Joyce's highly autobiographical approach to "The Dead. "]

Works of Art begin before the writers who create them are born; they cling to their childhood and pierce their maturity. To write seems to be unable not to write. As the pressure of hints, sudden insights, and old memories rises in the mind, the artist, like King Midas' barber, is compelled to speech.

"The Dead" is a story with such a long waiting history, depending as it does upon two generations of Joyces. But its...

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C. C. Loomis, Jr. (essay date 1960)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Structure and Sympathy in Joyce's 'The Dead,'" in PMLA, Vol. LXXV, No. 9, March, 1960, pp. 149-51.

[In the following essay, Loomis interprets the structure of "The Dead" as a vehicle for reader sympathy.]

James Joyce's "The Dead" culminates in Gabriel Conroy's timeless moment of almost supreme vision. The fragments of his life's experience, of the epitomizing experiences of one evening in particular, are fused together into a whole: "self-bounded and self-contained upon the immeasurable background of space and time."1 Initiated by a moment of deep, if localized, sympathy, his vision and his sympathy expand together to include not only himself,...

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Thomas F. Smith (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Color and Light in 'The Dead,'" in James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. II, No. 4, Summer, 1965, pp. 304-09.

[In the following excerpt, Smith explores dichotomies of color and light as essential symbolism in "The Dead. "]

There is one feature of "The Dead" that has gone, for the most part, un-noticed—the possible symbolism in Joyce's various references to color and light. Admittedly they constitute a minor motif until the end of the story, but I submit that they are important, and that if one sees the pattern of meaning implicit in them, he can more fully understand the significance of the snow in Gabriel's vision. That pattern is basically simple—references to...

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Florence L. Walzl (essay date 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gabriel and Michael: The Conclusion of The Dead,'" in James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 1, Fall, 1966, pp. 17-31.

[In the following essay, Walzl investigates the ambiguous symbolic qualities of "The Dead, " seeing the story both as the penultimate tale of paralysis in Dubliners, and as one of spiritual development and final redemption.]

Dubliners as a collection and "The Dead" as a narrative both culminate in the great epiphany of Gabriel Conroy, the cosmic vision of a cemetery with snow falling on all the living and the dead. As an illumination, it follows Gabriel's meeting with the spirit of Michael Furey and seems to evolve from it. Though...

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Andrew Lytle (essay date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Reading of Joyce's 'The Dead,'" in Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXVII, No. 1, Winter, 1969, pp. 193-216.

[In the following essay, Lytle analyzes "The Dead, " arguing that Christian symbolism is crucial to understanding the story.]

"The Dead" has obviously been put together by a master craftsman. The form and the subject make a perfect joinery. Nothing is left dangling; no part of it is inert. This is the mark of a master's work Some of the stories in Dubliners are more moving than others, but they all produce that shock of surprise which comes from an old truth, once again reborn into the full radiance of its meaning. The occasion for the action of this...

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William J. Handy (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Joyce's The Dead,'" in Modern Fiction: A Formalist Approach, Southern Illinois University Press, 1971, pp. 29-61.

[In the following excerpt, Handy examines the thematic nature of "The Dead, " particularly its theme of spiritual death.]

"The Dead" is certainly one of the masterpieces in the Joyce canon. Its themes, recognizably present in the later works, are embodied in a much more direct manner of presentation: the theme of spiritual death, of spiritual rebirth, and the theme of the freedom of the human spirit as a necessary condition for living and loving. It would be folly for the critic of whatever persuasion not to grant that a sound reading of "The Dead"...

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Vincent P. Pecora (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "'The Dead' and the Generosity of the Word," in PMLA, Vol. 101, No. 2, March, 1986, pp. 233-45.

[In the following essay, Pecora approaches the question of whether Gabriel acquires a level of self-understanding at the close of "The Dead," maintaining that Gabriel "in no way overcomes or transcends the conditions of his existence."]

Headed toward death, language turns back upon itself; it encounters something like a mirror; and to stop this death which would stop it, it possesses but a single power: that of giving birth to its own image in a play of mirrors that has no limits.

Michel Foucault, "Language to Infinity"...

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Thomas Loe (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Dead' as Novella," in James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 2, Winter, 1991, pp. 485-97.

[In the following essay, Loe contends that the true genre of "The Dead" is the novella, and explores the work's theme and narrative technique in terms of this genre. ]

The fact that "The Dead" is a novella has been too long neglected or casually noted. Besides the length necessary to qualify it for the 15,000 to 50,000 word category usually assigned to the novella or short novel, "The Dead" possesses a form that resembles the typical novella, a form significantly different from Joyce's other fiction. While viewing the story from this perspective may not radically change...

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Bruce Avery (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Distant Music: Sound and the Dialogics of Satire in 'The Dead,"' in James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 2, Winter, 1991, pp. 473-83.

[In the following essay, Avery proposes that close attention to the language used in "The Dead" reveals a crucial separation of the narrative voice from that of the main character, Gabriel ]

"The Dead" stands in curious relation to the other stories of Dubliners, Joyce added it late to the collection, after a letter of May 5, 1906, to Grant Richards, in which Joyce declares his intention to write "a chapter in the moral history" of Ireland (Letters of James Joyce, vol. II, 1966). "The Dead" does not seem to...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. Revised edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982, 887 p.

The essential biography of James Joyce, considered the among the most important biographies of the twentieth century.


Bogorad, Samuel N. "Gabriel Conroy as 'Whited Sepulchre' : Prefiguring Imagery in 'The Dead,'" Ball State University Forum XIV, No. 1 (Winter 1973): 52-8.

Discusses "images of immobility, rigidity, and physicalmoral paralysis that have been so carefully and deliberately built up in the narrative development of The Dead.'"

Boyd, John D. and Ruth A. Boyd....

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