The Dead Essays and Criticism
by James Joyce

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Understanding Mortality

(Short Stories for Students)

A major point of contention for critics of ‘‘The Dead’’ has been whether Gabriel overcomes his paralysis through his epiphany. Many critics, such as Kenneth Burke, feel that Gabriel does transcend his own paralytic self-consciousness. Others argue that he does not transcend his condition but rather, in a way, gives up any such notion and simply accepts that he is one of the spiritually dead. Michael Shurgot sees Gabriel being motivated by what Freud called a death wish. That is, he desires to avoid the problems and pressures of life and hopes to escape them by turning to some unfeeling state which would be ultimately similar to death. I would argue, like Shurgot, that death does play a role in Gabriel's epiphany; however, Gabriel's epiphany allows him to overcome his paralysis. Rather than achieving a death wish, Gabriel becomes aware of what philosophers and other twentieth-century writers call the subjective truth of death. This philosophical concept asserts that one must be aware of the possibility of one's own death to live an authentic existence. A person truly aware of his or her own death can concentrate on life as it is lived, not regretting the past or fearing the future, but living fully in the present.

Throughout most of the story it is clear that Gabriel is trapped in his own self-consciousness. It is interesting that many of the characters in the story are in fact dead. There is Gabriel's uncle Pat Morkan, his mother, the tenors of the past, Patrick Morkan his grandfather, and of course Michael Furey, among others. These figures from the past show up to subtly remind Gabriel of his own mortality.

A need to be more aware of one's mortality is hinted at while the guests of the party are eating the Christmas pudding. Mrs. Malins informs the rest of the dinner party that her son Freddy will be visiting the monastery in Mount Malleray. The rules of the religious order are mentioned—that the monks never speak, they get up at two in the morning, and they sleep in their own coffins. Mr. Browne shows his materialist tendencies by questioning why anyone would want to live as the monks do. A Protestant, he seems unable to understand the deeper spiritual meaning inherent in the monastic lifestyle. The Catholics, however, do not seem to understand the spiritual meaning either, for Aunt Julia simply says that it was the rule, as one would say who simply lives an unexamined life, by rote. But Mary Jane offers an explanation for why the monks sleep in their coffins that is one of the keys to the whole story: ‘‘The coffin ... is to remind them of their last end.’’

Another place where the dead exert their influence on Gabriel is in his speech. In it he speaks of Ireland's tradition of genuine, courteous, warmhearted hospitality. He looks at the current "hypereducated" generation and fears that they will lose the humanity, hospitality, and kindly good humor of the past generation. Ironically, such things as humanity and kindly good humor are precisely what Gabriel lacks. One sees this when examining the symptoms of Gabriel's paralysis.

Perhaps the first symptom of Gabriel's paralysis that is apparent is his condescending attitude toward others. With this attitude he tends to limit people to his own conceptions of them, rather than seeing them with the complexity of human beings. He smiles at Lily for the apparently uneducated way she pronounces his name. He seems to see her still as the child he knew who sat on the front steps with a rag doll. When he attempts a conversation with her, he asks her if she still goes to school—the same sort of question one would ask a child. Judging from her answer, Lily has been out of school for some time, for she says, ‘‘I'm done schooling this year and more.’’ So Gabriel modifies his question to one geared playfully toward a naive, lovestruck young girl: "I suppose we'll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, eh?’’ Lily's response indicates...

(The entire section is 14,084 words.)