The Dead

(Great Characters in Literature)

Characters Discussed

Gabriel Conroy

Gabriel Conroy, an unfulfilled teacher and favorite nephew of the Morkan sisters, who live in Dublin, Ireland. A stout, nervous, sensitive man who wears his black hair parted in the middle and glasses with gilt rims, he writes a literary newspaper column and considers himself superior in culture to everyone at the annual Christmastime dance given by his aunts, but he feels like a failure. His after-dinner speech is a sentimental affirmation of traditional Irish character and customs, yet he feels sick of his country. Dutiful but restless, he has insulated himself from life, wears galoshes, and has never been passionately in love. His marriage to Gretta is dull. After the dance, with his wife in their hotel room, he feels a strong desire for her. She weeps and confesses that she is thinking of Michael Furey, a young lover who died for her; then she falls asleep. Gabriel accepts his failure and feels a generous compassion for his wife. Gazing out the window at the falling snow, he identifies himself in humility with all the dead.

Gretta Conroy

Gretta Conroy, Gabriel’s wife, a country girl from western Ireland. She has rich bronze hair and frail shoulders, and she suggests grace and mystery. At the dance, she is moved by a sweet Irish song that reminds her of Michael Furey, leading to the confession to her husband that she once had romance in her life.


Lily, the caretaker’s daughter and housemaid of the Morkan sisters. A pale, slim, growing girl, she makes Gabriel feel like a failure when he cheerfully inquires whether she will be getting married soon to her young man and she replies with great bitterness that men nowadays are merely out for what they can get.

Kate Morkan

Kate Morkan, an elderly piano teacher who is Gabriel’s aunt and the chief hostess. She is a feeble yet vivacious lady, with old-fashioned braided hair that has not lost its ripe nut color and a face like a shriveled red apple. She fiercely defends the rights of her sister, Julia Morkan, against the pope and is said by Gabriel in his laudatory speech to have too good a heart, though he actually feels trapped by the culture she represents.

Julia Morkan

Julia Morkan, Kate’s sister, a leading soprano. Gray-haired, dim of mind, and near death, she sings a bridal song with innocence of irony and is excessively praised by Freddy Malins, who is drunk. At the end of the story, she inspires Gabriel’s pity in his meditation on the dead.

Mary Jane

Mary Jane, a young organist and piano teacher, the only niece of the Morkan sisters and the main prop of the household. With her aunts, according to Gabriel, she is one of the Three Graces of the Dublin musical world.

Molly Ivors

Molly Ivors, a friend and a teacher colleague of Gabriel, dedicated to Irish nationalism. A frank, challenging woman with a freckled face, prominent brown eyes, and a brooch on her collar bearing an Irish symbol and motto, she irritates Gabriel by accusing him of being unpatriotic. He sees her as a rude propagandist who represents a new generation that lacks the virtues of the Morkan sisters and Mary Jane. She asserts her independence and leaves the dance early.

Freddy Malins

Freddy Malins, a houseguest given to drink and indecorum. A man of about forty, with coarse features, protruding lips, disorderly and scanty hair, and a sleepy look, he comes late, is drunk, and laughs excessively but proves himself to be a decent fellow by defending a black singer and by paying back a loan from Gabriel.

Mrs. Malins

Mrs. Malins, Freddy’s mother, who is visiting from Glasgow. An ineffectual old woman with white hair and a stutter, she has made her son take a pledge not to drink.

Mr. Browne

Mr. Browne, a non-Catholic guest who knows opera. A swarthy man with a stiff, grizzled mustache, he is forward and offensively common.

Bartell D’Arcy

Bartell D’Arcy, a conceited and second-rate tenor. He begins to sing an Irish song, moving Gretta to recall Michael Furey, who used to sing the same song, but he breaks it off because he has a dreadful cold.

Michael Furey

Michael Furey, the romantic passion of Gretta, a Galway boy who died at the age of seventeen. Very delicate and gentle, with big dark eyes, he was poor and employed in the gasworks, but Gretta thoroughly enjoyed his company. When she was about to move away from Galway, he was ill, yet he came and stood in her garden in the rain; he caught his death.

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Dead,” Joyce’s capstone story for his Dubliners collection, represents the most complex application of his device of the epiphany, defined by Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as a moment of revelation in which a new perception of reality is suddenly achieved, illuminating “the soul of the commonest object” or the “whatness of a thing.” These naturalistic narratives involve realistic characters trapped by their environment, but the revelation is symbolic and, in the case of “The Dead,” imagistic, as demonstrated by the snow that is constantly falling.

Joyce structures “The Dead” so as to offer twin epiphanies that are internal and external, subjective and objective, specific and general. The subjective epiphany is Gabriel’s new insight into his wife’s past, which places his own significance in their relationship into a new light. The objective epiphany, grasped by the reader, is Joyce’s revelation about the nature and quality of life in Ireland.

The wonderful achievement of this story is the way in which Joyce raises the stylistic device of the epiphany to a complex symbolic level, and the way in which the subjective epiphany (Gabriel’s perception that his wife has loved another man, idealized and immortalized in her memory) combines with the objective epiphany, the reader’s realization that the Dublin of Joyce’s imagination is a city of the dead, its citizens dwelling in the past and held captive by the memory of those who had gone before them. The snow that is “general all over Ireland” suggests that the whole country is gripped by the cold hand of death. Joyce creates the chilling impression that the dead are more vital and interesting than the living who carry on with their dull routines. The most for which any Irishman can hope, Joyce seems to suggest, is to be immortalized by death, thereby establishing a hold on the living.

The atmosphere of the story also shifts from the external to the internal. Outside, winter, the season of death, is symbolized by the snow. Contrasted to the cold, sterile exterior setting is the interior setting of the Christmas gathering, suggesting warmth, hospitality, and human companionship, but this celebration is dominated by the “distant music” of ancient voices, such as that of Aunt Julia, who was in her prime as a singer thirty years before. The celebration is set, moreover, in a household ruled by two sterile old women.

The symbolism of the story is multiplaned and complex. Gretta has been wooed by two angels—Gabriel, the archangel who will awaken the dead on the final day, and the more militant Michael, whose last name, “Furey,” suggests a natural, west country passion that the educated and more intellectual Gabriel lacks. The “journey westward” mentioned in the final paragraph perhaps alludes to a literal journey, with Gabriel granting his wife’s desire to return to visit Galway, but there are also traditional symbolic associations between traveling westward and man’s natural progression toward death.

Certainly the most complex symbol the story has to offer, however, is the unifying metaphor of the snow, representing isolation and coldness. The disclosure of Gretta’s secret gives Gabriel a new insight into her character and his own, but this is a moment of personal insight for the character, when he realizes another man has kindled in his wife a memory of poetry and romance. The epiphany for the reader is that the dead have a hold over the living, and that snow-covered Dublin is a city of the dead.

The story’s dramatic impact depends on the ironic reversal of Gabriel’s new perception of his wife and, consequently, of himself. Dramatic irony also comes into play as Gabriel reveals himself to the reader through his thoughts, words, and actions. The subjective epiphany is one of self-realization for Gabriel. His newfound self-knowledge puts him in communion with the living and the dead.

The very length of the story, as well as its placement, is indicative of its importance to Joyce. In “The Dead,” as well as in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce demonstrated that he had mastered the technique of ironic distance. Simply put, “The Dead” represents the finest achievement of Joyce’s early naturalistic fiction, offering an exquisitely structured sustained experiment in extended symbolism and effective irony.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Imagism was a movement in poetry founded around 1912 by the American exile poet Ezra Pound, along with Hilda Doolittle...

(The entire section is 530 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Point of View
Point of view is the perspective from which the writer tells the story."The Dead'' is told in the third-person...

(The entire section is 624 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1900s: In 1905 Arthur Griffith formed the Sinn Fein movement. The name stands for "we ourselves’’ or ‘‘ourselves alone.’’...

(The entire section is 264 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Do some research about contemporary Ireland, particularly the conflict in Northern Ireland. How does the political climate compare to the...

(The entire section is 86 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

The Dead is a 1987 film version of Joyce's story directed by John Huston. It stars Anjelica Huston as Gretta Conroy and Donald McCann...

(The entire section is 68 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

Dubliners (1914) by James Joyce. The short story collection in which "The Dead'' appears provides context for a better understanding...

(The entire section is 181 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Burke, Kenneth, ‘‘Stagesin 'TheDead'.’’ In Dubliners: Text and Criticism, Robert Scholes and A. Walton...

(The entire section is 313 words.)