“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...
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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.
Imagism Imagism was a movement in poetry founded around 1912 by the American exile poet Ezra Pound, along with Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) and Richard Aldington. Some tenets of imagism were to make a "direct treatment of the thing whether subjective or objective'' and "to use no word or phrase that does not contribute to the presentation.’’ The goal of the imagist was to present an image directly without any excess use of sentimental feeling or even metaphor. Although the movement focused on poetry, writers such as Ezra Pound have seen similarities to imagism in Joyce's style. Joyce directly presents Gabriel's thoughts (subjective) and the action of the story (objective) with little or no comment. In a review of Dubliners, Pound wrote, ‘‘Mr. Joyce's merit...is that he carefully avoids telling you a lot that you don't want to know. He presents his people swiftly and vividly, he does not sentimentalise over them, he does not weave convolutions.’’ Pound valued Joyce for the ways in which Joyce was similar to him. Joyce treats the thing directly. Although Joyce knew and might have been influenced by Pound, he wrote "The Dead'' five years before imagism came into vogue as a movement.
Philosophical and Social Mind-Set Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, people were starting to see the world differently, particularly artists and thinkers. The three thinkers who most shaped the mind-set of the early twentieth century were Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud. Freud asserted that mental illness is a result of repressed unconscious sexual desires. Marx challenged the assumptions of the capitalist economic system, and Nietzsche challenged the values and assumptions of Christianity, asserting that God is dead. The writings of these men changed the intellectual climate in the early twentieth century. Artists and writers could no longer take for granted the structures and values that people used to rely on. Joyce himself questioned the authority of the Catholic church and later rejected it. He also questioned middle-class morality and institutions such as marriage. Because the old values were not as stable, artists were in a sense liberated to find new forms to represent reality, and they created works that questioned the usual ways people perceive reality.
Irish Cultural Revival Around the turn of the century there was a movement to revive Irish culture and language. The Gaelic League was founded in 1893, and it still exists to preserve Irish culture and promote Gaelic as a spoken everyday language. Molly Ivors is sympathetic to the ideas of the Gaelic League. She chides Gabriel for not wanting to learn Irish but instead going to Europe to speak European languages. She says that Irish is his own language, but Gabriel denies this. The spoken language of Ireland was in fact English, and Joyce too felt that trying to revive Gaelic was like trying to impose something artificial on the culture. There was also a literary renaissance that concentrated on Irish folklore. This movement was led by such writers as William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory—both contemporaries of Joyce. They collected Irish folk stories and wrote poems and plays based on Irish folklore. Joyce was not sympathetic with this movement either.
Point of View Point of view is the perspective from which the writer tells the story."The Dead'' is told in the third-person limited point of view. Although the narrator describes the action of many of the characters and even depicts some events Gabriel does not witness, only Gabriel's thoughts are given. Joyce's writing style is also relevant when discussing point of view. Joyce was one of the first writers to practice the mimetic style. Mimetic style—a style that mimics or imitates—does not report thoughts using objective language but shows the character's thoughts by using the character's language. In ‘‘The Dead,’’ the first sentence is an example of mimetic style:"Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet.’’ The last phrase of that sentence, ‘‘literally run off her feet,’’ is actually mimicking what Lily would say. Another example is when Gabriel looks over his speech and is worried that he "would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry.’’ The phrase is more akin to Gabriel's dialogue than to the words of an objective narrator, and it shows his frustration over his earlier encounter with Lily. This device has become common in fiction, but Joyce was one of the first to use it.
Realism ‘‘The Dead’’ can be categorized with stories that are in the realist tradition. A realistic writer will simply try to present life as it is without making a sensational plot or interpreting events. A reader might say that nothing eventful really happens, as is so often the case in real life. In "The Dead,'' Joyce, for the most part, shows but does not tell. He simply presents the characters' thoughts and actions without comment. Even at the end, when Gabriel has his revelation, the reader is left not knowing exactly what his revelation means. Presentation without comment forces the reader to interpret the events for him- or herself.
Setting Setting is simply when and where the action of the story happens. As with the rest of Dubliners, "The Dead'' is set in Dublin, Ireland, in the early twentieth century. Joyce said that he wanted to write "a chapter in the moral history'' of his country and that Dublin seemed the appropriate place because it seemed to him the center of paralysis. The action takes place in two specific places: at Kate, Julia, and Mary Jane's house in Usher Island, which is an actual section of Dublin, and at the Gresham, a fashionable hotel in Dublin. Critics conclude that it takes place on January 5th, which is the eve of Epiphany.
Epiphany Epiphany is from a Greek word meaning manifestation. Christianity celebrates the feast of Epiphany on January 6, honoring the manifestation of the baby Jesus to the wise men from the East, and the term generally refers to the manifestation of God's presence in the world. Joyce, however, made the word into a literary term. He described it as a spiritual manifestation that reveals the true essence of an object or character, and he used it as the climax of many of his stories. In "The Dead'' Gabriel has such a spiritual manifestation after Gretta tells him about Michael Furey, in the early morning hours of Epiphany.
Symbolism A symbol is an object, person, or place that stands for something else, usually an abstract idea. For example, critics have said that Mr. Browne is a symbol for British rule in Ireland. The most debated symbol in ‘‘The Dead’’ is the snow which covers ‘‘all the living and the dead.’’ Critics disagree over whether it stands for Gabriel's new ability to transcend his own self-absorption, or whether it is a symbol of the paralysis that he still has and cannot overcome.
1900s: In 1905 Arthur Griffith formed the Sinn Fein movement. The name stands for "we ourselves’’ or ‘‘ourselves alone.’’ The organization's goals were to practice civil disobedience and passive resistance to British rule.
1990s: Since aligning itself with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) with the advent of the civil war in the 1920s, Sinn Fein has acted as the IRA's political wing and plays a significant role in negotiating peace settlements in Northern Ireland.
1900s: There was a revival of Irish culture and language in the early 1900s, led in part by the Gaelic League. Artists collected Irish music and stories, and it was popular to wear Celtic symbols.
1990s: An Irish revival is happening again through the popularity of Irish stage shows such as "Riverdance." For the first time, numbers of Protestants are taking up Irish dancing, formerly practiced primarily by Catholics.
1900s: In 1907 Britain granted dominion status to New Zealand, a former colony. This gave New Zealand the right to govern itself, even though the British monarch was still considered the head of state. Britain maintained rule over Ireland, however.
1990s: British occupation of Hong Kong ended in 1998. Although a cease-fire exists in Northern Ireland, it is still under British rule.
1900s: At the turn of the century, Protestants tended to favor British rule while Catholics supported independence or home rule. A small but influential minority of Catholics advocated radical nationalism.
1990s: Protestant and Catholic loyalties essentially remain the same, particularly in Northern Ireland, where relations between the two groups are volatile. Militant organizations representing both groups have committed numerous acts of violence.
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 as Gabriel Conroy.
The Dead and Other Stories (1993) is an audiocassette published by Penguin. It is read by the actor Gerard McSorley.
‘‘'The Dead' and Other Stories from Dubliners (1989) is an audiocassette by The Audio Partners. It is performed by Danny Huston and Kate Mulgrew.
Sources Burke, Kenneth, ‘‘Stagesin 'TheDead'.’’ In Dubliners: Text and Criticism, Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz, editors, New York: Penguin, 1996, pp. 395-401.
Ellmann, Richard, ‘‘The Backgrounds of 'The Dead'.’’ In Dubliners: Text and Criticism, Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz, editors, New York: Penguin, 1996, pp. 373-88.
Gould, Gerald, A review of Dubliners, New Statesman, June 27, 1914, pp. 374-75.
Macy, John, The Critical Game, New York: Boni and Liveright, 1922, pp. 317-22.
Pound, Ezra, ‘‘Dubliners and Mr. Joyce.’’ In James Joyce: The Critical Tradition, Robert H. Deming, editor, New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970, pp. 66-68.
Schwarz, Daniel R, ‘‘Gabriel Conroy's Psyche: Character as Concept in Joyce's 'The Dead'.’’ In The Dead, Daniel R. Schwarz, editor, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994, pp. 102-24.
Shurgot, Michael W., "Windows of Escape and the Death Wish in Man.’’ Eire-Ireland, Vol. 17, No. 4,1982, pp. 58-71.
Tate, Allen, ‘‘The Dead.’’ In Dubliners: Text and Criticism, Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz, editors, New York: Penguin, 1996, pp. 389-94.
Times Literary Supplement. A review of Dubliners, June 18, 1914, p. 298.
Further Reading Anderson, Chester G., James Joyce, London: Thames and Hudson, 1967. An easy-to-read and comprehensive biography of Joyce, with many illustrations of Joyce, his family, friends, and Dublin.
Burgess, Anthony, Here Comes Everybody: An Introduction to James Joyce for the Ordinary Reader, London: Faber and Faber, 1965. A helpful introduction to Joyce designed for those who, as Burgess says, have been scared off by the professors.
Garret, Peter K., editor, Twentieth Century Interpretations of "Dubliners," Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, Inc. 1968. A good collection of informative, accessible essays useful for gaining a better understanding of Joyce and Dubliners.
Gifford, Don, Joyce Annotated, University of California Press, 1982. A comprehensive annotation of Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This is a useful reference for understanding the cultural context of both works. Gifford has an introduction giving a history of Ireland, and the book explains many obscure allusions.