What is the significance of "Epiphany" in Joyce's "The Dead"?

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The story begins with Gabriel and his wife, Gretta, arriving at a party at the home of a family in their town. Gabriel is distracted from the festivities by thoughts of snow falling on Ireland and how it affects his life as an Irishman living abroad. He feels that many Irishmen like himself suffer from an inability to act on their surroundings and move forward with their lives in spite of being surrounded by new opportunities for exploring other countries, languages, etc. The party ends with Gretta telling Gabriel about her first love who died; she has never been able to forget this death and remains sad about it even after all these years. Gabriel'

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The term "epiphany" refers to the Christian feast of the Epiphany on January 6th commemorating the three kings who visited Christ with gifts when he was born. More generally, the term refers to "a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience." Both senses of the term are applicable to James Joyce's story "The Dead."

Although the term is not used explicitly in the story, the religious sense of the word is reflected in the setting of a traditionally catholic family in West Ireland who are celebrating the catholic feast of Christmas. The main character, Gabriel, has fallen away from his native heritage of Ireland: he has no interest in expanding his knowledge of the language of Irish, nor traditional Irish customs, and he speaks of wishing to travel the continent of Europe, a perspective which is taken under scrutiny by his older aunts.

Back at his hotel, at the end of the story, Gabriel experiences what can be considered a personal epiphany as he watches snow falling outside his window and understands life and death as interrelated in a new way. This understanding stems from his wife, Gretta's, admission of her great sadness at remembering her first love who died. The extent of Gretta's grief causes Gabriel to realize how the past affects the present and is never truly gone. This epiphany, or sudden intuitive insight into reality, reveals to Gabriel the blurriness between life and death.

His realization is linked to his Irish culture and religion, as he thinks of the snow falling on his ancestor's graves in a churchyard, where he, too, may one day lie. The snow falling on Ireland represents how Gabriel feels about his country, a stalled, numb feeling of going nowhere, yet in this final scene, he understands this state as a sort of middle point between life and death and finds acceptance with it.

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The term "Epiphany" originates as the name of a Christian feast day commemorating the moment that Jesus Christ revealed himself as the messiah, God incarnate, to the Gentiles. In the common vernacular, the term has become synonymous with any sort of "revelation," be it religious or otherwise. Most commonly, it refers to a moment wherein someone comes to a new conclusion through deep contemplation or sudden insight.

In the context of James Joyce's "The Dead," the epiphany that occurs is not only one for Gabriel, the protagonist of the story, but indeed one for the entire list of unrelated characters that had previously appeared in Dubliners. It is an epiphany for all of Ireland.

After Gabriel is struck by the realization that his wife will never love him the way she loved her past lover, his mortality is laid bare. He is initially brought very low, but looks out to see the snow falling on the living and the dead alike. Deciding it is best to live boldly, he feels profoundly connected to them all. For the first time in his life, Gabriel, who has renounced traditions and the spirit of his country, finally feels at one with his people. Ironically enough, this profound connection only comes to him when he feels that he is fading away.

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An epiphany in literature is a sudden moment of truth or illumination, when a lightening bolt of realization hits a character. It's the "ah-ha" moment when the character suddenly "gets" something that was eluding him, such as "It's not Mary I am in love with, it's the security her wealthy family represents." This moment of truth changes everything for the character. Its name comes from the moment of truth or epiphany the three wise men experienced when they visited the baby Jesus.

Gabriel has several epiphanies or new realizations at the end of the story. He suddenly learns for the first time that his wife loved someone before him, the young and bold Michael Furey. This leads him, all of a sudden, to see himself in a new, lesser light:

"A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a penny-boy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealizing his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror. Instinctively he turned his back more to the light lest she might see the shame that burned upon his forehead."

He is displaced from his own place as the center of the universe by his wife's revelation. Then, thinking about the dead Furey, he realizes that they are all getting older, closer to death. This new realization or epiphany about mortality comes to him as he watches his wife's face and admits to himself she is no longer the beautiful young person Furey loved. He imagines Aunt Julia dying. He realizes that he has never loved anyone as fully as Furey loved his wife. He decides, having fully realizing that they are all dying, that it is better to live "boldly" than fade away. He thinks about mortality as the snow falls on all of them, living and dead. In the end, he accepts his epiphany about mortality and his own insignificance in the scheme of things (a burst of humility) and thinks about the snow falling on all of them, living and dead. 

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An epiphany is a mental and spiritual experience in which a person has an impressive new understanding of life and/or of himself. It is like a religious experience and always contains what seem like profound insights.

In James Joyce's "The Dead," the protagonist Gabriel Conroy spends a rather dull evening at a birthday party for an old woman. The party seems to symbolize his entire mediocre and pointless existence. That night in bed with his wife he experiences an epiphany in which he thinks about the universality and inevitability of death. The whole story is leading up to this beautiful conclusion which contains some of James Joyce's finest, most poetic writing, including the following:

His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

That quote is a good example of an epiphany. They are usually memorable experiences and often represent turning points in people's lives. They seem to come unsought, probably from deep in the unconscious.

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