How is the theme of religion presented in "The Dead"?

Quick answer:

Religion is presented in "The Dead" as part of the paralysis holding Ireland back. Although the story's setting is a Christmas party, the references to religion are negative. Aunt Kate criticizes the pope for banning women from choirs and cannot explain why monks sleep in coffins. Further, although Gabriel Conroy is named for the angel Gabriel, a messenger from God, his word are empty. This irony symbolizes how religion's meaning has been hollowed out.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Religion, specifically Roman Catholicism, is presented as part of the paralysis holding the Irish people back. Although the setting of the story is a Christmas party, Christianity is not a significant part of the celebration. This shows the way other concerns, such as Irish nationalism or family issues, have taken on greater life. References to Christmas come in the form of banal cliches, such as when Miss O'Callaghan says:

I think Christmas is never really Christmas unless we have the snow on the ground.

Religious references that do occur are negative. For instance, Aunt Kate is sharply critical of the pope's decision to take women out of church choirs:

I know all about the honour of God, Mary Jane, but I think it's not at all honourable for the pope to turn the women out of the choirs that have slaved there all their lives and put little whipper-snappers of boys over their heads.

This sexism is part of the backward-looking paralysis that the church represents. In a similar vein, when the Protestant Mr. Browne asks why the monks at the monastery sleep in their coffins, Aunt Kate can only repeat that this is the "rule:" nobody knows why they do so. It is another instance of the church being out of touch with what makes sense to ordinary people.

Gabriel's name is also telling. Gabriel in the Bible is an angel, a messenger from God. Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to the son of God. The Gabriel in the story, however, is a timid, hypocritical, and vain man. He speaks empty words, not messages of truth.

Through this story, Joyce depicts a Catholicism that has become hollowed out and empty, unable to help Ireland move towards a better future.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial