Discussion Topic

The significance and relation of snow imagery to the overall narrative in "The Dead"

Summary:

In "The Dead," snow imagery symbolizes both the paralysis and connectedness of the characters. It represents the emotional coldness and stagnation in their lives while also uniting the living and the dead under a blanket of snow, highlighting themes of mortality and the passage of time.

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What is the significance of snow imagery in "The Dead"?

In the main characters in "The Dubliners" there is an emotional and spiritual paralysis; the realization of this is a character's epiphany. Gabriel reaches his epiphany as snow falls.

Uncomfortable with the openness of feeling shown by the Irish from the west, he prefers English influences.  He is angered by remarks made by Miss Ivors and her jokingly calling him "West Briton."  Later, there is irony to his toast in which he speaks of the "memory of those dead and gone," for his wife is thinking of her dead lover.  After they walk home along the river in the snow, Gretta confesses her thoughts about a boy who died for her.  Realizing that his wife loves a dead man effects Gabriel's epiphany.  Like the snow, their lives have been frozen in time; she never loved him: "He watched her ...as though he and she had never lived together as a man and wife."  Yet, in this epiphany, Gabriel has a "strange friendly pity for her."  As the snow falls, boundaries between the living and the dead blur as though one were peering through this falling snow; Gabriel's condescension to Greta is replaced by an admiration much like the admiration expressed by the old aunts regarding the old traditions. As snow falls "upon all the living and the dead," Gabriel contemplates his journey to the west, toward the dead.  His soul "swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling..." The snow suggests a communion of all.

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What is the significance of snow imagery in "The Dead"?

This is an excellent question! Of course, the snow seems to operate symbolically in this thought-provoking short story, but in my mind, it is inextricably intertwined with the epiphany that Gabriel experiences at the end of the tale. Having been told by his wife, Gretta, about her first love with a man called Michael Furey, he realises that he has never loved in the way that Michael Furey loved and that Gretta returned this love. Thinking about his aunts and their inevitable deaths, he realises that since everyone is going to die anyway, it is better to live life to the full, experiencing emotions richly and completely:

One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the fully glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.

The snow, that begins falling in the final paragraph of this tale, thus represents the universal nature of the human condition--that we are all "dead" in one way or another. We either will die, as everyone does, or we are living "dead" in that we are "fading and withering dismally with age" rather than living life determinedly. Note how the snow falls all over Ireland:

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Snow is presented as a universal phenomenon here, falling upon everyone, "the living and the dead," thus symbolically reinforcing both our eventual fate as humans and also the way that so many of us, like Gabriel, have lived our lives as "dead" people, without really living them.

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How does snow relate to the overall narrative in "The Dead"?

The snow is connected to open spaces and, by extension, freedom in the story. Gabriel yearns to walk in the snow, to be outside, and to be free of the oppressive social situation he faces at the party. He is repeatedly beset by obligation, by pressure, and by a sense of oppression. The snow stands in opposition to this. 

"How much more pleasant it would be there than at the supper table!''

Gabriel imagines a dome covered in snow and is pleased by the image. For him, the image is one of simple beauty and even joy. 

As the story closes, Gabriel finds that he can engage with the idea of the snow, finally, without being outside. He can commune with the dead - or a sense of the dead - also without ceasing actually to live. Empathy, in his sudden epiphany, frees Gabriel from the constraints of his ego-centric fears. 

...he has a sudden realization about his relationship with his wife as well as a realization about himself and the human condition.

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