The Dead: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1764

New Characters:
Gabriel Conroy: teacher and amateur writer

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Gretta Conroy: his wife

Julia and Kate Morkan: Gabriel’s aging aunts, piano and voice teachers in Dublin

Mary Jane: Gabriel’s cousin, an unmarried piano teacher who lives with the aunts

Molly Ivors: Gabriel’s colleague and passionate Irish nationalist various party guests of the Morkans

Michael Furey: (dead) adolescent love of Gretta Conroy

At the opening of “The Dead,” Gabriel Conroy, a teacher and amateur writer, arrives with his wife, Gretta, at a Christmas party given by his aunts, Julia and Kate Morkan. Though the mood of the annual affair is festive, Gabriel is unnerved by a series of misunderstandings and uncomfortable events during the evening. In chatting with the maid, Gabriel makes a slight faux pas to which she answers bitterly. Later, dancing with a colleague from school, Gabriel argues with her about Irish nationalism and her response offends him. Finally, in making a toast to the evening’s hostesses, Gabriel agonizes over what to say—and second-guesses himself for the rest of the evening about whether his choice was appropriate.

When the time comes to leave for the hotel at which they’re staying, Gabriel finds his wife listening to a tenor singing an Irish ballad in the music room, and his thoughts about Gretta turn amorous. On the way home in the cab, Gabriel anticipates a night of passion but waits until the moment they’re alone to approach her. Gretta, on the other hand, seems distracted and tired, which annoys him. When he finally does approach her, Gretta stuns her husband by telling him about a country boy, Michael Furey, whom she loved years ago and who died at 17.

After Gretta cries herself to sleep, Gabriel considers this new knowledge about his wife, pondering what it says about his life and his identity. As snow begins to fall, Gabriel imagines he sees Michael Furey outside the window, and then considers his own mortality and the irrevocability of death that awaits everyone.

According to a letter Joyce sent to his brother in 1905, he had crafted the Dubliners stories into groups representing childhood, adolescence, maturity, and Dublin’s private life (Ellmann, James Joyce, 208). “The Dead” could easily be placed in either of the last two categories. However, this story was added later, in 1907, after Joyce had seen—and become disillusioned with—other cities in Europe. Therefore, his original intention to paint a gritty and unflattering portrait of his native city in Dubliners was somewhat mellowed by the time he approached this narrative. As a result, while the story contains similar themes of paralysis and spiritual moribundity that the other stories share, Joyce’s treatment of the characters and issues is slightly less caustic and more merciful than in the previous pieces.

Gabriel Conroy, the story’s protagonist, bears the name of the archangel Gabriel who brought news of the births of both John the Baptist and the Messiah to the world. However, each message that Gabriel conveys and encounters in this story has a disappointing and sometimes unsettling result for him. His small talk with Lily the maid brings up the subject of young suitors and annoys her thoroughly. While recovering from her bitter retort, Gabriel begins to agonize over the toast he’ll give later to his aging aunts, Julia and Kate Morkan. Though the party and hostesses are full of warmth and good cheer, Gabriel is distracted by the inadequacy and inappropriateness of the message, since the party-goers’ “grade of culture differed from his.” Intellectually, Gabriel is a snob who consciously detaches himself from his acquaintances and friends. Yet his self-confidence is as low as his anxiety is high, and he worries that his toast “would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry.”

Although named after a celestial messenger, Gabriel cannot express himself clearly and honestly; part of his frustration comes from an inability (seen so often in Dubliners) to understand and express his emotions, to reach out to another in genuine communion.

While dancing with Molly Ivors, Gabriel is interrogated about the extent of his patriotic feelings, since Molly is an ardent nationalist. Progressively, Molly’s questions become more accusatory, demanding to know why he doesn’t embrace his native country and native language (Gaelic). Gabriel can neither defuse the conversation nor provide a suitable response, exploding suddenly: “I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!” As a final launch against his beliefs (or lack thereof), Molly whispers in Gabriel’s ear “West Briton!” implying that he is an Anglicized Irishman, and effectively destroying his mood for the rest of the evening.

Hoping for succor from his wife, Gabriel tells Gretta about Molly’s plan to visit western Ireland, but—rather than support Gabriel’s decision—Gretta jumps for joy at the thought of re-visiting her childhood home and is summarily denied. For Gabriel, the tension between the western and eastern sections of the country represents his discomfort with his Irishness and his own personality. Investigating the western part of Ireland or Irish traditions, Joyce suggests, would force Gabriel to confront a different side of himself, a more emotional side. Allusions to the west, which abound here and towards the end of the story, are potentially threatening to him. For example, Gabriel shows offense when Molly reminds him that his wife is from Connacht (in the west) and still resents his dead mother for once deeming Gretta too countrified.

Joyce implies that the rural, western section of the country (his own wife’s birthplace) was emotionally freer, more authentic, less repressed and distorted by its proximity to England and the continent whose influences bastardized Irish culture. Gabriel, however, feels uncomfortable with the openness of feeling this implies, just as he’s uncomfortable with Molly’s blunt questioning and his wife’s rural background. Indeed, Gabriel feels much more at home with English and European influences rather than those of Ireland. For example, he considers quoting Browning (an English poet) in his toast, prefers vacations in France, Belgium, or Germany, and even introduces his family to the habit of wearing galoshes, telling Aunt Julia “everyone wears them on the continent.”

The toast Gabriel strains over, however, does genuinely praise the Irish tradition of hospitality which Joyce felt was unmatched throughout Europe. The carefully described dinner scene—with its table-load of delicacies—emphasizes this tradition that the Morkans represent—traditions that, unfortunately, may die out with their generation. Ironically, Gabriel praises these traditional Irish qualities and recognizes them even while regarding his aunts as “two ignorant old women.” A further irony is Gabriel’s criticism of the “new generation” of “hyper-educated,” “thought-tormented” intellectuals, since Gabriel considers himself an intellectual, and overly-educated for his milieu. This comment in the toast could also reflect Joyce’s feelings about himself and fellow intellectuals, whose detached view of the world might have sometimes compromised their emotional vibrancy.

The dinner conversation about the late-great opera singers further illustrates Joyce’s theme that the magnificence of the past is fading, if not gone completely. It also reflects Dublin’s glorious past but now uncertain future, because many of the “good singers” no longer choose to perform there, preferring instead the cities on the continent. Finally, the story of the dead opera heroes, the monks who sleep in their coffins, and Patrick Morkan’s deceased horse all highlight the topic of death, returning us to the title and theme of the story. The greatness they admire (be it in opera singers or Ireland’s cultural past) lies in the past with the dead. The living, the author suggests, are doomed to remember and long for it, but they cannot rekindle it, as many of these scenes reflect.

The most stunning recollection of the past is Gretta’s admission that she was passionately loved by a teenager, Michael Furey, when she was a girl in western Ireland. Listening to the simple Irish ballad “The Lass of Aughrim” reminds Gretta of his profound love, and Michael suddenly becomes more vivid an experience for her than those in her present life. Ironically, Michael (whose last name reminds us of “fury” or “passion”) brings about a more impassioned reaction in her than her own husband does, even though Gabriel had deeply passionate fantasies about Gretta as they rode to the hotel.

Although this discovery makes him jealous and irritable at first, Gabriel dwells on thoughts of Michael Furey long into the night, after Gretta has fallen asleep. For the first time in the story, Gabriel abandons his own self-consciousness and narcissism to sympathize with Gretta and empathize with Michael, as “[g]enerous tears fill his eyes.” Confronting Gretta’s private emotions for the first time, Gabriel is able to understand the quality of her earlier love; though he doesn’t possess the capacity for such passion, he recognizes its importance. In a delusionary vision, Gabriel imagines that he sees the figure of Michael Furey standing under a tree outside his window. This signifies the degree to which Gabriel is able to share his wife’s emotion (and loss), as his soul “approache[s]” that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead.”

Gabriel is devastated by Gretta’s disclosure, but the emotional epiphany it inspires allows him to reach a more profound understanding of his world than he has yet evidenced in the story. His empathy for Gretta, his elderly aunts, and even Michael Furey suggests that he may have broken through his previous emotional paralysis.

The snow falling “all over Ireland” is a double signifier at the end of Gabriel’s reverie. Snow, obviously, is frozen and connotes things “frozen in place”; this indicates that Gabriel’s awakening and the state of his marriage may not develop a great deal more than they have already. Likewise, the people in his world long for earlier times and repeat the same customs and traditions, regardless of their intrinsic value; there is little forward movement or evolution. On the other hand, the snow is “general,” falling, Joyce tells us, “upon all the living and the dead” and suggesting a kind of commonality or kinship between past and present. As Richard Ellmann suggests, the snow implies “mutuality” among men, “a sense of their connection with each other, a sense that none has his being alone” (“Backgrounds of ‘The Dead,’” 399). If Gabriel senses this even unconsciously, he can at least begin to recognize his emotional isolation, and this—Joyce suggests—is the key to remediating the spiritual and emotional paralysis that plagues his Dubliners.

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