Dubliners The Dead: Summary and Analysis
by James Joyce

Dubliners book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Dubliners Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The Dead: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Gabriel Conroy: teacher and amateur writer

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...

(The entire section is 1,764 words.)