The following entry presents criticism of Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” published in his collection Dubliners (1914).
Joyce was the most prominent writer of English prose in the first half of the twentieth century. Many critics maintain that his verbal facility equaled that of William Shakespeare or John Milton, and his virtuoso experiments in prose redefined the limits of language and the form of the modern novel. “The Dead,” the final and longest story of his collection Dubliners, is considered one of the most beautifully executed stories in the English language and the culmination of Joyce’s critical and ironic portraits of everyday life in turn-of-the-century Dublin. Its subject is the epiphanic revelation of Gabriel Conroy, who, as his illusions are dispelled, realizes the shallowness of his love for his wife, Gretta.
Plot and Major Characters
“The Dead” takes places on the religious feast of Epiphany, at the holiday party of Julia and Kate Morkan, the spinster aunts of Gabriel Conroy. Gabriel, a teacher and literary reviewer, favors continental culture to that of his native Ireland, and thus arrives at the party with an attitude of disdain for the provinciality of his aunts and their guests, although he keeps his thoughts largely to himself. His pomposity and self-centeredness appear in his several encounters with the other guests, including Miss Ivors who playfully rebukes him for his loyalties to England as a reviewer for the pro-British newspaper Daily Express, calling him a “West Briton.” Gabriel mistakes this banter for a personal attack, and attempts to redeem himself before the gathered attendees in his annual speech, a smug and highly self-conscious display of rhetoric and cliché. Near the close of the party, Bartell D’Arcy, a noted tenor in attendance, sings an old Irish song, “The Lass of Aughrim.” Later, after retreating to the Hotel Gresham, Gabriel speaks to his wife, Gretta, a beautiful woman from the Irish west. Distracted from the conversation, Gretta is haunted by the song, which has reminded her of a former love. When Gabriel presses the subject, she reveals that many years ago she knew a young man who worked in the gasworks named Michael Furey. Afflicted with consumption, Furey died after leaving his sickbed on a rainy night to keep vigil outside Gretta’s window on the eve of her leaving Galway for Dublin. Gretta later observes, “I think he died for me.” Gabriel, contemplating himself in a mirror, becomes aware of his own pettiness, and realizes that he has never loved his wife as Michael Furey did. At the
close of the story Gabriel looks out the window of his room and watches the snow; “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.”
The title of “The Dead” points to its underlying subject, though critics have continued to argue exactly which “dead” are to be emphasized in explication, and even which characters comprise the “dead.” To some, “The Dead” refers only to those mentioned in the story as dead, most notably Gretta’s tragic love, Michael Furey. To others, “The Dead” signifies everyone at the Morkan’s party but Gabriel, and through association, everyone in Ireland. Also widely debated is the ambiguity surrounding Gabriel’s epiphany at the conclusion of the story, which closes with his assertion that it is time to begin his journey westward and his vision of the snow falling over all Ireland and metaphorically throughout the universe. The meaning of the journey westward is sometimes associated with death, but a more prevalent recent view is that Gabriel’s journey westward signifies a rejuvenated view of life. Similarly, the meaning of the snow, which in some readings signifies the pall—or even shroud—of death covering Ireland, in others represents universal cleansing, bringing expanded consciousness and renewed life to all upon whom it falls. Florence L. Walzl has asserted that ambivalence and ambiguity were purposefully written into the narrative by Joyce to reflect his changing, somewhat more positive attitude toward Ireland at the time he wrote the story.
When it was first published, and for several decades thereafter, Dubliners was considered little more than a slight volume of naturalist fiction evoking the repressive social milieu of Dublin at the turn of the century. It was overlooked in favor of Joyce’s later, highly innovative works, most notably A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Ulysses (1922), and Finnegans Wake (1939). In the ensuing years most critics have recognized that Dubliners holds a greater significance than had previously been attributed to it, and subsequent studies have examined the symbolic significance, structural unity, and autobiographical basis of the stories. Critical interest in “The Dead,” in particular, has remained intense in recent decades as scholars debate the thematic importance of this final story in the volume, especially its presentation of Gabriel’s spiritual awakening—a theme which likely transcends the moral and spiritual paralysis of the entire cast of Dubliners. Likewise, the story is the primary focus of this collection, which has been said to illustrate the multidimensional narrative method that would revolutionize modern literature. Overall, “The Dead” is thought the masterpiece of Joyce’s most accessible collection of work.