Let’s say that you are unfamiliar with the work and reputation of James Joyce (unlikely). What if you discovered Joyce’s “The Dead” in an anthology one day and read it cold? What would you think about it? Would you be impressed by the complexity and subtlety of this story? Would you be surprised to discover that this is one of the most respected and admired pieces of fiction in world literature? Or would you wonder what all the fuss is about? After all, it seems to be a relatively simple piece, primarily describing a group of people attending an annual after-Christmas party in Dublin in the early part of the twentieth century. If there is a focus, it seems to be on the apparently insignificant anxieties of a man named Gabriel who makes the dinner toast at the party.
Nothing dramatically happens in the long first section of the story: Gabriel is worried about his speech; he encounters a colleague who makes him uncomfortable; he tries to control Freddy Malins, who has drunk too much; he succeeds in his speech and feels good about it; he and his wife go to their hotel The last section of the story shifts to Gabriel and his wife Gretta, alone in their hotel room. Gabriel, desiring intimacy with his wife, is frustrated that she is distracted and is distressed when she tells him that a young man named Michael Furey was once in love with her and died from exposure after standing outside her window in the rain.
The key question readers may have about “The Dead” is how the story moves from the opening sentence about the practical problems of Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, being “literally run off her feet” ushering people in, to the final sentence about Gabriel’s reaction to his discovery about his wife: “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.” One might very well ask: If this discovery at the conclusion is the central point toward which the story has been moving, then what is the purpose of all the details about the party. How did the story lead the reader from what seems like a realistic or naturalistic tone describing ordinary, everyday, details in the first long section of the story to the lyrical tone describing a sort of spiritual recognition in the final section?
Perhaps there is a clue to the answer to this question in a letter Joyce once wrote to his brother Stanislaus: “There is a certain resemblance between the mystery of the Mass and what I am trying to do…to give people a kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own…for their mental, moral and spiritual uplift.” The question is: How does a writer convert the “bread of everyday life,” i.e., ordinary details, into something that has a permanent artistic life and provides spiritual sustenance?
The basic problem Joyce faced in "The Dead"--how to write a realistic narrative that conveys a spiritual theme--is the same problem that Anton Chekhov had to deal with--how to arrange concrete details in such a way that they develop into a pattern that is equivalent to theme. Realistic details and events arranged in such a way that they are not merely an account of “what happened,” but rather a pattern that communicates “meaning” necessitates the reader’s knowing the “end” of the story before he or she can understand the pattern created by all that went before. This is the function of Joyce's notion of epiphany; for epiphany suggests that the story achieves closure either in retrospect by the realization of a character or by the reader processing the story in a circular way—i.e. beginning again once one has read to the end.
Most critics agree with David Daiches' opinion that "The Dead" is the "working-out, in terms of realistic narrative, of a preconceived theme" of a man's "withdrawal into the circle of his own egotism" until the walls around him are broken down by the "culminating assault on his egotism, coming simultaneously from without, as an incident affecting him, and from within, as an increase in understanding." However, Joyce's achievement in this story, its contribution to the development of the short story as a genre, may be better understood if we see the story's most basic theme as the difference between the kind of reality that realistic (or novelistic) prose imitates and the kind of reality that symbolic (or short story) prose reveals. Thematically, the conflict in "The Dead" that reflects its realistic/lyrical split is the difference revealed to both Gabriel and the reader between public life and secret life. This is announced in the first sentence—that Lilly “was literally run off her feet.” Although this mistake could be attributed realistically to Joyce’s technique of having the narrator assume the perspective of the character described, it serves the purpose of drawing attention to the difference between the “literal” and the “figurative”—that is Joyce’s transformation of the literal to the figurative by the story’s end.
The party portion of "The Dead" is the story of Gabriel's public life. His primary interest is his sense of superiority over the others at the party and how much he can impress them with his intelligence and style. However, throughout the party period of the story, there are moments--particularly those moments that focus on the past, on music, and on marriage--when reality is not presented as here and now, but as a mixture of memory and desire. Thematically, the basic issue the story poses is: In which one of these realms does true reality reside?
Throughout the story, Joyce uses ordinary references that mean little during an initial reading, but have symbolic significance for the reader by the end of the story, e.g. that Gretta must be “perished alive,” that Gabriel wears galoshes (in contract to Michael Furey who stood out in the rain unprotected from the chill), that attention is drawn to a picture of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, that Aunt Julia sings “Arrayed for the Bridal,” that Gabriel says “kindly forget my existence” (which Gretta does in the final scene), that Gabriel asks the partygoers to “take the will for the deed,” that he talks about a “thought tormented age,” that the snow is falling outside throughout the party, that the characters talk about the past. These seemingly ordinary details take on significance by their thematic similarity, by their patterned repetition, and by their relationship to Gabriel’s discovery about Gretta and himself at the end of the story.
Gabriel's discovery at the end of the story is not only that his wife has an inner life inaccessible to him, but that his own life has been an outer life only. This is all the more devastating to him because on the journey to the hotel, he has indulged in his own self-delusion about their relationship: "moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory.... Like the tender fires of stars moments of their life together that no one knew of or would ever know of, broke upon and illuminated his memory. He longed to recall to her those moments, to make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their moments of ecstasy."
Filled with desire and the memory of intimacy, wishing Gretta to at one with him, Gabriel is annoyed that she seems so distracted. When he discovers that she has a secret life that has nothing to do with him, he tries to use his typical public devices of irony to trivialize her memory, but the very simplicity of her story undercuts the effort. He sees the inadequacy of his public self. Michael Furey, who has been willing to give his life for love of another, challenges Gabriel's own smug safety.
In the much-discussed lyrical ending of "The Dead," Gabriel confronts the irony that the dead Michael is more alive than he is. "Generous tears" fill his eyes because he knows that he has never lived the life of desire, only the untransformed life of the everyday. The ending--in which Gabriel, awake and alone while his wife sleeps beside him loses self and imaginatively merges into a mythic lyrical sense of oneness--makes it possible for the reader to begin the story over again with this end in mind. "The Dead" is not a story that can be understood the way most novels are read--one thing after another--but the way the modern short story must be read--aesthetically patterned in such a way that only the end makes the rest of the story meaningful.
As a footnote, if you have not yet seen it, I recommend John Huston’s film of The Dead. As you may know, it was Huston’s last film—an act of love and admiration for the story, for he was very ill during the filming. Donal McCann plays Gabriel and Anjelica Huston plays Gretta. The film is mostly very true to the story, the only significant script addition being the invention of a character named Mr. Grace who gives a recitation entitled “Broken Vows,” by Lady Gregory. The final lines are:
You have taken the east from me;
you have taken the west from me;
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon,
you have taken the sun from me;
and my fear is great
that you have taken God from me!
One of the characters remarks at the end of the recitation: “Imagine being in love like that”—which more explicitly sets up the romantic power of Michael Furey’s enactment of the “deed,” not just the “will.” Although the final shots of Aunt Julia in her coffin, the sky full of snow, and snow general all over Ireland may seem a bit too obvious, Huston quite rightly allows Joyce’s lyrical language to be what brings the film to its “final end.”
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. 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.
I have enjoyed rereading the stories in Dubliners this month and hope that a large number of folks in Dublin and around the world read them also. I miss Dublin and hope to return some day.