Analysis of James Joyce’s The Dead

James Joyce began writing “The Dead” in 1907, somewhat later than the other stories in Dubliners, the collection in which it was finally published in 1915. It is considerably longer than the other stories, and some commentators regard it not as a short story but as a novella. In addition to the difference in form from the other stories, it also seems to have a different moral perspective or stance toward Ireland. It is generally seen as playing an important transitional role between Joyce’s earlier, shorter work and the longer, more technically involved later work. Like most of Joyce’s other narratives, not much seems to be happening in terms of surface action. The story’s real resonance comes from the complex narrative and thematic subtleties incorporated into its underlying structure. Like all of Joyce’s fiction, it has provoked an enormous amount of critical and interpretive attention. It has been dramatized and was made into a film by John Huston in 1987.

The events themselves are easily summarized: Two elderly unmarried women—Julia and Kate—and their niece Mary Jane are giving their annual epiphany season dinner and dance in their home on Usher’s Island in Dublin at the turn of the century. Their nephew, Gabriel Conroy, the main character from whose perspective most of the action is revealed, arrives at the party with his wife, Gretta. They greet and converse with the other guests, with whom they are familiar. Much of this disjointed conversation is reproduced. The self-absorbed Gabriel, a teacher and literary man, is nervous about delivering some after-dinner remarks he has prepared. Memories of the past, associations with various guests, and concerns about how he is regarded flit through his mind. He is also irritated with some of the guests and feels that his talk will be above the heads of his audience. When the time comes to deliver his comments, he praises his two aunts and their niece highly and celebrates the values of the past. After the dinner, he and his wife return in a cab to a hotel room they have rented for the occasion of the dinner. Gabriel feels lustful toward his wife, but these feelings are undercut by Gretta’s memories of Michael Furey, an early suitor of hers who died when he was only 17. First Gretta falls asleep, and then, finally, Gabriel.

Byron Eggenschwiler / The New Yorker

Underneath these mundane actions lies the story’s rich interpretive potential. The title of the story suggests its major theme: the awareness of the claims of the past—the dead—on an individual and his willingness or reluctance to accept those claims. The story incorporates many of these associations with the past through various motifs that run through the story. The first word of the story, for instance, is “Lily,” the name of the caretaker’s daughter who welcomes the guests to the party. The associations that can be made with lily include half a dozen potential connections with death and its counterpart, resurrection. The lily is a common flower at funerals because it also suggests resurrection. In addition, it is the emblem of the archangel Gabriel, who welcomes those who have died into heaven, so it prefigures the appearance of Gabriel Conroy. A lily’s whiteness might also suggest snow, a major motif in the story, in its associations with cold—a deathlike quality—but also in its ability to cover, preserve, and finally provide the sustenance for rebirth or revitalization. The setting of the story during the epiphany season— something that is never mentioned explicitly but must be deduced from the text—has suggested to many commentators that in the course of the story Gabriel Conroy moves toward his own epiphany, or sudden insight into the true nature of things.

One of the story’s major issues is the degree of Gabriel’s commitment to Ireland and things Irish. Intellectually he is inclined to associate himself with the “east,” or Europe and England—with new trends. Molly Ivors, his colleague and an Irish nationalist who attends the party, teases him by making fun of these inclinations. Emotionally, he comes to realize in the course of the story, he cannot shake off identifications with Ireland, or the “west.” Other motifs in the story suggest these ingrained cultural identifications: the old stories being told, the memories of deceased friends, the associations of specific images linked to Ireland’s past. These and other evocative aspects of the story remain implicit, and their meanings remain suggestive rather than clear-cut or definite. The deliberate ambiguity contributes to the story’s rich potential of meaning.

Another important pattern is Gabriel’s growing selfawareness. What exactly this awareness consists of is, however, open-ended. The story’s final scene in the hotel room pulls together many of the issues Gabriel has been grappling with and involves the forging of a new dimension of his identity—a realization, for instance, of a more complex meaning of love and his deeper connections with his heritage. The final paragraph shifts into an even more poetic mode, using the snow outside the window to suggest links with a greater humanity, a kind of universality and universal experience that Gabriel may be now acknowledging or at least be aware of. The language of this scene also contains repetitions of images and symbols employed earlier in the story.

Whether Gabriel will awaken a new man is unclear. One extreme would be to assume the terms of Gabriel’s sleep, “The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward,” are figurative terms for his death— that nothing has happened. Another view might focus more on the story’s hints of resurrection or rebirth and argue that the old Gabriel must die in order that the new individual might be born and that he will awaken with a heightened awareness. A middle view might see his final realization as the semiconscious, dreamlike state between wakefulness and sleep, and perhaps only a passing perception. Some commentators, like Richard Ellmann, whose highly regarded biography of Joyce includes a useful essay on the story, have argued that in “The Dead” Joyce gives a rendering of himself if he had stayed in Ireland and not gone into self-imposed exile in order to dedicate himself to his art.

Ellman, Richard. James Joyce. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Joyce, James. Dubliners: Text, Criticism, and Notes. Edited by Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz. New York: Penguin USA, 1996.
Schwarz, Daniel. James Joyce’s “The Dead”: A Case Study of Contemporary Criticism. New York: St. Martin’s, 1994.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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