Literary Nuggets: James Joyce’s The Dead

It's time to check out James Joyce in honour of St Patrick's Day earlier in the week.

the dead

Here at Cultured Vultures, we love curling up with a brand new book. We’ve reviewed some real indie gems over the years, and we hope there will be many more to come. But, like all literature nerds, we have a lot of old favourites too that we love spending time thinking about. The classics that we just go back to time and again. So that is exactly what this ‘Literary Nuggets’ series will be about – some good old fashioned nerding out over some of the best and brightest literature that has come before.

In honour of St Pat’s day this week (St Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland), I thought I would do a deep dive into a short story by my favourite Irish writer – James Joyce.

Joyce is most famous for Ulysses (which according to The New Yorker, no one is shocked by anymore) and Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man; I have only read the latter because Ulysses is an astounding 732 pages, and ain’t nobody got time for that. His works often meander within an Irish setting (I say meander because stream of consciousness is a favourite narrative tool of his), and nowhere do we see this more than in his 1914 collection Dubliners. Dubliners was essentially his rumination on national identity and purpose in changing times.

The Dead is a short story from said collection (though it feels more like a novella due to its length), an exploration on love and loss and what it means to be Irish. The setting of the story is the Morkan dinner party (thrown by sisters Kate and Julia, and their niece Mary Jane), it is snowing we are told (which hasn’t happened in Ireland for over 30 years), and we await the arrival of Gabriel and his wife Gretta.

When the pair finally arrive and settle into the party, Gabriel’s conversation with Lily (a servant) and his friend Miss Ivors serves to destabilise him. Lily offers a retort to a comment he made, making him uncomfortable, so much so that he gives her a holiday tip to settle any ill feelings (definitely not the way to deal with problems, otherwise we would all be broke), while his interaction with Miss Ivors is more of a confrontation about his lack of a sense of belonging to Ireland. When she invites him to come travel with them to the Aran Isles, he declines, stating prior plans to travel elsewhere in Europe, in order to improve his command of these European languages.

This foreign influence is apparent in his actions; the choice to wear galoshes and wanting to quote English poet Robert Browning in his speech for the party, his snobbery showing when he wonders if the people at the party would get the context of such a quote. When prodded about his own language (Irish), he rejects it, denies it as his own, exclaiming that he is sick of his country. We are taken aback by this strong reaction, not sure what caused this sense of dislocation. Just like most of the characters in Dubliners, Gabriel desires escape, and he enacts this through his lack of patriotism. But this is an empty gesture, for he knows nothing about the cultures he idealises and has no idea why he dislikes his own country.

In contrast to Gabriel we have Michael Furey, a young man who was in love with Gabriel’s wife years ago. Michael loved her so much that he risked his life to come see her before she moved away, and passed away because of it.

Interestingly, Gabriel and Michael’s names have biblical allusions to archangels – Gabriel is God’s messenger, while Michael is a warrior angel. This is immensely fitting when we consider how passive Gabriel is in every interaction he has. When met with conflict, from characters like Lily and Miss Ivors, all he does is run away, paralysed by inaction. Even his speech is wishy-washy (praising past values yet commenting on how dead they are in modern context) and all over the place.

Michael is different, he had passion and burned with the love he had for Gretta. This passion traps Gretta in the past, forever devoted to the memory of the young man who loved her, never allowing herself to experience anything akin to that with her husband. It is only at the end of the story that we get some insight into this, where we catch sight of Gretta on the stairs, transfixed by a tune of old Irish tonality (The Lass of Aughrim) that one of the guests is singing, a song that Michael used to sing. The fact that Michael used to love singing an Irish song once again highlights how different the two men are; we see Michael in relation to his Irish roots while Gabriel wishes to abscond from his.

When Gabriel discovers this man’s love for his wife, he realises that he isn’t the true passionate love in her life. Gabriel felt that as time went by, the years “had not quenched his soul or hers”, and now, upon receiving news of this young man who risked everything for a mere glimpse of her from a window, there is a recognition of why this has been the case. This disillusionment causes him to see his life in a new way; he becomes a stranger to himself. This revelation takes place against the backdrop of snow, which in Joyce’s hands is really something quite beautiful.

As Gabriel’s “soul swooned slowly” against the faintly falling snow, uniting images of both the living and the dead, Gabriel comes to the awareness that it is “better [to] pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion than fade and wither dismally with age.” In other words (or the words of Dylan Thomas), there is a need to “rage against the dying of the light”, to light your life up with fire (a passionate fire, not a destructive one) instead of allowing yourself to be passive and let life have its way with you – subdued into a withered grayness.

Critics have been unable to decide if the ending is Joyce emphasising Gabriel’s spiritual paralysis through the symbolism of the snow, or fleshing out a spiritual rejuvenation that has emerged in him now that he understands what gives life meaning. I think it is both; he gains a spiritual awareness of what it means to be alive, yet is simultaneously crushed by the knowledge that he might be too set in his ways to do anything about it. However, Gabriel, unlike Michael, still has the ability to do something about it, since he is among the living, and the hope for change is still within reach – only if he wants it.

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