Literature

A Summary and Analysis of James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’

‘The Dead’ is the most critically acclaimed and widely studied story in James Joyce’s Dubliners, a collection of 15 short stories written by James Joyce and published in 1914. As we’ve remarked before, Dubliners is now regarded as one of the landmark texts of modernist literature, but initially sales were poor, with just 379 copies being sold in the first year (famously, 120 of these were bought by Joyce himself).

As well as being the final story in the collection, ‘The Dead’ is also the longest story by some margin. It is also one of the most complex. Before we proceed to a summary and analysis of ‘The Dead’, you can read the story here.

‘The Dead’: summary

The story takes place some time between New Year’s Day and the Feast of the Epiphany (6 January). As we will see later on in this analysis, ‘Epiphany’ is a fitting word for this story, given its ending.

The setting for the story, like a number of other stories in Dubliners, is a social occasion: a party thrown by the aunts of the central character, Gabriel Conroy. After a description of the preparations being made for the party, Gabriel arrives with his wife, Gretta. Gabriel makes a comment about how long it takes his wife to get dressed. He then tries to compliment Lily, the caretaker’s daughter and a servant at the house, but this backfires because of his social awkwardness.

Through such moments, and the other details Joyce provides of the interplay between the hostesses and their guests (especially Gabriel Conroy), we learn about the fraught social, religious, and political issues Dubliners have to negotiate in the course of their lives. Despite his rather gauche social manners, Conroy is in many ways the centrepiece, the male figure at the heart of the social occasion: he is his aunts’ favourite nephew, to whom they entrust the duty (but also honour) of carving the goose at the dinner, and delivering the after-dinner speech (in the course of which we learn more of Conroy’s mild intellectual snobbery and social awkwardness).

Towards the end of the party, one of the guests sings a melancholy love song, ‘The Lass of Aughrim’, which prompts Gretta to recall the man she loved before she married Gabriel. She has an epiphany (of which more below) which signals a change of tone in the last few pages of ‘The Dead’.

Gabriel and Gretta leave the party for the hotel where they are staying. Gabriel becomes aware that he desires his wife, but she remains oblivious to this: she is too busy remembering the young man, Michael Furey, whom she loved back in Galway before marrying her husband.

When they arrived at their hotel room, Gabriel realises that his wife is remembering the tragic death of Michael Furey as he was making the journey to visit Gretta. He realises that she will always love Furey, and that Furey loved her in a way that he cannot compete with. He is humbled by this realisation, which amounts to his own epiphany: an awareness that takes him outside of his own thoughts and self-absorption and makes him view his wife, and by extension, all of humanity in a new way.

‘The Dead’: analysis

One of the narrative features of ‘The Dead’, and many of the other stories in Dubliners, which make it such a rich but also such a challenging piece of fiction is Joyce’s distinctive use of free indirect discourse. We have summarised free indirect discourse (sometimes known as free indirect speech) in a separate post, but put briefly, it’s when a third-person narrator adopts the ‘voice’ (whether verbal or merely internal, i.e., the voice of their thoughts) of one of the story’s characters.

The opening line of ‘The Dead’ is an example of this method, and has been the subject of much critical analysis:

Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.

If we’re being pedantic, people are not ‘literally’ run off their feet when they’re busy: if they were, they’d constantly be falling over. The expression (or cliché) is an example of hyperbole or exaggeration, and is no more ‘literally’ true than a football commentator’s statement that a player doing particularly well is ‘literally on fire’. Lily is figuratively run off her feet, and Joyce knows this, as does his narrator. But Lily, being a mere caretaker’s daughter, does not know that this is incorrect, and would describe herself as ‘literally run off my feet’. Already, the capacious narrator of ‘The Dead’ is showing a subtle and sensitive ability to home in on the thoughts and speech of the story’s characters, letting these bleed into the narration itself.

Throughout ‘The Dead’, Joyce brings us closer to the (inner) speech of the characters, principally Gabriel Conroy, while also allowing some degree of detachment from those characters: the effect is akin to a film camera going in for a close-up so we can observe a character’s mood and emotions, before switching to a long or wide shot of the room. Joyce artfully balances detachment against intimacy, free indirect discourse against narratorial objectivity, throughout the story. One of the effects of this, of course, is that it becomes difficult to know when a particular word or phrase should be heard in the narrator’s voice or in the ‘voice’ of one of the characters. See the example of Gabriel’s ‘Generous tears’ below, for instance.

Another key feature of James Joyce’s short stories, as with the stories of other modernist writers like Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield, is the epiphany: a realisation or revelation experienced by a central character in the story. This epiphany often provides a similar function to a plot twist or denouement in a more traditional (i.e., plot-driven) story: at the end of a detective story the mystery is solved and the criminal unmasked, for instance.

But epiphanies in modernist fiction, and especially in the stories of Joyce’s Dubliners, are frequently ambiguously poised between capturing genuine enlightenment (the protagonist has a life-changing realisation) and temporary change of mood (the protagonist thinks they have undergone a life-changing experience, but in reality, nothing has changed and they will probably relapse into their old habits the next day).

We might ask whether Gabriel’s final epiphany in ‘The Dead’ represents a permanent and life-changing shift in his attitudes – the dawning of empathy, perhaps – or whether Joyce is inviting us to view the change in his mood as temporary. We all get swept up in moments which we think are going to define our lives and change our outlooks forever, but it’s often harder for us to change our ways as a result of one ‘lightbulb’ moment like this. Change tends to be gradual, a process of taking multiple steps to alter our view of the world and, in accordance with this, our behaviour.

Consider Gabriel’s encounter with his own reflection in the mirror in the hotel room:

She broke loose from him and ran to the bed and, throwing her arms across the bed-rail, hid her face. Gabriel stood stockstill for a moment in astonishment and then followed her. As he passed in the way of the cheval-glass he caught sight of himself in full length, his broad, well-filled shirt-front, the face whose expression always puzzled him when he saw it in a mirror, and his glimmering gilt-rimmed eyeglasses.

This moment suggests a fleeting encounter with his own image as others see it, and, by extension, a momentary awareness that there are other people in the world living their own lives and negotiating their own heartbreak. The epiphany that follows at the end of the story is certainly more decisive, but its lasting significance nevertheless remains ambiguous:

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

‘Generous’ here is generously poised between denoting empathy and magnanimity (Gabriel’s tears show his new-found generosity of spirit towards others, such as his wife, such as Michael Furey) and simply signifying copiousness.

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.

Like his earlier mirror-epiphany, this epiphany involves Gabriel confronting what a pane of glass – a boundary but also a threshold onto another world hidden from him before – reveals to him. But this time, rather than throwing back a self-image, the window opens out onto the world of snow, the cold weather that had done for Michael Furey all of those years ago, and the suggestion of commonalty and kinship with every other soul in Ireland (the living and the dead, as the final words of the story make clear).

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