Analysis of The Dead by James Joyce
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 cleansing, bringing expanded represents universal 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.
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.
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“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.”
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.
“The Dead” was first published in 1914 as part of Joyce’s short story collection called Dubliners. Joyce had actually written all the stories by 1907, when he finished “The Dead,” but he struggled for seven years to get the collection published. The publishers were in a sense its first critics, refusing to publish the collection because some of the stories had mildly profane language and because they refer to real people and places in and around Dublin. When Dubliners was finally published, the first critics were struck by Joyce’s meticulous concentration on the ordinary and drab details of life. Joyce’s subject matter, which avoids any attempt at the sensational, was noticeably different to them. A 1914 review in the Times that Dubliners “may be Literary Supplement said recommended to the large class of readers to whom the drab makes an appeal, for it is admirably written.” Gerald Gould, writing for the New Statesman, had similar comments. He wrote that Joyce “dares to let people speak for themselves with awkward meticulousness, the persistent incompetent repetition of actual human intercourse.” Although he thought Joyce a genius, Gould deemed it a pity that a man could write as Joyce does while insisting upon “aspects of life which are not ordinarily mentioned.” But other critics approved of Joyce’s examination of the mundane and ordinary. Ezra Pound praised Joyce for being a realist and not sentimentalizing over his characters, and in 1922 John Macy saw Joyce’s work as superior to the usual stories of that time. Having little regard for the sentimental and genteel style found in most magazines of the period, Macy noted, Joyce’s kinds of stories were “almost unknown to American magazines, if not to American writers.” Macy called “The Dead” a masterpiece, but argued that it would never be popular because it is about living people.
As Joyce’s popularity grew, his stories became overshadowed by his longer and more complex works, such as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. By the 1940s, critics looked back to “The Dead” and saw it as an important work. Much critical attention has been given to it over the years, and critics have looked at the story in various ways. “The Dead” started getting more critical attention from academic critics in the 1940s and 1950s. These critics tended to be formalists, focusing on the story’s shape and structure and the manner in which it was made. In 1950 Allen Tate wrote an essay which examines Joyce’s method of presenting details in a way that goes beyond description to the level of symbol. His main example is how the snow appears in the story first as a physical detail on Gabriel’s galoshes then gradually encompasses the whole story when it is the central symbol in Gabriel’s epiphany. Kenneth Burke writes in his “Stages of ‘The Dead’ “that the story is structured in stages. The first is one of expectancy, where all are preparing for the party and waiting for Gabriel. The second is the party itself, and the third is leaving the party. Finally, the fourth stage, when Gabriel and Gretta are alone, has many stages of its own, building up to Gabriel’s final moment of revelation.
In 1959, Richard Ellmann wrote an important essay that examines “The Dead” from the vantage point of Joyce’s biography. In “The Backgrounds of “The Dead” Ellmann compares episodes in Joyce’s life to similar ones in the story. Nora Barnacle, Joyce’s lifelong companion and eventual wife, courted a man named Michael who was dying of tuberculosis when Nora decided to move from Galway to Dublin. This real- life Michael left his bed to visit Nora on a rainy night before she left for Dublin. Later, while she was in Dublin, she learned of his death. Ellmann also pointed out that Gabriel is similar to Joyce, as Gretta is similar to Nora. In fact, all the characters in the story seem to have real-life counterparts. Another popular approach is a psychological reading of “The Dead.” Michael Shurgot sees the paralysis of the characters in terms of Freud’s theory of the death wish. Shurgot argues that characters in the story follow what Freud said was the aim in life, to go toward a state of inactivity or death. Daniel R. Schwarz examines Gabriel’s psyche in relation to the author’s and in a cultural and historical context. Still other critics approach the story in relation to the works of the psychologist Jacques
Lacan, who believed that the unconscious is structured as a language. Critics have disagreed about the two most important aspects of the story: the meaning of Gabriel’s epiphany and of the snow symbolism. The interpretation of Gabriel’s epiphany falls into two camps: Some critics argue that Gabriel transcends his paralysis and will likely go on to live a different, less self-absorbed life; others think that Gabriel comes to understand himself, but this understanding is a reconciliation of who he actually is rather than a beginning for growth. The snow seems to many critics a symbol of death or paralysis, while to others it is a symbol of Gabriel’s transcending his own self-consciousness to see things more compassionately and be sympathetic to the state of humanity. Robert Billingheimer considers the snow a more ambivalent symbol. Ice, he argues, usually symbolizes death, while water symbolizes life. Therefore snow symbolizes a state of death in life or life in death. Beneath the story’s surface of meticulous realistic detail, critics have found in “The Dead” many levels of meaning. Consequently the work has produced a large body of criticism treating the story from a variety of approaches.