The Dead by James Joyce | Summary, Characters

The Dead by James Joyce | Summary, Characters

The Dead a Short Story by James Joyce

Introduction to The Dead by James Joyce

James Joyce wrote “The Dead” in 1907, three years after writing the fourteen other stories that were eventually published with it in his collection “The Dead” is the last story in the collection, and it unites the themes found in the earlier stories. In his book, Joyce wanted to give the history of Ireland. saw in Ireland, and The prominent characteristic he particularly in Dublin, was the spiritual paralysis of its people. The plot of “The Dead” presents the thoughts and actions of one man, Gabriel Conroy, on a night he and his wife attend a party given by his two aunts. With its meticulous detail, the story is realistic in style, focusing less on great events than on subtle symbolism. Conroy is presented as a rather awkward, condescending, and self-absorbed man, but he later has a moment of self-realization when his wife tells him about a relationship she had as a young girl with a youth who loved her passionately. Joyce does not make it clear, however, what kind of change Gabriel’s revelation, or epiphany, brings in him. Critics disagree as to whether this change involves an acceptance of his own self-consciousness or whether he has a moment of spiritual growth, becoming a more compassionate and humane person. The story has many characters and a number of references to the dead, and many of the characters are based on people Joyce knew his friends and family members. A great deal of critical attention has been given to the story over the years since it was published.

The Dead” is the final short story in the 1914 collection Dubliners by James Joyce. It is the longest story in the collection and widely considered to be one of the greatest short stories in the English language. At 15,672 words it has also been considered a novella. It was made into a movie in 1987, directed by John Huston, and into a musical in 1999, with music by Shaun Davey and starring Christopher Walken in the original production.

The story centers on Gabriel Conroy on the night of the Morkan sisters’ annual dance and dinner in the first week of January, 1904, perhaps the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6). Typical of the stories in Dubliners, “The Dead” develops toward a moment of painful self-awareness, what Joyce described as an epiphany. The narrative generally concentrates on Gabriel’s insecurities, his social awkwardness, and the defensive way he copes with his discomfort. The story culminates at the point when Gabriel discovers that, through years of marriage, there was much he never knew of his wife’s past. Upon arriving at the party with his wife, Gabriel makes an unfunny joke about the maid’s marriage prospects, after which he fidgets, adjusts his clothing, and offers her money as a holiday present. Not long after that, he gets flustered again when his wife pokes fun at him over a conversation they had earlier, in which he had suggested she buy a pair of galoshes for the bad weather. With such episodes, Gabriel is depicted as particularly pathetic. Similarly, Gabriel is unsure about quoting a poem from the poet Robert Browning when he is giving his dinner address, as he is afraid to be seen as pretentious. At the same time, Gabriel considers himself “above” the others when he considers that the audience would not understand the words he uses. Later in the evening, when giving the traditional holiday toast/speech in front of the guests, Gabriel overcompensates for some of his earlier statements to his evening dancing partner Miss Ivors, who is an Irish nationalist. His talk relies heavily on conventions, and he praises the virtues of the Irish people and idealizes the past in a way that feels contrived and disingenuous (especially considering what the past will mean to him once he hears his wife’s story).

When preparing to leave the party, Gabriel sees his wife, Gretta, on the stairs, absorbed in thought. He stares at her for a moment, not recognizing her. Once he recognizes her, he imagines her as a painting called “Distant Music”. Her distracted, wistful mood arouses sexual interest in him, and when he tries indirectly to confront her about it after the party in the hotel room he had engaged for them, he finds her unresponsive. Trying to make ironic, half-suggestive comments to his wife, Gabriel learns that she was feeling nostalgic after having heard Mr. D’Arcy singing The Lass of Aughrim at the party. Upon being pressed further with his ironic line of questions, Gretta tells Gabriel that the song had reminded her of the time when she was a young girl in Galway, when she had been in love with a young boy named Michael Furey. At the time, Gretta was being kept at her grandmother’s home before being sent off to a convent in Dublin. Michael was terribly sick, was ordered to remain bedridden and was unable to see her. Despite being sick, when it came time for her to leave Galway, Michael came to Gretta’s window, and although he got to speak with her, he ended up dying within the week.

The remainder of the text delves into Gabriel’s thoughts after he hears this story, exploring his shifting views on himself, his wife, the past, on the living and the dead. In the film version of the story, this is the only voice-over narration present in the work, which delves heavily into Gabriel’s thoughts. It is ambiguous whether the epiphany is just an artistic and emotional moment or whether Gabriel will ever manage to escape his smallness and insecurity.

Important Characters of The Dead by James Joyce

Mr. Browne

Mr. Browne is an important character. One of the guests at the Morkans’ party, Mr. Browne likes to drink whiskey and flirt with the ladies. People do not seem to take to him as well as he would like to think – Kate Morkan, for example, walks away when he begins to explain why women are so fond of him. Some critics see him as symbolizing English rule over Ireland. Aunt Kate says of him in an irritable tone, “Browne is everywhere,” just as the presence of Britain is ominously everywhere in Ireland. Also, he is the only Protestant in the story, while the rest of the people are Irish Catholic. In Ireland it was and still is characteristic of Protestants to favor British rule, while Catholics tend to favor independence. He seems to be condescending toward other people. He continually mispronounces Freddy Malins’s name as “Teddy,” and after Miss Julia sings, he mockingly says she is his latest discovery, then “laughs heartily” at his comment. When Freddy tells him that he might make a worse discovery, Browne keeps his condescension, saying, “I think her voice has greatly improved.” At one point, Kate signals to him to make sure that Freddy Malins drinks no more whiskey, as if Browne serves some authoritative function, like a policeman.


Gabriel, the nephew of Julia and Kate Morkan and cousin of Mary Jane, is the main character of the story. He is a young man, married and the father of two. Critics point out that Gabriel is the name of one of the archangels in the Bible, the messenger who announced the coming births of John the Baptist to Zechariah and the Messiah to Mary. The other archangel, Michael, is portrayed in the Bible as a warrior. In “The Dead” Gabriel is a more passive character than the dead Michael Furey. Critics note parallels between Gabriel and Joyce, surmising that Gabriel might be Joyce’s portrait of his future self had he not left Ireland. Like Joyce, Gabriel lost his mother when he was younger; he writes reviews for the Daily Express; he is a literary person and an English professor; and he is less provincial than his contemporaries, seeing importance in absorbing European as well as Irish culture. Kate and Julia are both anxious for him to arrive at the party, give him the honor of carving the goose, and have him give a dinner speech every year. However, to some he comes across as condescending, for he smiles at the way Lily pronounces his surname, and when he inadvertently arouses her anger, he gives her money to appease her rather than making up for his carelessness in a more personal manner. He believes that if he quotes poetry by Robert Browning in his dinner speech, his audience will not understand his “superior education.” Finally, he thinks his aunts are “two ignorant old women.” Yet at the same time he is a sensitive, self-conscious, and timid person who is shaken by Lily’s retort to his attempt at casual conversation. He does not know how to react to Molly Ivors when she accuses him of being a West Briton and thus sympathetic to English rule. He is afraid of “risking a grandiose phrase with her” in a public forum. Some believe that although he clearly loves and cares about Gretta, Gabriel treats his wife as more a prize than a human being. He fusses over her as if she were a child, making her wear galoshes although he knows she doesn’t mind the snow. He jokes that she takes three “mortal hours” to get ready to go somewhere. When she becomes excited at the prospect of going back to Galway, where she grew up, his annoyance with Molly makes him curt with Gretta, and he tells her that she can go alone if she wants. For most of the story Gabriel takes Gretta for granted, beaming at her with pride and, later, lust. Not until after she tells him about Michael Furey does he see his relationship with her differently. Gabriel is the one character who seems to go through a change at the end of the story, where he has a sudden realization about his relationship with his wife as well as a realization about himself and the human condition.


Gretta is the wife of Gabriel Conroy. Like Joyce’s wife, Nora, Gretta comes from Galway, a rural region of western Ireland. She seems to love Gabriel and playfully teases him about his solicitous manner toward herself and their children. Gabriel is not, however, the first person she has loved. After hearing Bartell D’Arcy sing “The Lass of Aughrim,” she is reminded of a former love, Michael Furey, who she says “died for her.” According to Gretta, Michael was passionately in love with her when she was a young woman. Knowing that she was going to a convent, Michael stood outside her window at the end of the garden in the rain the night before her departure. He told her that he didn’t want to live, and he died after she had been in the convent only a week.


Michael is the love of Gretta Conroy’s past, a gentle and delicate youth, mentioned only near the end of the story. Critics point out that Michael is the name of one of the biblical archangels, who is portrayed as a warrior as opposed to the archangel Gabriel, who has a more passive role as a messenger. Even Michael’s last name connotes passion. Michael is an example of living life passionately, where Gabriel Conroy lives it more timidly and passively. Gabriel realizes that he has never loved anyone the way Michael loved Gretta. Gretta tells Gabriel that Michael was an excellent singer and wanted to study music, but he had poor health and worked at the gasworks. When Gretta was a young woman, she left Galway to spend the winter at a convent in Dublin. At the time she had a relationship with Michael, who was seventeen. He came outside her home on the cold, rainy night before she left, told her that he did not want to live, and died a week after she reached the convent. Gretta believes he died for her.

Molly Ivors

Molly Ivors, a friend of Gabriel’s with whom he shares a dance, functions in the story as a contrast to Gabriel’s politics. Gabriel notes that their lives are parallel: they went to the university together and they both teach. A passionate Irish nationalist, she feels that it is important to know the Irish culture; Gabriel feels that one should also cultivate the European culture and languages. He tells her that Irish isn’t his language, implying that English is what people speak. Molly accuses Gabriel of being a “West Briton” because he writes for the Daily Express – “West Briton” being a derogatory term, denoting someone loyal to British rule in Ireland, and the Daily Express a newspaper with the political stance favorable to the British. Molly wears a brooch with an Irish design and uses an Irish good-bye, “beannacht libh,” when she leaves the party before dinner.


Lily is the first character introduced in the story. She is the caretaker’s daughter, the caretaker being a fellow tenant in the building where the Morkans live. She works as the Morkans’ housekeeper, and at the beginning of the story she is busy meeting the guests at the door. Lily makes Gabriel feel uncomfortable after she responds curtly when he asks her if he might be going to her wedding in the future. She says, “The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you.” Kate says that she does not know what has come over Lily and that “she’s not the girl she was at all.”

Freddy Malins

Freddy Malins is a friend of the Morkans’ and a guest at their party. Freddy has a drinking problem – Julia and Kate are concerned that he will come to the party “screwed.” Some critics think Freddy is Gabriel’s counterpart because he comes to the party at almost the same time and they are physically similar. Freddy calls Mr. Browne on a sarcastic remark about “discovering” Julia’s singing, defending her with the words, “Well, Browne, if you’re serious you might make a worse discovery. All I can say is I never heard her sing half as well as long as I am coming here. And that’s the honest truth.”

Summary of The Dead by James Joyce

Gabriel’s Arrival

Sisters Julia and Kate Morkan are hosting their annual holiday party and anxiously awaiting the arrival of their nephew Gabriel Conroy, who is the son of their late sister Ellen. It is after 10 p.m., and so far he has not come. When Gabriel and his wife, Gretta, arrive, Gabriel tries to engage in small talk with Lily, the housekeeper, who meets them at the door. He asks whether he will be going to her wedding with her “young man,” and Lily bitterly replies, “The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you.” Her reply flusters Gabriel, and he feels that he has made some sort of mistake. In an effort to make up for it, he gives Lily a coin, saying that it is a Christmas present. She tries to refuse it, but he is already running up the stairs to where the music and dancing are taking place.

Before entering the room where the guests are dancing and socializing, Gabriel waits for a waltz to finish and looks over the speech that he will give after dinner. He considers cutting a Robert Browning quotation from it because it might go over the heads of his audience, making him look as if he were “airing his superior education.” He fears that he will fail with them just as he did moments before with Lily. His aunts and his wife good-naturedly tease Gabriel about how he fusses over his family’s health, and Gabriel laughs nervously. When the waltz finishes, Freddy Malins arrives. Aunt Kate asks Gabriel to go downstairs to make sure their friend Freddy is not drunk. She is relieved to have Gabriel present. Another guest, Mr. Browne, flirts with several of the women, who ignore him. When everyone begins to dance again, Mary Jane pairs Miss Daly with Bartell D’Arcy, the tenor. Gabriel guides Freddy up into the back room where the refreshments are being served. Freddy laughs at his own stories and is soon given lemonade instead of whiskey.

Confrontation with Molly Ivors

In a later dance, Gabriel is partnered with Miss Molly Ivors, a longtime friend and fellow teacher. Molly has a “crow to pluck” with him because she saw a review of his in the Daily Express, a conservative newspaper supporting British rule in Ireland. Molly, an Irish nationalist, accuses Gabriel of being a “West Briton” – an Irish person who is loyal to England. Gabriel is taken aback by her accusation and feels uncomfortable responding to her in such a public place. Miss Ivors invites him to go on an excursion to the Aran Isles, a group of islands off of Galway in the western part of Ireland. She asks if Gretta is from there, to which Gabriel replies coldly, “Her people are.” Gabriel tells her that he likes to go cycling in Belgium or France. When Molly asks why, he says that it is to keep in touch with the language and for a change in atmosphere. Molly accusingly asks why he doesn’t keep in touch with his own language, Irish. Gabriel replies that Irish is not his language, and he grows increasingly nervous. Molly presses the point, asking whether he doesn’t have his own land to visit and his own people, whom he knows nothing about. Gabriel says that he is sick of his country. After dancing with Molly, Gabriel dwells on what she said as he visits with Freddy Malins’s mother. Gretta comes over asking him to carve the goose, as he usually does. She asks what words he had with Molly, and he says that she invited him to go to western Ireland. Being from that region, Gretta excitedly encourages him to go because she would love to see Galway again. He curtly tells her that she can go alone if she’d like. He continues to dwell on Molly, wondering whether she has a life beyond her politics. He decides that in his speech he might contrast his aunt’s generation with the current generation of Miss Ivors, which lacks the hospitality, humor, and humanity of the older.

The Dinner

To Gabriel’s relief, Molly leaves before dinner begins. Gabriel carves the goose and serves everyone before himself sitting down to eat. The conversation turns to the opera, particularly to tenors past and present, Irish and Italian. The time finally comes for Gabriel to give his speech. In his speech he praises his hostesses, Aunt Kate, Aunt Julia, and Mary Jane, as the three Graces. He notes that their hospitality is like Ireland’s own, unique among modern nations, and that while some would consider this trait a failing, he would call it a princely failing. The generation of his two aunts still has the hospitable trait, but he fears that the new “hyper-educated” generation coming up and present in, Ireland lacks it. Alluding to the earlier conversation about great tenors of the past, he encourages his audience to hail and regard the great people of the past. He cautions, however, that one can always dwell on the unpleasant thoughts of the past – past youth, changes, and absent friends – but one should concentrate on the living and one’s current duties and affections. In that context he speaks again of his regard for his hostesses, and all the guests begin singing “for they are jolly gay fellows.”

After midnight, people begin putting on their coats to leave for home. While arranging cab rides and waiting for his wife to come downstairs, Gabriel tells the story of his grandfather Patrick Morkan, who once drove his mill horse into town for a military parade. The horse was used to walking around in a circle in order to run a machine that ground starch, and when Patrick took the horse to the park, it started walking in circles around a statue of King William III of England. Gabriel imitates the action by walking around in a circle himself. As Freddy and Mr. Browne are leaving, Gabriel notices the figure of a woman standing at the top of the stairway listening to an air being sung. It is his wife. She seems pensive and dignified to Gabriel, and he imagines that if he were a painter and painted the scene, he would call it Distant Music. After the singing stops, Gretta asks Mr. D’Arcy what he was singing, and he replies, “The Lass of Aughrim.” This vision of his wife arouses Gabriel’s passion for her. On the ride home he admires her appearance and thinks about the early days of their courtship. When they get to the hotel, he is in an intense state of lust and passion, but Gretta seems distant and preoccupied. She finally walks over and kisses him. When they embrace he asks her what is the matter. She breaks down, falls on the bed, and cries. She tells him that the song Mr. D’Arcy sang reminded her of a young man she knew who also used to sing that song. His name was Michael Furey, and she feels that he died for her. They had courted, but one winter Gretta decided to move to a convent in Dublin. The night before she left, Michael, already sickly, came to her house in the cold rain and threw gravel against her window. When she went outside to him and told him he should go so as not to become even more dangerously ill, he told her that he did not want to live because she was leaving.

The Epiphany

As Gretta sleeps, Gabriel thinks about what she has told him. He now sees his wife differently, and he watches her sleep as though he and she had never lived together. Remembering watching his Aunt Julia singing and the look on her aging face, he knows that very soon he will be going to her funeral. Everyone slowly fades away, “becoming shades.” He thinks that perhaps it is best to boldly and passionately pass into the next world than to slowly wither away with age. Thinking of Michael Furey, Gabriel realizes that he could never love a person the way Michael loved Gretta. He feels his soul has reached the place of the dead and that the living world is ‘becoming nonexistent, as if he is outside his body. He hears the snow tapping on the window pane and knows that it is time to begin “his journey westward.” The snow falls on everything all over Ireland, on the living and the dead.

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