James Joyce's "The Dead"

The awkwardness of miscommunication, the monotony of social routine, and the confluence of life and death - these are all themes present in The Dead, my favorite short story from James Joyce’s Dubliners. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day recently, I thought I would pay tribute to Irish culture by analyzing this little vignette about a disastrous dinner party.

James Joyce circa 1918 looking like every Dublin hipster.

James Joyce circa 1918 looking like every Dublin hipster.

The Dining Dead

In The Dead, two spinster sisters host a gathering every year on January 6th to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany or the manifestation of Christ’s divinity to the Magi. While the event is meant to provide a sense of warmth and togetherness in the dead of winter, all the characters seem to repeat themselves year after year, killing any sense of joy and spontaneity. And although the calendar year is fresh and reborn, the tedium remains. The guests perform the same memorized dance steps and the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy always gives a speech and carves the goose, another gruesome symbol of the pervasiveness of death.

Hell Hath No Furey

At the end of this long evening filled with awkward encounters, Gabriel finds his wife Gretta transfixed by another guest singing in the drawing room. As they leave the party, Gretta remains pensive and withdrawn. Gabriel finds himself enamored with his wife’s wistful mood. He hopes to have a romantic evening once they get back to their hotel room, but she rejects his advances and even bursts into tears. She reveals that the song had reminded her of her first love, a boy named Michael Furey who died waiting outside her house one cold one night.

The Aha Moment

Jealousy overcomes Gabriel, but he comes to an epiphany, realizing that his feelings are not rooted in love, but a desire to control his wife. As he calms down, he understands that he was not her first love and he has no claim over her emotions. After Gretta falls asleep, he feels compassion for Michael Furey and admires his conviction in dying for love. Gabriel now sees that the dead live on the memories of the living and that these two realms constantly intermingle.

Michael and Gabriel

Further marrying the human and divine, both Michael and Gabriel are names of archangels. Archangel Gabriel informed the Virgin Mary that she would be the mother of Christ. Our protagonist does find his own sense of revelation here, but Archangel Michael is considered to be the most powerful figure in the angelic hierarchy. Here Joyce associates this brave young man with a holy warrior.

Jan van Eyck,  The Annunciation  (detail). 1434-1436. Archangel Gabriel being fly as hell. Also, I want those wings. Do you think they sell them at Party City?

Jan van Eyck, The Annunciation (detail). 1434-1436. Archangel Gabriel being fly as hell. Also, I want those wings. Do you think they sell them at Party City?

As Gabriel drifts off to sleep, he watches the snow fall outside the hotel window, blanketing the entire country, the living as well as the dead, leaving both in a state of paralysis. He understands how numb and emotionless he was and the commonality of this trait. And while Joyce does offer the reader a slice of hope with Gabriel’s revelation and the coming spring, the reader is also left wondering if this epiphany will lead to any real, lasting change.

So, let me know what you think of this story and how are you celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. Thank you so much! Bye for now.