James Joyce – “The Dead” (1914)

The last story in Dubliners, it focuses on Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta. Gabriel goes to an annual Christmas party hosted by the Morkan sisters, themselves the center of the music scene in Dublin (significantly, Joyce wanted to become singer when he was younger). Gabriel is the prized guest–his arrival is awaited, he carves the goose, he is the sought-after dance partner, he  gives the toast, and tells jokes as he is leaving. He is the gallant, patronizing/patronized Irishman, frustrated with the conservatism of his country but ultimately unable to take a stand beyond writing an anonymous literary column in a newspaper that is progressive only in the eyes of the most defiantly conservative. He leaves the party late at night feeling lustful. He can barely contain his passion as him and Gretta return to the hotel room they have rented for the evening. His approaches are pathetic, and just as Gretta seems to opening up, she confesses to be thinking about a song she heard earlier that evening that reminded her of a past lover, Michael Furey, that had died for her. Gabriel is full of regret. He wakes up at night and sees the snow falling on the living and the dead.

The dinner scene: battle imagery and Christian imagery are conflated. Gabriel’s preparation of the goose is a literal last supper, presaging his “sacrifice.” According to Ellman, Dubliners was written “on the assumption that Ireland is an inadequate mother, ‘an old sow who eats her farrow,’ and he [Joyce] associates himself with the masticated children.” The nourishment that Ireland cannot offer is plastered over with a feast: a goose that is ostentatiously domesticated (not wild), overly aestheticized fruits–a bourgeois meal in almost all respects à la Bourdieu and Mayol/de Certeau. Connect the undernourishment offered by the mother country with Banfield’s article on Backett–the insufficiency of the mother tongue.

From romantic failure to aesthetic expansion: One can see Stephen Dedalus strung between Michael Furey and Gabriel Conroy. Stephen’s intention to forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race finds its romantic correlate in Furey, but the constrictions set by social forces become apparent in the withered life of Gabriel. However, the final section of the story is the occasion for Gabriel’s expansion from a disappointed romanticism to an aesthetic peculiarly modern:

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. (223)

Interesting comparison to the pulsating life felt by Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch. The vagueness of the symbolic world that Gabriel resigns himself to is also related to the transition from Stephen Hero to Portrait–the former engages the discursive contexts that are forming and limiting Stephen, while the latter approaches these contexts through the epistemological boundaries of Stephen’s consciousness. “The Dead” registers this transition–as the world, its sensuous character, accumulates the “value” of a life that is missed. Missed opportunity is converted into aesthetic apotheosis. But the cost of this catharsis is–not the death of the creative subject–but the violent appropriation of historical death as a means for art.

Symbol: Gabriel engages in his own sort of of Marlow-Dowell narration:

There was  grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. (210)

It’s not that Western literature does not offer an answer to this question; it is  that this is particular narrator cannot readily access that source of meaning. And, further, it points to the irony of a disappointed artist who, instead of seizing the facts of life, resorts to symbols as explanations for experiential impressions.


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