The Dead is the final story in James Joyce’s short story collection, Dubliners. Published in 1914, it has been described by many as the finest short story ever written. It was Tim’s choice for our January ‘short story/novella’.
A 58-page story or novella, the last in Joyce’s Dubliners completed 1905/6 when Joyce was only 23/24 although not published until 1914.
When I read the hyperbolic statement that this is the best story ever written I was naturally sceptical but I was not disappointed. After the frankly disappointing visit to the unrelievedly maudlin Louise Gluck, this was uplifting. Set at Christmas in middle-class Dublin, c.1905, Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta, in their 30s/40s, visit his aunts’ jolly Christmas party where a good time is had by all singing, feasting and dancing. The reader may well wonder why the story is entitled The Dead. One of the guests, a Mr D’Arcy, sings a song, ‘The lass of Aughrim’. Gabriel notes that his wife was lost in a reflective enchantment by the song but thinks little of it, ‘a sudden tide of joy went leaping out of his heart’. The party ends and on the way back to their hotel, following Gretta though the snow he is overcome by love and lust for his wife. ‘Moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory’. In their hotel room Gretta is unresponsive to his amorous mood, ‘why did she seem so abstracted’. She discloses that the song reminded her of a youth she had loved who had died. Gabriel ‘shy of intruding on her grief’ lets her sleep beside him. Gabriel suffers the awful realisation that the woman he loves has, all their marriage, loved another unattainable man. ‘It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband had played in her life’, ‘he thought of how she who laid beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live’.
The pathos evoked by a writer of 23 is remarkable, portending the work of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.
Remembering my struggle to read Ulysses when I was about 19 (due entirely to a boyfriend at the time), I was geared to find this story hard going. As it turned out, it’s not, though its age (it was published in 1914) is evident not only in the language but the characters themselves and the descriptions of the Irish society in which they live. It’s a story that has won much praise: T.S. Eliot described it as one of the greatest short stories ever written; the New York Times on the 100th anniversary of the publication of Dubliners, that it is the ‘greatest short story ever written’. High praise indeed, which inevitably brings high expectations.
For me a good short story is one that captures one’s imagination and interest immediately and condenses a lot into a few words. The Dead excels in both these conditions. Its opening paragraph is a delight, immediately creating a vivid scene at the opening of a party, which is the centre stage of the story:
‘Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet. Hardly had she brought one gentleman into the little pantry behind the office on the ground floor and helped him off with his overcoat, than the wheezy hall-door bell clanged again and she had to scamper along the bare hallway to let in another guest.’
It is on one level so simple yet it tells us so much: we ‘see’ Lily and immediately understand her feeling harassed; we ‘hear’ the wheezy bell; we ‘feel’ that soulless bare hallway. Joyce’s story is rich in descriptive language – ‘A light fringe of snow lay like a cape on the shoulders of his overcoat’ – but it is the layers of his story that have gained it such a big reputation. The characters and their internal lives are revealed through such descriptions but just as in life, and especially through the internal life of the main character, Gabriel, we witness how thoughts and emotions play out; are suppressed and then reveal themselves.
Gabriel is to make a speech at his aunts’ annual party. When we read that ‘He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand’, I cringed at his arrogance and yet it is more a display of his insecurity and he fears being seen as a failure. When an old friend, Miss Ivors, accuses him of being a West Briton (supporting British rule in Ireland) for writing a book review for The Daily Express, he becomes agitated and defends himself by thinking that ‘literature was above politics’ (and we, the readers, may ask, Is that true?). He plots in his head to take his revenge in his speech and a cruelty is exposed in his thoughts both of Miss Ivors and his aunts: ‘that was one for Miss Ivors. What did he care that his aunts were only two ignorant old women?’. His pomposity shows through the speech: ‘… we are living in a sceptical … thought-tormented age … I fear that this new generation … will lack those qualities of humanity … kindly humour which belonged to an older day.’ Despite the fact he shows no kindly humour himself!
The character of Gabriel is a device through which Joyce exposes the paralysis of his fellow Irishmen in the years leading up to the War of Independence (1919-21). But it is through the paralysis of Gabriel’s marriage that epiphany finally comes. There is a beautiful description of his wife Gretta at the end of the party, standing on the stairs listening to someone singing: ‘There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something’ and he imagines how an artist might paint her. They are to spend the night in a hotel where ‘he longed … to make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their ecstasy.’ But the evening ends in a shocking way: the song Gretta was listening to reminded her of a lost love; a boy she’d loved when 17 who had been very ill and died. She describes the tragic story and how the boy risked – and lost – his life in order to see her. She is too distraught now to respond to her husband’s attempt to make love. Gabriel ‘watched her while she slept, as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife’. Painfully, through Gabriel’s reaction, Joyce reveals how we can never really know another; how a hidden secret or experience can change everything. Now, thinking of his ageing aunts and the death that awaits us all, he thinks: ‘Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade dismally with age.’ This is such a wonderful way to look at not only how the young boy died, but how we should live out our lives to the full. ‘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 … His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead … His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world.’ He sees finally how we’re all connected, the living and the dead.
It’s a story that deserves time and thought. At first my pleasure in it turned to thinking it rather a grim story about an unpleasant man, but this gradually changed to my feeling Gabriel was just a rather pathetic figure and then compassion with his reaction to Gretta’s story at the end. I read much of the literature available, analysing the story, and am sure I will go on thinking about it and finding new layers for some time.
This is the final story in a collection of fifteen short stories in Dubliners, written in 1904-7 and finally published in 1914. Publication was delayed because certain passages in some of the stories were regarded as ‘obscene and the publishers were also concerned that the collection presented a bleak depiction of Irish life in Dublin at that time.
The setting is an annual dance and dinner party held by Kate and Julia Morkan and their young niece Mary Jane Morkan, which draws together a variety of relatives and friends. Their favourite nephew Gabriel Conroy is the main protagonist of the story and his wife Gretta emerges as an important character. It is symbolic that the party is set at or just before the feast of Epiphany on January the sixth. I initially found the party slow going but it was a way of getting to know Gabriel’s character. In his conversation with Miss Ivors he confessed to being ‘sick of my own country, sick of it!’ and was subsequently labelled a ‘West Briton’ during their dance. The story begins to change as the party is winding down when Gabriel notices his wife standing at the top of the stairs transfixed by a sad old Irish song The Lass of Aughrim being sung by a guest in another room. He feels joy and passionate feelings for his wife as they walk back to their hotel through the snowy streets. Later his romantic inclinations are dashed when Gretta bursts into tears and confesses that she had been thinking about that song which reminded her of a former boyfriend who had sung it to her in her youth and who later died after waiting outside her window under a tree in the cold. Gabriel is shocked and initially dismayed that there was something of such significance in his wife’s life that he never knew about. Later, as he watches her sleep he reflects that a man died for her love and Gabriel realises that he had never felt like that himself towards any woman. One epiphany follows another as he realises that they have both aged, he would soon attend his aunts’ funerals and he feels the shadow of mortality on all of them. He imagines he sees a 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.’ It is difficult to put into words, but the last page has an almost cosmic feeling as he hears the snow faintly falling, all over Ireland and through the universe!
I’m blown away by this stunning, perceptive, sensitive, beautiful story written in thirty pages by a genius. I can’t say any more tonight but, if you haven’t read it, you must.
Thank you so much, Tim, for suggesting it.
Do please let us know what you think about The Dead in Comments below!