Gabriel Conroy shares much in common with the unnamed boys at the center of the first three Dubliners stories. He is no less intelligent than his young predecessors, certainly, at least in the conventional sense of the word. He appears well educated, too; in fact, he earns his living from his intelligence and education, as a professor and book reviewer.
Partly as a result of these qualities, Gabriel is alienated, as well. Ironically, he is no less alone at the lively, crowded party thrown by his beloved aunts than is the protagonist of "Araby" on his solitary way to the church bazaar. While others appear gaily focussed on food and drink, music and conversation, Gabriel mainly obsesses over the speech he will make after dinner. Even while dancing with the "frank-mannered, talkative" Miss Ivors, he is preoccupied by things intellectual. It is also revealed during their conversation that he writes for a newspaper in favor of maintaining Union with Great Britain, and he spends his vacations abroad — both of which mark him as out of step with the passionately Irish guests at his aunts' party. Gabriel "coldly" refuses to travel to the west of the country, despite his wife's intense desire to do so. (Gretta comes from that part of Ireland.) "I'm sick of my own country, sick of it!" he finally admits to Miss Ivors, though he fails to explain why this is so. As a result, her feelings wounded, she leaves the party before dinner. Even while eating, Gabriel "set to his supper and took no part in the conversation."
He is disconnected from the people around him. "Gabriel hardly heard what she said" sums up his state. He looks out the window of the Morkans' drawing room and thinks "How pleasant it would be to walk out alone, first along the river and then through the park!" He is even cut off from the sensual pleasures offered by this celebratory holiday gathering. He foregoes sweets for dessert, eating a stick of celery instead — an insult, probably, to his Aunt Julia, who made the pudding. In short, he lacks the emotional intelligence of the protagonist of "The Sisters," and it is this very lack that will lead to his painful downfall at the climax of the story.
Educated and even refined, Gabriel nevertheless lacks true sensitivity. Though his blood relationship to the musical Morkan sisters and his marriage to the deeply passionate Gretta indicate that he might once have been finely attuned to the nuances of the world around him, Gabriel seems to have buried his emotions beneath a snow-like blanket of propriety. "She tried to make him ridiculous before people," he thinks resentfully of Miss Ivors, "heckling him and staring at him with her rabbit's eyes." He seems to have been a seeker once, a quester like the protagonists of "An Encounter" and "Araby." But Gabriel appears during the time at which "The Dead" takes place to have quieted the unsettled part of himself for the sake of comfort, safety, and status: "He . . . liked nothing better than to find himself at the head of a well-laden table." Later, Gabriel refers to "what vulgar people call stuffing." Appearances mean a great deal to him — more, perhaps, than what lies behind facades, the heart of things. His embarrassment (resentment, even) over the humble situation of his grandfather is striking.
Gabriel's lack of emotional intelligence, his insensitivity to the cues presented by the world around him, and his disinclination to search for the truth behind appearances eventually punish him. After first intellectualizing it ("He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of"), he badly misreads Gretta's impassioned response to Bartel D'Arcy's song. "Perhaps her thoughts had been running with his. Perhaps she felt the impetuous desire that was in him . . ." he theorizes. On the contrary, he has misinterpreted his wife's very essence, or ignored it altogether throughout their marriage. The realization devastates him.
The final evidence of Gabriel's link to the boy protagonists at the start of Dubliners is the self-knowledge — and the change — that this devastation appears to yield in him. For, remarkably, instead of bringing forth further paralysis, the realization of his emotional blindness ("He saw himself as a ludicrous figure . . .") encourages Gabriel to look outward — to begin to try connecting with all those from whom he has grown apart. He looks at Gretta "unresentfully," and cries "generous tears," tears reminiscent of those shed by the main character of "Araby" when he realizes his own folly. Then he begins to commune with the souls of the dead. Finally, in his mystical vision of a snow-covered Ireland, he begins the long and arduous process of connecting not only with those who have passed away, but with the living as well. Gabriel Conroy's quest has just begun.