A professor and part-time book reviewer named Gabriel Conroy attends a Christmastime party thrown by his aunts (Kate and Julia Morkin, grand dames in the world of Dublin music) at which he dances with a fellow teacher and delivers a brief speech. As the party is breaking up, Gabriel witnesses his wife, Gretta, listening to a song sung by the renowned tenor Bartell D'Arcy, and the intensity of her focus on the music causes him to feel both sentimental and lustful. In a hotel room later, Gabriel is devastated to discover that he has misunderstood Gretta's feelings; she has been moved by the memory of a young lover named Michael Furey who preceded Gabriel, and who died for the love of Gretta. Gabriel realizes that she has never felt similarly passionate about their marriage. He feels alone and profoundly mortal, but spiritually connected for the first time with others.
By general consensus, this is the greatest of all the stories in Dubliners — the longest, richest, and most emotionally affecting — and the story more than any other that points toward Joyce's career as one of the English language's greatest novelists ever. (He would follow this book with A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake.)
The story reiterates the great themes of Dubliners. Gabriel's marriage is clearly suffering from paralysis, the condition of nearly all the characters in the collection. This accounts for his excitement at story's end when he believes that Gretta's passion relates to him and them, as their marriage has decayed badly over the years. In this story, paralysis is represented as usual by the colors yellow and brown, but Joyce also employs the symbolism of snow and ice; after all, if something is frozen, it is motionless — paralyzed.
Thus, when Gabriel enters his aunts' party, "A light fringe of snow lay like a cape on the shoulders of his overcoat and like toecaps on the toes of his galoshes; and, as the buttons of his overcoat slipped with a squeaking noise through the snow-stiffened frieze, a cold fragrant air from out-of-doors escaped from crevices and folds." The symbolism returns at story's end, in the justly famous final paragraphs describing a snow-covered Ireland. Not only Gabriel but his entire homeland has been paralyzed, Joyce is saying (or, more precisely, revealing). Alternatively, at the conclusion of Dubliners, something connects Gabriel to his fellow Irishmen, a connection he had until that time disavowed.
Gabriel's paralysis is partly a result of his denial of and lack of interest in those fellow Irishmen, dramatized in his encounter with Miss Ivors. Like Kathleen Kearny in "A Mother," she is involved in the movement to restore Irish language and culture to the island. Gabriel writes a column for a newspaper opposed to Irish nationalism; indeed, he goes so far as to tell Miss Ivors, "Irish is not my language." Additionally, he tells her that he is uninterested in a vacation to the west of Ireland, preferring to holiday in Europe. She parries by calling him a West Briton — that is, an Irishman who identifies primarily with England, a cultural traitor — and this appears to be at least partly true.
After all, Gabriel plans to quote in his after-dinner speech from the work of the poet Robert Browning (an Englishman); when he finally delivers that speech, it includes extemporaneous remarks criticizing the "new generation" of Miss Ivors and her associates. Gabriel wears galoshes, fashionable in Europe, though more or less unheard of in Ireland. He earned his college degree at Anglican Trinity College in Dublin. When he thinks of going outside, what comes to mind is the snow-covered monument to Wellington, a British hero who played down his birth in Ireland. And speaking of monuments, another symbol of Ireland's inability to progress is Gabriel's grandfather riding his horse Johnny around and around the statue of William III, conqueror of Ireland on behalf of England. (The circle as symbol of pointless repetition was introduced in the stories "After the Race" and "Two Gallants.") Thus, as in many Dubliners stories before it, "The Dead" connects paralysis with the English. To summarize, Gabriel suffers from paralysis, at least partly because of his admiration for and attraction to things English.
Of course, Joyce also holds the Catholic Church accountable for Ireland's failure to move forward into modernity. Thus, in one of the story's most striking images (that of Trappist monks sleeping in their coffins, which is a myth, but that does not make it any less effective a symbol), Joyce portrays the most pious of clergymen as no less than the living dead, zombies among us.
Though "The Dead" includes much believable dialogue, it is the story in all of Dubliners with the most — and the most evocative — descriptions. For example, Joyce uses closely observed details to add to the reader's understanding of the story's characters, as in this description of Freddy Malins: "His face was fleshy and pallid, touched with color only at the thick hanging lobes of his ears and at the wide wings of his nose." Not once but twice Freddy is described as "rubbing the knuckles of his left fist backwards and forwards into his left eye." As a result he is easily visualized, and despite Freddy's movement in and out of the Morkin sisters' party, the reader never quite loses track of him.
Joyce also uses description for pacing; the author cinematically cuts away to the ordinary objects within the room during the story's enormously dramatic penultimate scene. The result is that the already considerable dramatic tension of "The Dead" actually increases: "A petticoat string dangled to the floor. One boot stood upright, its limp upper fallen down: the fellow of it lay upon its side."
As effective as the combination of theme, symbolism, dialogue, and description were in the prior story, "Grace," they mix here to yield something even more impressive: a story that begins simply, builds slowly, eventually grows hypnotic in its power, and ends in a truly heartrending burst of emotion. "One by one they were all becoming shades," Gabriel thinks of the people he knows and, until now, has taken for granted. "Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age."
"The Dead" is unforgettable, and it launches the reader from this collection of carefully wrought and closely joined stories (the world of Dubliners) into the world of Joyce's remarkable novels.
had the organ in Haddington Road played the organ at St. Mary's Church on Haddington Road, in south-central Dublin.
Adam and Eve's a nickname for the Church of the Immaculate Conception, in southwest-central Dublin.
back answers back-talk; insolence.
screwed (slang) drunk.
palaver flattery; cajolery.
Guttapercha a rubberlike gum produced from the latex of various southeast Asian trees.
Christy Minstrels a popular nineteenth-century American theatrical troupe featuring white performers made up to look like stereotypical black characters.
the famous Mrs. Cassidy, who is reported to have said "Now, Mary Grimes, if I don't take it, make me take it, for I feel I want it." apparently the punch line to a popular joke of the day.
Quadrille a square dance of French origin, consisting of several figures, performed by four couples.
the two murdered princes in the Tower the two sons of England's King Edward IV, put to death in the Tower of London by their uncle, most likely, who would become Richard III.
tabinet a poplin-like fabric made of silk and wool.
man-o'-war suit presumably a child's costume intended to resemble a soldier's outfit.
curate a clergyman who assists a vicar or rector.
Lancers a nineteenth-century quadrille.
an Irish device a Celtic emblem.
a crow to pluck (slang) a bone to pick.
West Briton a sympathizer with the English in Ireland.
the University question the issue of Irish higher education. At the time the story is set, the country's main university, Trinity College, was Protestant affiliated, while the vast majority of the population was Roman Catholic.
go visiting perform a particular square dance figure.
embrasure an opening (for a door, window, and so on), especially one with the sides slanted so that it is wider on the inside than on the outside.
the park Phoenix Park, prominently featured in "A Painful Case."
Three Graces the three sister goddesses who have control over pleasure, charm, and beauty in human life and in nature.
Paris in Greek legend, a son of Priam, king of Troy. Of three goddesses (Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera), Paris chose to award the golden apple of Discord to Aphrodite; she, in turn, granted him Helen, wife of Menelaus, thus causing the Trojan War. A reference is made to golden apples in "A Little Cloud."
An irregular musketry a sound like many guns being fired, though not simultaneously.
"Arrayed for the Bridal" a song from I Puritani, an opera by Vincenzo Bellini.
refractory hard to manage; stubborn; obstinate.
the pope to turn out the women out of the choirs Pius X, pope at the time this story is set, excluded women from singing in church choirs.
the other persuasion Protestant.
To take a pick itself to have a bite to eat.
beannacht libh (Irish) goodbye.
blancmange a sweet, molded, jellylike dessert made with starch or gelatin, milk, flavoring, and other ingredients.
minerals mineral water.
the Gaiety a theater in south-central Dublin.
pantomime a drama played in action and gestures to the accompaniment of music or of words sung by a chorus.
a pass free admission.
prima donna the principal woman singer in an opera or concert.
slept in their coffins Trappist monks were mistakenly believed to sleep in their coffins.
last end mortality.
Fifteen Acres a lawn or field in Dublin's Phoenix Park.
laid on here like the gas made permanently available.
trap a light, two-wheeled carriage with springs.
stock a former type of large, wide, stiff cravat.
King Billy's statue an equestrian statue of King William III, the Protestant conqueror of Ireland.
old Irish tonality a pentatonic or five-tone scale.
the palace of the Four Courts a building in north-central Dublin; the location of Ireland's central courts.
the statue a statue of the Irish patriot Daniel O'Connell, known as "The Liberator."
toilet-table dressing table.
cheval-glass a full-length mirror mounted on swivels in a frame.
delicate suffering from tuberculosis.
gasworks a plant where gas for heating and lighting is prepared.
pennyboy errand boy.
great with him close to him, though not sexually intimate.
convent a convent school.
Oughterard a village north of Galway.
Nuns' Island a district within the city of Galway.
Shannon a river in west-central Ireland, flowing southwestward into the Atlantic.