The Books: “Dubliners” – ‘The Dead’ (James Joyce)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

Dubliners – by James Joyce – excerpt from the final story in the collection: “The Dead”.

The story never loses its power. To describe the plot of it doesn’t do it justice, and I also agonized over an excerpt – because it’s the ENDING that packs the punch – but the punch wouldn’t exist without all that came before. It’s important, too, to look at “The Dead” in context of the rest of the collection – which is also marvelous – but “The Dead” feels like a symphony and makes the other stories seem like practice runs, a pianist doing scales. “The Dead” can also be seen (since it is the last story) as the launching pad into the novels. Joyce wrote 3 novels: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake – and while Dubliners is marvelous, it doesn’t prepare you at all for the ground-breaking quality of the novels – except for “The Dead”. “The Dead” is where you know, okay – this Joyce fellow is somethin’ ELSE. The fact that he was so young when he wrote the thing is astonishing in and of itself – and that’s another part of “The Dead” that interests me: where Joyce was at in his development when he wrote it. He wanted to stick it to Ireland, that is true. He wanted to rub his fellow countrymen’s noses in it. “The Dead” is different, though. It’s like he draws back the veil over his own heart, and love pours out of it. It’s not a pleasant process, because along with that love comes grief, and loss … but the collection would not have the same power if “The Dead” were not in it. Bitchy gossipy observations are all well and good, and many a novelist has made use of such things to great success. Joyce could have been one of them. But no, he had other things in mind. It’s like a quick-flash jujitsu move at the end of the book. It’s like Bob Dylan going electric. If you think you know him, if you think you have him pinned down, if you think you have classified and labeled him correctly: you are wrong wrong wrong. Because look at THIS. Joyce was conscious of this, highly conscious. At some point, during the writing of the collection, he felt that maybe he was being too harsh on Ireland – that maybe the harshness, taken as a whole, did not serve the book – and also did not truly express what was in his heart. He wrote, in a letter:

I have often confessed to you surprise that there should be anything exceptional in my writing and it is only at moments when I leave down somebody else’s book that it seems to me not so unlikely after all. Sometimes thinking of Ireland it seems to me that I have been unnecessarily harsh. I have reproduced (in Dubliners at least) none of the attraction of the city for I have never felt at my ease in any city since I left it except in Paris. I have not reproduced its ingenuous insularity and its hospitality. The latter ‘virtue’ so far as I can see does not exist elsewhere in Europe. I have not been just to its beauty: for it is more beautiful naturally in my opinion than what I have seen of England, Switzerland, France, Austria, or Italy. And yet I know how useless these reflections are. For were I to rewrite the book as G.R. suggests ‘in another sense’ (where the hell does he get the meaningless phrases he uses) I am sure I should find again what you call the Holy Ghost sitting in the ink-bottle and the perverse devil of my literary conscience sitting on the hump of my pen. And after all Two Gallants – with the Sunday crowds and the harp in Kildare Street and Lenehan – is an Irish landscape.

Another element of “The Dead” is Joyce’s relationship to his wife, Nora. Nora was a Galway girl (just like Mrs Conroy in “The Dead”) – and had had a love affair back in her youth – where a young man stood outside her window in the rain, and then died of pneumonia later. Joyce knew about this event – and it always kind of haunted him, because it somehow made it seem like he, Joyce, was indistinct to Nora. It made him jealous to think that Nora could still be moved by what had happened in her past, with another man. Richard Ellmann, in his biography of Joyce, devotes an entire chapter to “The Dead” – and the background thereof, how all of these different strands came together to make Joyce write it the way he did. Joyce said, much later in life, that every woman in his stories was Nora – he didn’t know any other women, basically – and could only write about her. She fascinated him, and he stole from her, her lack of punctuation in her letters (think of Molly’s run-on sentence – 40 pages worth – at the end of Ulysses) – her Galways roughness, her tone of voice, how she was … all of that was pilfered from his wife, and you see it come up time and time again. James and Nora were in Rome for about 6 months – in 1906, 1907 .. and Joyce’s experience of Rome – with its ancient ruins abutting up against modern buildings – also became another strand that would make up “The Dead” – how one can be dead at the same time that one is alive. How consciousness of mortality can change what it feels to actually be alive: it is possible to be in both states at once (as Gabriel experiences so devastatingly at the end of “The Dead”). Gabriel, up until the revelatory last 2 pages of the story, has been – for all intents and purposes – a good man, a good husband – a bit stuffy, perhaps – self-conscious – but he tries to do the right thing. He carves the goose gallantly, he dances with Miss Ivors – he works hard on his speech that he wants to give at the party … he’s not a buffoon or an idiot. We don’t get the sense that something is MISSING in Gabriel Conroy – until the end. Then we realize that what he was missing was consciousness. Now he has it. The story of his wife’s failed love back in Galway (same story as Nora’s) – has launched him into life. And at the very same moment he is acutely aware of his own life, he becomes even more aware of how death approaches – as death approaches us all. We are all becoming “shades”. His consciousness becomes telescopic – and moves over the snowy Irish landscape – moving ‘westward’ – he sees the fields, he sees the “mutinous Shannon waves” (meaning: west) – he sees the country cemetery where his wife’s lover is buried … Gabriel, in his sense of loss in regards to his wife, has – for the first time – become connected to all of mankind. He is now in connection with others. What we all share is that we will all die. And for the first time Gabriel really feels the pain of that. He feels the pain of his wife, lying asleep in bed – tears in his eyes – for the love that she once lost.

One of the other things going on in this story – which may be a bit too local for American readers (or anyone not Irish, I suppose): the feeling of west vs. east in that country, which still exists, on some level, today. The west represents rural life, the east is the rush and bustle of Dublin. At the time of Joyce’s writing of the story, the Irish Revival was in full swing – and the Irish began to look “west” to see who they really were. It seemed that the rural folk had been lost in the shuffle, the rural folk still spoke Irish – they were untouched by British oppression, there was something that still survived out there in the west that those in Dublin have lost. So people like Yeats and Synge wrote about the west. It was almost political in nature. A reverting to a time before the British. Irish language schools started popping up, and people started traveling out to the Aran Islands, and Galway, etc. – as a way to reclaim a bit of their lost history. Synge – the playwright – took Yeats’s advice to “go west, young man” – and lived out on the Aran Islands (wrote a wonderful memoir about it too) – and from that experience of the untouched peasantry of Ireland – began to write his plays that would make his name. And cause riots in Dublin. Story here.

So what does that have to do with “The Dead”. Joyce was never big on the Irish Revival. He didn’t go for that stuff. His whole thing was to get AWAY from Ireland. (Gabriel, in the story, has that, too – instead of vacationing in Ireland, he takes cycling tours through Germany, etc. He has no interest in exploring his own country. Which is amazing, later – when Gabriel’s imagination breaks free and begins to float over Ireland – seeing the snow falling on hill, dale, monuments, cemeteries, waves … Internally, he is now “visiting” his country – for the very first time.) Joyce places a character at the party – a Miss Ivors. She represent the Irish nationalists. She chides Conroy for publishing his book reviews in a non-Irish magazine. He thinks literature should not be political. She couldn’t disagree more, and calls him a “West Briton”. This discombobbles him completely. She asks him if he wants to come out to Aran with a group of friends … he says no, he prefers to vacation “on the continent”. Miss Ivors can’t let it go. “What – your own country isn’t good enough for you?” She’s rude. Gabriel has a hard time dealing with her – he feels attacked and humiliated … like no matter what he says she will never accept it. She leaves the party early – and says goodbye to the crowd in Irish … Beannacht libh! she cries, and then she’s off. The Irish language, in that context, is a weapon. A way to shame the others. Miss Ivors is basically saying, I am more Irish than any of you … why aren’t YOU all speaking in Irish??

Joyce had contempt for such provincial issues – and felt that Irish people’s dedication to their own country was just another way to keep themselves down. The point was not to go west, and romanticize their own peasantry – who lived in poverty – and spoke a dead language … The point was to get the hell OUT so you could have a chance.

But! But. Joyce never stops there. In “The Dead” he presents all of those issues – it’s all there – Gabriel feels a bit superior to the rest of the party, and wonders if he should re-word his speech so that everyone will ‘get’ it. He chooses a Robert Browning quote to start it all off and questions this choice. He wonders if he should choose another quote. (Notice that he doesn’t choose an Irish poet to start things off. Gabriel sees himself as continental – he takes pride in that – which is what Miss Ivors senses, and sets about to pierce through that pride) Despite the fact that his wife is actually FROM the “west” of Ireland – they have never gone back to visit Galway together. Gabriel just has no interest in ‘seeing’ the countryside, and having some Irish Renaissance experience out there. It seems silly to him.

But by the end of the story, what has happened to Gabriel is nothing short of a complete transformation. In a matter of moments, he sees it all. He sees that his wife never really loved him. He sees that he has never loved anyone as much as Michael Furey loved his wife when she was a young girl – Michael Furey who died for love of her by standing out in the rain all night beneath her window. Gabriel sees his own pomposity, and silliness – and avoids looking at himself in the mirror, for shame. He realizes that his tenderness and lust towards his wife, through the end of the party – was misguided. He felt that her attitude and soft manner were to do with him – when what it really was was that she was catapulted back into the past, with Michael Furey. He, for the first time, feels his own isolation from his fellow man. But again, Joyce does not stop there. In the last 3 or 4 paragraphs of the story, Gabriel – by realizing his own alone-ness, his own failures as a man – joins the human race for the first time. He is connected to all. To Michael Furey, to his sweet Aunt Julia, to his sleeping wife – Instead of feeling jealous about her old affair, he looks down on her sleeping form, and finds himself in tears – imagining what it must have been like for her. But again, Joyce does not stop there. He then launches us up – up – into the atmosphere – and Gabriel looks down on all. As though he is already a ‘shade’. And where does Gabriel go? Where does he HAVE to go? “Westward”. There is no other direction. “The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward.” What a sentence. What a mysterious sentence. It is as though Gabriel had had this date from the beginning – only he had no awareness of it. But now he knows. It is “westward” he must go. And so, in the truly stunning last paragraph of the story, he floats out west – through the snow – which is “general all over Ireland” – looking down on the landscape – the fields and waves and dales of the west he had always scorned. And what does he feel? But love. A “swoon” of it.

For me, that last paragraph feels like a swoon – with its uncanny repetition of words (“falling”) – it takes on the tone of a prayer, a mantra.

Ellmann writes in his biography of Joyce:

In its lyrical, melancholy acceptance of all that life and death offer, ‘The Dead’ is a linchpin in Joyce’s work. There is that basic situation of cuckoldry, real or putative, which is to be found throughout. There is the special Joycean collation of specific detail raised to rhythmical intensity. The final purport of the story, the mutual dependency of living and dead, is something that he meditated a good deal from his early youth. He had expressed it first in his essay on Mangan in 1902, when he spoke already of the union in the great memory of death along with life; even then he had begun to learn like Gabriel that we are all Romes, our new edifices reared beside, and even joined with, ancient monuments. In Dubliners he developed this idea. The interrelationship of dead and living is the theme of the first story in Dubliners [excerpt here] as well as of the last; but an even closer parallel to ‘The Dead’ is the story, ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ [excerpt here]. This was in one sense an answer to his university friends who mocked his remark that death is the most beautiful form of life by saying that absence is the highest form of presence. Joyce did not think either idea absurd. What binds ‘Ivy Day’ to ‘The Dead’ is that in both stories the central agitation derives from a character who never appears, who is dead, absence. Joyce wrote Stanislaus that Anatole France had given the idea for both stories. There may be other sources in France’s works, but a possible one is ‘The Procurator of Judaea’. In it Pontius Pilate reminisces with a friend about the days when he was procurator in Judaea, and describes the events of his time with Roman reason, calm, and elegance. Never once does he, or his friend, mention the person we expect him to discuss, the founder of Christianity, until at the end the friend asks if Pontius Pilate happens to remember someone of the name of Jesus, from Nazareth, and the veteran administrator replies, “Jesus? Jesus of Nazareth? I cannot call him to mind.” The story is overshadowed by the person whom Pilate does not recall; without him the story would not exist. Joyce uses a similar method in ‘Ivy Day’ with Parnell and in ‘The Dead’ with Michael Furey.

That Joyce at the age of twenty-five and -six should have written this story ought not to seem odd. Young writers reach their greatest eloquence in dwelling upon the horror of middle age and what follows it. But beyond this proclivity which he shared with others, Joyce had a special reason for writing the story of ‘The Dead’ in 1906 and 1907. In his own mind he had thoroughly justified his flight from Ireland; but he had not decided the question of where he would fly to. In Trieste and Rome he had learned what he had unlearned in Dublin, to be a Dubliner. As he had written his brother from Rome with some astonishment, he felt humiliated when anyone attacked his “impoverished country”. ‘The Dead’ is his first song of exile.

I agonized over what to excerpt. I feel the ending of the story is somewhat sacred – and although very famous I didn’t feel right in excerpting it separated from the whole. I thought then that I would excerpt the moment when the party starts to break up. It’s gone well. Gabriel puts on his overcoat. He and his wife are staying in a nearby hotel. Snow is falling – “newspapers say snow is general all over Ireland”. Which is already odd, somewhat uncanny. Ireland is not known as a snow-bound nation. It brings a feeling of cold and paralysis to the scene. Gabriel looks up the stairs and sees his wife standing there, in silhouette. She appears frozen. She is listening to something. Someone is playing the piano in an upper room and it has caught her attention. Gabriel is suddenly struck by the vision of his wife. They have two kids together, they’ve been married a long time … and suddenly: he SEES her. The devastation that comes later, when he realizes that what she was thinking about in that moment had nothing to do with him … has not arisen yet. Gabriel stares up at his wife. Watch, too, how Gabriel – an intellectual, a book-reviewer, turns his wife into an inanimate object – he immediately begins to see her as a work of art – and wishes he could paint her – capture her. Meanwhile (we find this out later) – Gabriel’s wife is struck dumb by the playing of an old Irish song … which reminds her of her dead lover. She stands, frozen … and from that moment on, the past has got her. Gabriel does not perceive this. He feels that she is suddenly in the present. He cannot wait to be alone with her, to touch her, make love. It is Gabriel’s tragedy that they have actually never been further apart than in that moment when he sees her at the top of the stairs.

And that’s the end of my posts on Dubliners. I will be sorry to move on.

EXCERPT FROM Dubliners– by James Joyce – “The Dead”.

Gabriel had not gone to the door with the others. He was in a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase. A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the shadow also. He could not see her face but he could see the terracotta and salmonpink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white. It was his wife. She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something. Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also. But he could hear little save the noise of laughter and dispute on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man’s voice singing.

He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. 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. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hir against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.

The hall-door was closed, and Aunt Kate, Aunt Julia and Mary Jane came down the hall, still laughing.

— Well, isn’t Freddy terrible? said Mary Jane. He’s really terrible.

Gabriel said nothing but pointed up the stairs to where his wife was standing. Now that the hall-door was closed the voice and the piano could be heard more clearly. Gabriel held up his hand for them to be silent. The song seemed to be in the old Irish tonality and the singer seemed uncertain both of his words and of his voice. The voice, made plaintive by distance and by the singer’s hoarseness, faintly illuminated the cadence of the air with words expressing grief:

O, the rain falls on my heavy locks
And the dew wets my skin,
My babe lies cold …

— O, exclaimed Mary Jane. It’s Bartell D’Arcy singing and he wouldn’t sing all the night. O, I’ll get him to sing a song before he goes.

— O do, Mary Jane, said Aunt Kate.

Mary Jane brushed past the others and ran to the staircase but before she reached it the singing stopped and the piano was closed abruptly.

— O, what a pity! she cried. Is he coming down, Gretta?

Gabriel heard his wife answer yes and saw her come down towards them. A few steps behind her were Mr Bartell D’Arcy and Miss O’Callaghan.

— O, Mr D’Arcy, cried Mary Jane, it’s downright mean of you to break off like that when we were all in raptures listening to you.

— I have been at him all the evening, said Miss O’Callaghan, and Mrs Conroy too and he told us he had a dreadful cold and couldn’t sing.

— O, Mr D’Arcy, said Aunt Kate, now that was a great fib to tell.

— Can’t you see that I’m as hoarse as a crow? said Mr D’Arcy roughly.

He went into the pantry hastily and put on his overcoat. The others, taken aback by his rude speech, could find nothing to say. Aunt Kate wrinkled her brows and made signs to the others to drop the subject. Mr D’Arcy stood swathing his neck carefully and frowning.

— It’s the weather, said Aunt Julia, after a pause.

— Yes, everybody has colds, said Aunt Kate readily, everybody.

— They say, said Mary Jane, we haven’t had snow like it for thirty years; and I read this morning in the newspapers that the snow is general all over Ireland.

— I love the look of snow, said Aunt Julia sadly.

— So do I, said Miss O’Callaghan. I think Christmas is never really Christmas unless we have the snow on the ground.

— But poor Mr D’Arcy doesn’t like the snow, said Aunt Kate, smiling.

Mr D’Arcy came from the pantry, fully swathed and buttoned, and in a repentant tone told them the history of his cold. Everyone gave him advice and said it was a great pity and urged him to be very careful of his throat in the night air. Gabriel watched his wife who did not join in the conversation. She was standing right under the dusty fanlight and the flame of the gas lit up the rich bronze of her hair which he had seen her drying at the fire a few days before. She was in the same attitude and seemed unaware of the talk about her. At last she turned towards them and Gabriel saw that there was colour on her cheeks and that her eyes were shining. A sudden tide of joy went leaping out of his heart.

— Mr D’Arcy, she said, what is the name of that song you were singing?

— It’s called The Lass of Aughrim, said Mr D’Arcy, but I couldn’t remember it properly. Why? Do you know it?

The Lass of Aughrim, she repeated. I couldn’t think of the name.

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26 Responses to The Books: “Dubliners” – ‘The Dead’ (James Joyce)

  1. Jon says:

    Thanks, Sheila, for such great posts on “Dubliners”. How fitting, too, to have done them right as we move into Christmas, “The Dead” of course taking place then. Intentional? Coincidental? Either way, sad to see them go to the wayside…for now. But I think your comments about Gabriel’s raised consciousness at the end of the story are spot-on, putting me in mind of something that the late Richard Gilman wrote in his excellent book “Chekhov’s Plays” (Yale U press, ca. 1996). In discussing (I think) “3 Sisters” (particularly the character of Masha), he emphasizes Chekhov’s description of her as a “thoughtful” person–i.e., someone whose feelings have grown into a deep awareness of their meaning on both emotional and intellectual levels. In fact, I think at one point he even conjectures that Masha (in another life, in another set of circumstances) would have the makings to be the best kind of humanities-type professor (i.e., complex, compassionate, humorous, kind, whip-smart). And I think these notions apply in some way also to Gabriel Conroy–not because he isn’t already kind, compassionate or working professionally as a humanist (of sorts), but rather because in many ways, until he makes those realizations at the end of the story about what Greta’s experiencing and their implications (re: love, passion, illness, matrimony, mortality, nationality, universality, death, life, brotherhood of man, general snow…), he is “thoughtless,” a notion made all the more ironic given how much genuine feeling and sensitivity Gabriel still has had for his wife and others. It might be, as we see, slightly misguided feeling, compounded up by his critical/aesthetisizing impulses, but that’s not to say in any way, as you so rightly pointed out, that he’s a brute. A bit sentimental, perhaps, but hardly a vulgarian; and by the final paragraphs, those previously sincere sentiments of his are growing into an awareness of their deeper and less beautiful underpinnings, not only allowing him possibly to recognize true beauty in the future with more consistency (a skill that develops, of course, through great loss and pain), but also turning him into a more genuinely thoughtful person. Of course, in another character, such a realization could have the opposite (i.e., heart-hardening) effect. But as far as I can imagine, this isn’t quite what’s in store for Gabriel. Or his future life with Greta. Then again, that’s possibly beyond Joyce’s or the story’s concern. I think…
    Anyway, happy holidays, Sheila! Hope you’re doing something celebratory and fun (and, presumably, with your family).

  2. red says:

    //also turning him into a more genuinely thoughtful person//

    I totally think that is true. The tragedy in this story isn’t like the tragedy in, say, A Painful Case – where you know that only sadness awaits Mr Duffy for the rest of his life. It’s bleak.

    “The Dead” is bleak – but there is something redemptive there, too. Gabriel may have to live with the fact that he doesn’t have the passion in him like a Michael Furey did – he is more of a cool kind of guy – but he is at least connected not only to other human beings who are alive – but to all those who have gone before him. He has joined the human race, basically.

    And yes, I think if Gabriel had been painted as a ridiculous man – the story wouldn’t have worked. He has his little vanities, of course – like we all do. He has his moments where he feels superior to those around him, but then there are times when he is truly a part of the group (when he’s carving the goose). He is not perfect.

    He scorns Ireland a bit – thinks it provincial, and is proud of his continental leanings. In this, he is like Joyce.

    BUT. The last 2 pages … with its swooning healing vision of snow covering the land – the slow camera pan of the entire nation … the snow binding them all together … I imagine Gabriel will end up taking that trip to Galway with his wife, like she asked. And maybe she will visit Michael Furey’s grave, while he waits in the car. And maybe it will be okay that they are two separate individuals … that she loves another, and not him.

    It’s a complex thought, painful, bittersweet – we all, at some point, have to give up the dream of that perfect love.

    Gretta did so long ago with the death of her first love. Gabriel, who did not know about Michael, flattered himself that he was Gretta’s first – that he ‘saved’ her from the provincial rural existence that she must have hated … and it isn’t until the night described in “The Dead” – that Gabriel himself gives up his dream of perfect love.

    It’s just an amazing accomplishment, that story – I never get tired of talking about it.

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Jon – it means so much to me!

  3. Jon says:

    Perfect love? Maybe not. But I think 86% can still be pretty damn near-excellent. Or even 81%. I mean a “B”‘s a “B”–right? It’s not like Greta and Gabriel have a “C” marriage. Or worse: one with comments like “See me, please, after class” scrawled in the margins. And there are certainly less romantic places than the Aran Islands to take a trip to with your wife. I mean, can you imagine if Joyce were Mongolian? Greta could end up pining for some cemetery/oasis in the Gobi Dessert. Gabriel’s like: “Uh, no thanks honey, I’ll just wait in the lobby at the Ulan Bator Hilton for you. Take your time. Call if you get thirsty.”

    OK. Enough snark. The story is so crazily beautiful that I feel compelled to make nervous jokes in front of it. For shame….

  4. red says:

    Having been to Aran, I find them insanely romantic. Even with the bleak waves and rocks and the cold. But then I’m insane myself.

    But yes – I can so picture Gabriel having a stout in the lobby of the ‘Ulan Bator Hotel’ (HAHAHA) and looking at his watch while he waits for Gretta to return from her desert pilgrimage.

  5. red says:

    And yes, a perfect love may be only a thing for youth. But Gabriel – in his romanticisms, his idealism – has clung to the notion of it. Or – perhaps he never really looked at his wife before … not in the way he does at the end of the story. He stares at her tossed-aside clothes -the petticoat strings, and the bootlaces … which calls to mind nakedness, which makes him think of Michael Furey – and his wife, for the first time, as a separate being. Who IS she?? How on earth can you live side by side with someone and NOT know them?? Gabriel blames himself for that at first – he is ashamed of himself, he now sees how silly and boring he must have looked to her …

    HOWEVER; I don’t think Gretta did find him silly and boring. I never get the sense from her that she TOLERATES her husband, or endures him. She doesn’t loathe him. As a matter of fact, the first time she appears in the story – as a character – she laughs out loud at something her husband said.

    I can’t imagine that Joyce did that accidentally.

    We do not feel that the two are estranged – perhaps they take each other a bit for granted – they haven’t spent a night alone in a hotel in years … so there’s a feeling of a honeymoon about the night. Until she hears the song that reminds her, out of the blue, of her past.

    I think it takes her by surprise as much as it does Gabriel. She has probably not thought of Michael Furey in years. She has buried him in her mind. She’s not walking around “in mourning for her life” (speaking of Masha). She’s fine.

    So she, too, has become conscious and aware and alive – during the course of the story.

  6. red says:

    And I don’t mean she laughs AT Gabriel … it’s not a contemptuous laugh. He says something as a joke – and she laughs.

    That introduces her to us. it’s a warm introduction, and a warm look at marriage, I think.

    It would be quite different if our first meeting with Gretta involved her NOT laughing when her husband made a joke, or being prissy and irritable towards her husband.

    No. He makes a joke and she laughs.

  7. Jon says:

    How could anyone not find the Aran Islands romantic–precisely because of all its wind and wave? And those cliffs! I literally got on my hands and knees when I was still at least a hundred yards away from the edge, so certain I was going to be blown off into the water (to be saved by dolphins, no doubt). And then to come back to the inn at night, ready to be warmed by the fire and fish stew and Jameson’s. And hunkering down later under the comforter, all cuddly and soft, while the weather raged? If that’s not the kind night for someone to get pregnant (but in a non-Coal Miner’s Daughter sort-of-way), I’m not sure what is.

  8. red says:

    I forgot you had been out there!!

    Ahhhh. Yeah, that’s such a nutso coast!! Beautiful and savage. Dun Aengus! That’s that weird freakin’ midget-man fort out there, or whatever. Because we had to tromp thru the fields to get there thru cow dung – my sister and I referred to it as “DUNG Aengus.”

    We have no respect. But we were howling with laughter, I’ll tell you that.

  9. Brendan says:

    I have read this story only once. Must read it again. I’ve never seen the movie and have no plans to. I simply don’t want anything intruding onto my memory of it!

  10. red says:

    Bren – I know just what you mean. I felt that the movie was lovely and elegiac … one of John Huston’s tenderest films … but yeah, I was nervous to see it for the same reasons you say. The story is so delicate, so interior – the things that happen take place inside people’s heads!

  11. Bernard says:

    Sheila, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your commentaries.

    While reading “Dubliners” around this time last year I wondered if you might do a series on these stories. I had this romanticized idea that all your regular (and many sometime or new)readers would contribute their insights as well, and a fine time would be had by all. Ha ha, right?

    I haven’t anything to add to your assessment of Gabriel. His romanticism and idealism of love has kept him somewhat from the reality of his wife, but isn’t that just as true of Greta? Her remembrance of Michael Furey must necessarily be infused with impossibly romantic idealism. Not that you implied otherwise, but it may well be that hers will be the more difficult hurdle to clear. Unless, of course, Gabriel’s love is contingent on an impossibly romantic idealism. But I get the sense that it’s not, don’t you? He may never again see his wife the same way as before, but that may well be a good thing, no?

  12. red says:

    Bernard –

    It’s lovely to have a conversation with people who truly KNOW the books – rather than spend a whole post trying to explain WHY I love Joyce to snots who have a big chip on their shoulder about my literary tastes and wonder why I don’t write about the books THEY like. It’s so weird. I never look to another blogger to be MY voice. To express ME. But a lot of people (many of them no longer read me, they can’t take it) want ME to express THEM … so, to them, my blog is a lonely weird alienating place. Like: WHY isn’t she talking about what interests ME?? I FEEL SO RONE-RY!!!

    Poor dears. They’re seriously missing a couple screws.

    But the thing with Gretta is: we can’t know what is in her head. We never get in there with her. We can only know for certain Gabriel’s journey. She remains kind of a mystery, even to the very end. What her experience will be we can only guess at. Joyce always felt that way about women – but especially about his own wife, who never ceased to surprise him, and torment him, and delight him.

    I actually don’t see that Gabriel has a romantic ideal of his wife at all. He is almost like a man asleep – unaware, not really alive – sleepwalking – he has kids with her, he shares life with her – but it’s not like he has some romantic ideal of her that is somehow shattered by the revelation of her lover. It’s almost like he never even THOUGHT about her as a separate being from him (which may be a kind of romanticization) – He is on autopilot – concerned with issues of everyday life – and mainly, with himself … until suddenly, he sees her at the top of the landing. And for the first time … wonders what she might be thinking. He assumes it must be about him – he has no reason to believe otherwise … and so suddenly he feels lustful as a young boy again .. she looks beautiful to him.

    But then later in the story – as he watches her sleep – there’s some devastating line like: “He couldn’t pretend to himself that she was attractive anymore …” Basically that, with age – she has lost her allure.

    They will now become “shades” – age is coming, things will quiet down – the flames of youth – the brief burst of passion he felt for her will never come again.

    For some reason, I feel like Gretta will be fine no matter what. She is USED to being cut off, separated – she’s done it ever since Furey died.

    But I honestly don’t know what will happen when Gabriel and Gretta wake up the next morning in the hotel. It’s interesting to contemplate, isn’t it? Like what does a long-married couple talk about after a conversation like THAT?

  13. red says:

    Oh and thank you, Bernard – I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed the commentaries. I’ve enjoyed your feedback as well – I never get sick of discussing these stories!

  14. Bernard says:

    “He couldn’t pretend to himself that she was attractive anymore…”

    I know, that’s a devastating line. I’m not sure I picked up on that initially, but I remember thinking this time: That’s harsh.

    But somehow I can’t help but believe they will both be all right. Maybe they do have that talk the next morning and make plans to go away to the Aran Islands and everything turns out. At least there’s the chance now of something different, of a new kind of intimacy. Gabriel knows something of his wife he never knew before and, as you point out, sees her for the first time as a person separate from himself. And though they are both soon to be shades, maybe the realization of that inevitability is actually helpful.

    Or maybe he just becomes completely dispirited (hah, i made a pun) and, totally disillusioned, leaves.

  15. red says:

    Bernard – I get the sense that all may go on as before – except with a deeper understanding of and forgiveness of their particular failings. A true merging is not possible with these two – but it’s funny: through all of the story, Gabriel puts himself thru hell over his speech he’s going to make. He obsesses over it – and is self-conscious to the point of paralylsis. It’s like he can’t even deal with the fact that he may look “silly” to ANYONE. But at the end – with that vision of connectedness with the living and the dead – it’s like all of that falls away from him. He is at one with everyone – and when you truly feel that way, there is no reason to fear looking “silly”. We are all human.

    There’s that moment in the hotel room after she tells her story – and he glances at himself in the mirror – and feels self-hatred and disgust – like, he sees himself as he imagines his wife must have been seeing him all these years (again: he assumes that. We have no reason to believe Gretta ACTUALLY saw him as silly – There’s that moment I mentioned before when she first appears in the story, and she laughs heartily at something Gabriel said. I think Joyce was being very specific there – that’s how we meet her.) But anyway … maybe Gabriel will never again fear looking “silly”, will never again scorn his own reflection – all thru the story he has been outside himself looking in – he judges everything he does, pre-plans it all out so he won’t seem silly, etc. … And perhaps that nonsense will stop, now that he has had the revelation about his wife.

    He doesn’t end the story feeling betrayed by her – he ends the story in tears, visiting (in his mind) Michael Furey’s grave in the west. So I tend to think that the two of them will go on … perhaps with more awareness than before … It wouldnt surprise me if Michael Furey was never mentioned again (these people are, after all, Irish) – but that the story works on them like a benediction, invisible but there.

  16. Bernard says:

    Sheila–yes, I get that same sense of a new and deeper understanding leading to acceptance, peace, possible reconciliation. Gabriel is less full of himself at the end; what fills the void may make him a better person. I appreciate your explication of how throughout the story he watches himself at something of a distance, as being outside himself looking in, and how that interferes with his participation in life. That’s very true, but at the end he sees himself still at something of a distance, reflected in the mirror. And that can’t just be an idle observation, can it? Perhaps it is an irony of sorts that he experiences this awakening while readying for bed: Gretta broke free of him and “throwing her arm across the bed-rail, hid her face. Gabriel stood stock-still for a moment in astonishment and then followed her. As he passed in the way of the cheval-glass he caught sight of himself in full length, his broad, well-filled shirt-front…” He sees himself–perhaps as something of a stuffed shirt–yet still at a distance. But very soon he experiences a deflation of sorts. For the first time his view of himself is influenced by his knowledge of Gretta’s, and that is some difference.

  17. red says:

    Bernard = it is very interesting, isn’t it – that Gabriel is still outside of himself at the end of the story … and it goes thru some phases – like the moment you quoted – where he feels disgusted by himself because he sees himself as he imagines Gretta had seen him (although there is no evidence that she ever saw him in that derogatory manner – but again, our experiences are all subjective – we can only be in our own experience) – and it seems like maybe thruout the rest of the story when Gabriel is outside himself, trying to make an impression, worried about how Miss Ivors sees him, etc. – it’s a selfish way of being detached … whereas at the end, his detachment comes out of utter selflessness. It is that selflessness that enables him to move ‘westward’ over the country … and see the grave and the snow and all the ‘shades’ … Maybe true compassion comes out (in part) of a sense of detachment. There’s something very involved in that kind of attention and yet also – totally un-invested. It’s the human condition. We all share it. Gabriel will never be as OUTSIDE again as he was through the beginning of the story. he has joined the human race. Gretta was part of the human race all along – since she loved, lost – and joined that human continuum of grief … that somehow binds us together. Gabriel is now a man – a true man.

    Thank God he realized it before it was too late.

  18. 2007 Books Read

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  20. The Books: “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (James Joyce)

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  22. Pernilla Read says:

    You are right about the sacredness of the ending of “The Dead”. You can imagine my horror in stumbling over “renowned” Irish playwright Anne Pigone’s rip off “The Ugly” Read and weep –

    The dead and the ugly

    She laid herself flat-out on the bed so close to her husband that she could feel his warmth but not touching, and closed her eyes. Slumberous flakes of snow, silver and dark, fell over her body, Garett’s body, and all the sleeping and sleepless bodies of the Hotel Boulderado. It truly was snowing everywhere. Snowflakes from stars and moons everywhere falling like comets or dust or nothing. Falling on us all. Falling upon the beautiful and the ugly, the real and the counterfeit, the living and the dead.

  23. “O tell me all about Anna Livia!

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  24. Today in history: February 2nd

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  26. Pingback: Rejoyce. It’s Bloomsday. | The Sheila Variations

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