Wednesday, October 31, 2012

James Joyce's Dubliners: The Dead

In the final story of Dubliners, Joyce captures some of the beauty, romance, and hospitality of Ireland.  While previous stories, including "Eveline," "The Boarding House," have been very critical of Ireland's society, "The Dead" depicts some of the best of Ireland's culture. In an ironic contrast to its title, "The Dead" ends with a powerful moment of understanding and hope.

The story opens with the Misses Morkan's annual dance. The Misses Morkan are musicians and music teachers, two elderly maidens, Kate and Julia, and their younger niece, Mary Jane. The older ladies are eagerly awaiting the arrival of their nephew, Gabriel.  When Gabriel arrives, he tries to chat with their servant, but when he gently teases her about getting married, she replies bitterly, discomforting him.  This brief scene establishes one of the key themes of the story--that Gabriel has difficulty understanding women and perhaps seeing them fully.  When the women he meets refuse to conform to his expectations, Gabriel becomes awkward. Still, the party bustles, as women take turns performing at the piano and people begin dancing.  While Mary Jane is performing a complicated piece of music that Gabriel can't follow (another oblique reference to his lack of understanding?), he idly examines the pictures on the wall, including one of his mother and him when he was a child.  He reflects that he is successful because of his mother, but at the same time he resents her for disparaging his wife, Gretta.

The party divides into partners for country dances, and Gabriel finds himself partnered with Miss Ivors, a "frank-mannered talkative young lady" who wears an "Irish device and motto," indicating her strong patriotic views.  She immediately confronts Gabriel for writing a column for The Daily Express, a British newspaper, calling him a "West Briton" and implying he isn't a true Irishman.  Gabriel is confused--he does not understand why she objects to his column, which he loves writing.  But he is unable to find the right words to say to her; instead, she pities his confusion and tells him she's joking. Still, Gabriel continues to make mistakes with Miss Ivors--when she asks him to go on a trip with her and a group of friends to the Aran Isles, he confesses he's instead arranged a cycling trip in France or Germany.  Miss Ivors continues to press Gabriel, accusing him of knowing nothing of his own language, Irish, or his own country.  Finally, he bursts out that he's sick of Ireland, although he's unable to tell her why when she asks.  She whispers "West Briton" at him as they part ways.

Just as Gabriel is confused and uncomfortable around women, because he doesn't really understand them, it's clear he is uncomfortable in Ireland.  He learns languages like French but does not know Irish.  Is he ashamed of being Irish? Or is it that he just does not understand or fit in Ireland?

When his wife Gretta asks the argument with Miss Ivors, he denies the strife between them, but admits he refused to go on a trip to West Ireland with her.  Gretta, who had lived in Galway, excitedly encourages him to go on the trip, explaining that she'd love to see Galway again.  Gabriel instead tells her she may go alone.

As the party sits down to dinner, Gabriel carves the goose amid a lively conversation, and gives a toast to his aunts for organizing the dance.  He compliments Ireland (a rarity in Joyce), saying that the "country has no tradition which does it so much its hospitality," and praises his aunts and cousin as "the three Graces of the Dublin musical world." His speech gets a round of applause, and the guests sing "for they are jolly gay fellows" in honor of his aunts.

After the supper, guests gradually begin leaving.  As Gabriel waits for Gretta to gather her things, a tenor sings an old Irish song, The Lass of Aughrim. Gretta seems captivated by the music, and Gabriel finds himself more drawn to her, feeling "a wave of...tender joy [escape] from his heart." Back in their hotel room, he finds himself lusting passionately for her. When she comes to him, he asks her what she was thinking. Again, Gabriel finds himself startled by a woman--his wife had not been thinking of him, as he supposed, but about the song they had heard earlier.  She tearfully confesses that a boy she once knew used to sing it for her.  At first, Gabriel is jealous, but he calmly asks Gretta for the rest of her story.  She reveals that the boy had loved her so passionately, that when she went away to a convent for school, he had died for her.  This news leaves Gabriel ashamed and taken aback.  He knows his own love is not powerful enough to make him die for Gretta, and his lust feels pitiful beside the great sacrifice her previous lover made.  But to his credit, Gabriel does not descend into bitterness or jealousy.  Instead, as Gretta sleeps, he realizes that she had kept a image of her other lover locked away in her heart.  He thinks about the inevitable mystery of death.  At the beginning of the story, Gabriel was constantly confused, by finally, he begins to think deeply, and possibly grow as a human being.  His heartfelt compassion for his wife and her dead lover gives the reader hope that their love will grow and deepen from the night's revelations.

"The Dead" ends Dubliners on a powerful note of potential.  Although Joyce depicted paralysis in his previous stories, Gabriel's compassion and growth reflect the hope and beauty that Joyce still sees in Ireland.

Blog posts for James Joyce's Dubliners:

"The Sisters" and "An Encounter"

"After the Race" and "Two Gallants"

"A Little Cloud" and "Counterparts"

"Clay" and "A Painful Case"

"Ivy Day in the Committee Room"

"A Mother"


Blog Posts for James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Blogs for James Joyce's Ulysses: 

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