James Joyce

The Dead

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The Dead Summary

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“The Dead” is a short story by Irish writer James Joyce, the final one in his 1914 collection entitled Dubliners. While the rest of the stories in the collection are relatively short, at over 15,000 words, “The Dead” is almost long enough to be considered a novella. The story ruminates on themes of love and loss intermingled with a questioning of the Irish identity.

The story centers on Gabriel Conroy, a professor and part-time book reviewer. As the story progresses, Joyce explores the nature of the relationships Gabriel has with his family and friends. The narrative opens as Gabriel and his wife, Gretta, arrive late to a Christmas party at the Morkan household. Gabriel is an important guest as he is the Morkans’ favorite nephew and he is supposed to be serving as the master of ceremonies during this festive occasion.

In spite of their affection for him, it soon becomes clear that Gabriel is not without fault. Obviously bored by his country, his relatives, and his colleagues, Gabriel makes it clear in the ways he addresses the other guests that he feels a sense of superiority. Through his conversations and interactions with others, it becomes evident that Gabriel is just a little too proud of his education, and conducts himself in a manner that is foolishly smug and superior, although he does seem to be aware of his own social awkwardness at the same time.

Gabriel is confronted by Miss Ivors, who criticizes him for his lack of interest in Irish politics and for writing for The Daily Express, which she argues expresses viewpoints of West Briton rather and Ireland. In response to her criticism, Gabriel tells her that he is sick of his own country, preferring to travel to France or Belgium rather than the Aran Islands, which are an important location and symbolic of Irish nationalism. Gabriel’s response is so upsetting to Miss Ivors that she leaves before dinner has been served. Gabriel is aware that he has upset her, but it seems to be his nature to offend people without meaning to.

The encounter with Miss Ivors weighs on Gabriel for the rest of the evening. When he recounts the incident to his wife, she tells him that she has been longing to revisit her childhood home of Galway, which makes Gabriel feel worse. While the rest of the guests seem to be having a fine time, chatting and dancing, Gabriel retreats into himself, thinking of the snow outside and the fact that he is supposed to deliver a speech shortly.

Gabriel delivers his speech without offending anyone. He extols on the warmth of Irish hospitality, referring to Aunt Julia, Aunt Kate, and Mary Jane as the Three Graces. This seems to please everyone at the table, and they end the speech with a toast before singing “for they are jolly gay fellows.”

As the party is winding down, the guests begin to disperse. Gabriel searches for his wife so that they, too, can take their leave. He finds her standing at the top of the staircase, seemingly lost in thought. She is hypnotized by the voice of Bartell D’Arcy accompanied by Miss O’Callaghan at the piano, singing a traditional Irish tune, “The Lass of Aughrim.” Gabriel is moved by the beauty of his wife, and imagines her as a painting, envisioning her perfect features displayed on a canvas.

Gabriel is looking forward to spending the night in a hotel with Gretta, as it has been a long time since they have done something like this together. He recalls the intimate moments of their courtship and starts to feel the flames of desire burning anew inside of him. When he and Gretta depart for the hotel, he feels that they are on a kind of adventure, having escaped the mundanity and duty of their daily lives.

However, as Gabriel is fantasizing about the romantic evening ahead, he is completely oblivious to the emotional state of his wife. The reality is that, hearing Bartell D’Arcy singing “The Lass of Aughrim” had a kind of transportive effect, reminding her of her childhood up in Galway, along with Michael Furey, a boy she was in love with who died at seventeen of a broken heart when Gretta left Galway to move to Dublin.

When his wife tells him about the dead Michael Furey, Gabriel reassesses their relationship, his own petty vanity, and his self-image. He is frustrated and deeply disappointed. He is forced to realize that his wife experienced a deeply felt romantic loss that had nothing at all to do with him. Gabriel feels at a loss as both a writer and a human being, for he has not felt the same depth of emotion that Gretta describes when talking about Michael. He mourns for his own flawed existence, feeling incomplete.