Many people in society feel alienated from the world and separated from their fellow man while others try to find meaning which escapes them. In James Joyce's "The Dead," Gabriel Conroy faces both these problems and questions his own identity due to a series of encounters that lead him to an epiphany about his relationship to the world. This epiphany grants him a new beginning. Gabriels progression from one who feels disconnected to one who has hope parallels Joyce's changing view of Ireland, from finding it to be a place of inaction to one where again hope and beauty thrive.
In "The Dead" Gabriel Conroy and his wife attend a party thrown annually by two of Gabriels aunts. Gabriels experiences at this party focus attention on the futility and meaninglessness of his life. The conversation is mostly about people who have died and how they seemed to have been forgotten by the party guests (Magalaner, 223). This affects Gabriel, making him consider how his accomplishments will survive his own demise. The definitive lack of anything meaningful in the discussion at the party also disturbs Gabriel. Joyce demonstrates the "failure of politics, religion, and art to provide any meaningful outlet for the impulses that glimmer through the party" (Werner, 58). Even the man playing the piano is producing "pretentious sound without substance" (Walzl, 236). The atmosphere of the party causes Gabriel to become insecure and introspective.
During his aunts party, Gabriel also sees his own incapacity for action. This party happens every year, but instead of viewing it as "tradition," Gabriel just sees it as helpless "repetition" (Chambers, 100). Ironically, Gabriel tells the story of a horse that hopelessly circles a statue in Dublin. The story is meant to symbolize Gabriels own existence that seems to be an endless cycle where everything continually repeats itself. Further supporting Gabriels feeling of being a part of a dead society is his need to become closer to nature throughout the story. He quickly grows tired of the party and wants to go outside into the snow. When he firsts enters the party "ironically the lights within seem to illuminate a society that is stuffy and dead rather than warm and alive, and Gabriel soon longs for the cold fresh air which seems to represent the vitality of nature." (Walzl, 235-236). To Gabriel, nature and the world outside the party exhibit life; while his fellow party goers begin to seem lost to him.
Gabriels fragile ego is revealed by his introspective soul searching every interaction at the party. His first encounter is with the maid, Lily. When he asks her if she is planning to get married anytime soon, Lily becomes angry at his intrusion. This encounter "cast[s] a gloom over him which he trie[s] to dispel by arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie" (Joyce, 2174). Instead of wondering why she might be upset, he considers the incident only from his point of view. He wonders what he did to upset her, whether he used the wrong tone, and how this interaction affects him. He does not talk to her to genuinely learn about her, but only to make meaningless conversation. His ego prevents him from understanding she has her own life (Daiches, 227). This slight from Lily, however, has very little long-term impact on Gabriel; the reader actually learns more about Gabriel than Gabriel does about himself.
Gabriel further confirms his insecurities during his conversation with a fellow teacher, Mrs. Ivors. She questions him about secretly writing for a rag that brands him as a West Briton or an anti-nationalist. Then she asks if he would like to accompany her and some of her friends on a trip to western Ireland. When he turns her down, she attacks him for being ashamed of his nationality. Gabriel concedes this point when he says, "Im sick of my own country, sick of it!" (Joyce, 2180). When Mrs. Ivors questions Gabriel about his allegiance to Ireland, he does not understand why he becomes so angry. Gabriels anger is the result of his lack of an identity of which he is proud, or even of which he is sure. This is another flaw in his character which he gradually begins to perceive.
Gabriels character is also demonstrated by his constant need for approval. This is seen in the great joy he feels after giving the speech at the dinner party. Even if he does not truly respect certain people, such as his aunts, their approval gives him a great deal of confidence. However, the speech is only a momentary victory for his ego and he soon reverts to the insecurity that plagues him through most of his interactions with the other characters (Becker 25-26).
Gabriel finally realizes at the end of the story after a discussion with his wife, Gretta, how extremely self-absorbed he is. Prior to this, Gabriel wonders what "a woman [his wife] on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music" symbolizes (Joyce, 2192). At this moment Gabriel views his wife not as a person but as a mere object. He does not see his wife as alive, with feelings and thoughts; he does not really understand her. "He never acknowledged her spirit, her identity as a person; he knows only her body" (Tate, 204). Gabriel comes to this conclusion on his own after Gretta tells him the story about a boy she used to love. He realizes that his wife has had a life all her own, one that he was not part of, and it dawns on him that he may not even be part of her life now (Daiches, 228).
A continuing device in the story is the mirror which Gabriel uses to evaluate himself. The mirror that had once reflected one of societys better people now shows Gabriel the truth; he is "a ludicrous figure, acting as a penny boy for his aunts, a nervous well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts" (Walzl, 237). Gabriel has finally come to the conclusion that the image he puts forth to the rest of society is worthless because he really has no connection with any individuals, including his wife.
The epiphany that follows these revelations shows Gabriels final progression from being utterly self-absorbed to reconnecting with humanity. The snow used in describing the epiphany is said to fall "general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hill" (Joyce, 2199). The snow serves to demonstrate Gabriels new connection with the rest of humanity. "Beneath [the snow], Gabriels selfishness is smothered and his personality may emerge anew" (Magalner, 224). The presence of melting snow also recalls baptism, signifying Gabriels renewal and the beginning of a new life. His epiphany has other religious significance. The mention in the final paragraph of thorns and spears suggest Christs sacrifice and resurrection, which parallels Gabriels rebirth at the end of the story. Also, the name "Gabriel" is the name of the archangel of the Annunciation, heralding the birth of Christ. All of these religious allusions suggest that Gabriel is experiencing his own symbolic resurrection. Tied in with this is the archetype of moving westward, symbolizing a new beginning; just as Gabriel says he wants to "journey westward," he wants to start over (Walzl, 238-239).
Gabriel shows for the first time at the end of the story that he cares about his wifes emotions and spirit; that he cares in a way beyond the superficial. Finally beginning to see her as a separate human being signals an important transformation. Upon hearing about Michael Furey, the lover from Grettas past, Gabriel questions whether he has ever loved his wife in the way Michael Furey loved her. The despair he demonstrates upon hearing about this other part of her life is a revelation of his love for her (Eggers, 36). Besides confirming a new beginning for Gabriel, the end of the story also shows his depth and complexity as a person.
Gabriels progression in the "The Dead" parallels Joyces own shifting views of Ireland. "The Dead" is the only short story in Dubliners written after Joyce left Ireland for a few years. Like most of the stories in Dubliners, The Dead strongly criticizes Irish society, but unlike most of the other stories protagonists, Gabriel comes to see hope for himself at the end of the story. Joyce uses Gabriel to demonstrate how dead he thought the people of his country were and their inability to do anything important with their lives. Joyce, like Gabriel, is someone who questions the paralysis that grips Ireland. After his time away from his native land, Joyce realized that Ireland was not as hopeless as he originally thought (Walzl, 235). Joyce came away from his experience of self-imposed exile in the same manner Gabriel ended the story: believing that hope existed for humanity and for ending the malaise in Irish society.
In "The Dead" Gabriel Conroy moves through a night filled with introspection that leads him to see the flaws in his own character. In the end, the epiphany Gabriel experiences reveals his complexity as a human being, allows him new union with his fellow man, and finally, a new beginning. Due to this experience, one would think that Gabriel could overcome the flaws in his own character and be able to thrive as an individual, just as Joyce was able to do in his flawed society.
Becker, Virginia M. "Gabriel Conroy and Closure in Dubliners." Diss. Florida Atlantic University, 1991.
Chambers, Ross. "Gabriel Conroy Sings for His Super, or Love Refused (The Dead)". Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. Rpt. in Modern Critical Interpretations. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. 97-119.
Daiches, David. "Dubliners." The Novel and the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960. 63-82. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Shiela Fitzgerald. Vol. 3. Detriot: Gale, 1989. 224-228.
Eggers, Tilly. "What is a Woman a Symbol Of?" James Joyce Quarterly 18 (1981). Rpt. in Modern Critical Interpretations. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. 23-38.
Joyce, James. "The Dead." The Norton Anthology of English Literature 8th ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, M. H. Abrams. New York: Norton, 2006. 2172-2199.
Magalaner, Marvin, and Richard M. Kain. Joyce: The Man, the Word, the Reputation. 1956. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Shiela Fitzgerald. Vol. 3. Detriot: Gale, 1989. 216-224.
Tate, Allen. "Three Commentaries: Poe, James, and Joyce." The Sawnee Review Vol LVIII (1950): 1-15. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Shiela Fitzgerald. Vol. 3. Detriot: Gale, 1989. 203-204.