Epiphany and Revival in The Dead
James Joyce was born in Dublin, he was the most prominent writer of English prose in the first half of the twentieth century. Many critics maintain that his verbal facility equaled that of William Shakespeare or John Milton, and his experiments in prose as a virtuoso redefined the limits of language and the form of the modern novel.
The Dead, the final story of Joyce's collection Dubliners, is considered one of the most beautifully executed stories in the English language and the culmination of Joyce's critical and ironic portraits of everyday life in turn-of-the-century Dublin. Joyce conferred on it the honor of the final position, and made it three times as long as the average length of the tale in Dubliners. When Dubliners was first published, it was only considered a volume of naturalist fiction, reflecting the repressive social milieu of Dublin at the turn of the century. It was overlooked in favor of Joyce's later, innovative works, such as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Ulysses (1922), and Finnegans Wake (1939). In the ensuing years most critics have recognized that Dubliners has a greater significance, and subsequent studies have focused on the symbolic significance, structural unity, and autobiographical basis of the stories. Particularly, critical interests in The Dead have remained intense in recent decades. Scholars debate the thematic importance of this final story in the volume, especially its presentation of Gabriel's spiritual awakening. Overall, The Dead is thought the masterpiece of Joyce's most accessible collection of work.
The Dead takes places on the religious feast at the holiday party of Julia and Kate Morkan, the spinster aunts of Gabriel Conroy. Gabriel is a teacher and literary reviewer, who prefers continental culture to that of his native Ireland, and arrives at the party with an attitude of disdain for the provinciality of his aunts and their guests, although he keeps his thoughts largely to himself. His pomposity and self-centeredness appear in his several encounters with the other guests, including Miss Ivors who playfully rebukes him for his loyalties to England as a reviewer for The Daily Express, and calls him a "West Briton". Gabriel mistakes this banter as a personal attack, and attempts to redeem himself by his annual speech before the gathered attendees. Near the end of the party, Bartell D'Arcy, a noted tenor in attendance, sings an old Irish song, The Lass of Aughrim. Later, after returning to the Hotel Gresham, Gabriel tries to talk with his wife, Gretta, who is a beautiful woman from the west of Ireland. Distracted from the conversation, Gretta is haunted by the song, which has reminded her of her former lover. Gretta reveals that many years ago she knew a young man, who was named Michael Furey, worked in the gasworks. Afflicted with consumption, Michael Furey died after leaving his sickbed on a rainy night to keep vigil outside Gretta's window on the eve of her leaving Galway for Dublin. Gretta tells Gabriel, "I think he died for me." Gabriel becomes aware of his own pettiness after contemplating himself in a mirror, and realizes that he has never loved his wife as Michael Furey did. At the end of the story, Gabriel looks out the window of his room and watches the snow; "His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."
The Dead is a story of epiphany that occurs to the protagonist. In Greek mythology, epiphany referred to the unexpected manifestation of the divine, and in Greek drama it was used to describe the sudden appearance of a god on stage. Christianity appropriated the term for liturgical purposes to commemorate the day that the Magi brought gifts to the Christ child. But Joyce uses the word with a new meaning: it is the sudden revelation of the spiritual in the actual. At that moment, the soul of the commonest object seemed radiant. In The Dead, the story ends upon with a moment when the theme in the story finds a sudden convergence. Through the character's thoughts, words, or actions, the readers are immediately gripped by a realization; through epiphany, the deepest emotions: self-hatred, vanity, disillusionment, paralysis and regret are brought into focus. Though epiphany means a sudden spiritual manifestation, it does not imply that the epiphany is something that comes all of a sudden. The formation of an epiphany is a gradual process, it takes the protagonist hard experience and long deliberation. When the epiphany does come, it appears as a flash of light. In The Dead, as the story develops, our readers can come nearer to what the author wants to convey in the story and find out the implication in the epiphany.
However, The Dead is a story whose theme often causes debates. Some claim that it is a paralysis of the whole city, even whole Ireland; others argue that it is about psychological paralysis of Gabriel, the male protagonist in The Dead. Besides the debate on its theme, there is another debate on the implications of snow. The meaning of the snow in some essays refers to the pall or even shroud of the dead covering Ireland; in others, it represents universal cleansing, bringing expanded consciousness and renewed life to all upon whom it falls.
Yet these critics fail to see the fact that the symbolic connotation of the snow changes as the story develops. At the beginning of The Dead, snow symbolizes something that is hostile to human; but at the end of the story, snow is the symbol of Gabriel's escape from his ego into the larger world of humanity. By extension, the snow is a symbol of life and hope, conveying message of spring and predicting a bright future for Ireland. It is unlikely that the snow in the last paragraph of the story symbolizes death. Although the snow is general over Ireland, it will quickly melt after winter. The melting snow can be considered as the subtle changes of the hero, whose cold conceit has disappeared. Thus, the melting snow is a baptismal symbol, and it implies the renewed life not only to Gabriel, but also to all the dead who lie here. And Gabriel's swoon is a symbolic death from which he will rise revivified. It sounds horrible and ridiculous that death falls on the dead and all over Ireland.
"Death" seems pervasive in The Dead: physical death; death of relationships; dead attempts at communication; death of hope and aspirations. As we know The Dead in Dubliners possess a universal significance: characters in the stories are symbolic of all people in Ireland. To say everyone is dead in the story could mean all are dead in Ireland. It sounds like a cursing phrase. As a man who is much concerned with the fate of his own country, Joyce is not likely to long for death. Therefore, the statement that everyone in The Dead is dead or Gabriel's longing to be alone in the snow is the longing for his death does not hold water. The Dead is not a horror story, but a moral history of Irish people. In The Dead, Joyce wishes to present a truthful picture of Dubliners' delusion, disappointment, and frustration; and he also wants to wake up the indifferent public from the spiritual paralysis. Therefore, it runs contrary to Joyce's intention to say that all characters die in this story.
Yet debates have been focused on the statement: "The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward." Those who argue for the theme of death cited the statement again and again in defense of their arguments. As an inseparable part of The Dead in Dubliners, "going west" should be interpreted in the context rather than in an isolated sentence. At the party, Gabriel, as a partner, dances with Miss Ivors, who is critical of Gabriel as a reviewer to The Daily Express, a newspaper under British influence. Gabriel rejects Miss Ivors's criticism. When Miss Ivors invites Gabriel to visit Aran Isles, a group of islands of the west coast of Ireland, Gabriel declines. When Miss Ivors suggests that he keep in touch with the Irish language, Gabriel denies that Irish is his mother tongue. But later in the story, Gabriel undergoes some changes after some frustrations. He has a new sense of his identity. He comes to realize that it is time for him to go west, which can be considered as a clear acceptance of Miss Ivors' invitation to visit Aran Isles. Those who argue for the theme of death made a mistake by separating the sentence from considering the whole context of the story.
While rejecting the statement that everyone is dead in The Dead, we should consider The Dead as Joyce's study of interrelation between the living and the dead. Interrelationship of the dead and the living also appear in The Sisters and Ivy Day in the Committee Room. In these stories, the central agitation derives from a character who never appears, who is dead. The dead cast greater influence than the living on characters. Joyce once said that death was the highest form of life. This statement is highly philosophical. To Joyce, death is an important link in life-death-life circle. In the ancient mythology there were stories of phoenixes which died in great fire and reemerged from ashes.
In The Dead, there are a lot of references to end. The story takes place in winter which is the end of a year. The story, as the last one in Dubliners, is an end. Gabriel's egotism reaches the end when he finds his wife's secret love for her lover. Aunt Kate, whose face is like a shriveled red apple, will come to a natural end. Unlike the permanent cessation, Joyce's end is immediately followed by a new start. Joyce's theory of history was somewhat similar to Yeats's, in that it was circular. So, his idea of end followed by a new start is supported by his belief that history follows a circular, spiral pattern consisting of long circles which repeat themselves over and over again.
For Joyce, getting to the heart of Dublin is a way of getting to the heart of every city, because the particular contains the universal. Joyce successfully universalized the place and the characters in Dubliners by portraying Dubliners' fantasies, frustrations and epiphanies. The mental frustrations Joyce depicted in Dubliners linger on and people today still face this kind of problems. Therefore, Joyce's Dubliners continues to be enlightening in exploring the mental state or mental crisis of modern people. As the finale of Dubliners, The Dead provides the readers a kind of conclusion and an implied future of Dubliners' paralyzed mental state. Joyce once claimed that his aim of writing Dubliners was to compose a chapter of his country's moral history and this was the first step of his country's emancipation. Obviously, Joyce wanted to wake up the Irish people, and pushed them to have a full understanding of their situation. In a word, The Dead serves as a successful epilogue to previous stories in Dubliners, implying the bright future for Dubliners in a controlled way.
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