Sincronía Winter/Invierno 2001

“The Dead” 

Gemma Hayman


“The Dead” falls into the section of stories of public life in Dubliners[1] and contains many autobiographical and historically true elements, including the social conflict regarding Irish identity that characterised turn of the century Dublin.  Indeed, one of the most important tensions at the heart of the story comes with the idea of nationalistic feeling, embodied in Miss Ivors and to which Gabriel is hostile and ambiguous, embracing those qualities and conditions in his country which tend towards European (continental) civilisation rather than celebrating the untamed heritage of his country, as Richard Ellman has pointed out:

 During most of the story, the west of Ireland is connected in Gabriel´s mind with a dark and rather painful primitivism, an aspect of his country which he has steadily abjured by going off to the Continent.  The west is savagery; to the east and south lie people who drink wine and wear galoshes.[2]

The fragile and even decaying state of this Irish society may be seen exemplified in the party at the Misses Morkan’s house, which whilst not an accurate microcosm of Ireland given that not all social strata are represented, nevertheless brings to the fore tensions and faults at the heart of the community which not even the conviviality and social superficialities of the occasion can conceal.  These tensions and strains with their echoes of the social situation in Dublin undoubtedly provide a valid and useful tool in which to unfold the text and will form the basis of this study of Joyce’s story, which due to its brevity will endeavour to concentrate on the text, rather than enter into lengthy and complicated explanations of the historical situation.


One important tension is revealed in the dichotomy between tradition and modernity. The Aunts themselves have created their own tradition with the occasion of the Christmas party: It was always a great affair, the Misses Morkan’s annual dance (p. 199) and with it therefore come certain established codes of conduct and embedded attitudes.  Mary Jane’s suggestion that they serve apple sauce with the goose for example, is rejected by Aunt Kate on the grounds that they have never had it before, so there is no need to introduce now (p. 225). Their life revolves around the small circle of friends and family gathered for the party, and new or different ideas have little impact on them, as is shown in Aunt Julia’s inability to fully appreciate the concept of the European continent, from where Gabriel has acquired his habit of wearing goloshes: “O, on the Continent”, murmured Aunt Julia, nodding her head slowly.  (p. 206)

More revealingly, however, are the tensions and points of conflict that quite obviously emerge between the guests at the party, which in itself starts off badly. 10 o’clock comes and the Aunts’ beloved nephew Gabriel has not arrived, and the fear that Freddy Malins, the “bad boy” of the circle might turn up screwed plays on their minds as a potential, uncontrollable embarrassment and risk to the success of the party in the eyes of the other guests: They would not wish for worlds that any of Mary Jane’s pupils should see him under the influence;  and when he was like that it was sometimes very hard to manage him.  (p. 200)  The question naturally arises as to why they had invited him in the first place and the answer is to be found in the twinned ideas of tradition and “keeping up appearances”: the concession has to made.  It can be seen in fact, that many “obstacles” are faced and concessions granted, as is shown in the first two pages alone.  Lily is very busy and would not have time to see to everyone: It was well for her she had not to attend to the ladies also. But Miss Kate and Miss Julia had thought of that and had converted the bathroom upstairs into a ladies’ dressing-room (p. 199, my emphasis) Later we hear that they have a good standard of life despite not being particularly well-off:

Though their life was modest, they believed in eating well; the best of everything: diamond-bone sirloins, three-shilling tea and the best bottled stout.  But Lily seldom made a mistake in the orders, so that she got on well with her three mistresses.  They were fussy, that was all.  But the only thing they would not stand was back answers.  (p. 200, my emphases)


Freddy Malins a terrible fellow (p. 211) is not the only guest to cause moments of discomfort and to whom concessions are obviously granted.  Mr Browne fails to impress the ladies and makes them uneasy with a misjudged comic remark:

His hot face had leaned forward a little too confidentially and he had assumed a very low Dublin accent, so that the young ladies, with one instinct, received his speech in silence.  Miss Furlong, who was one of Mary Jane’s pupils, asked Miss Daly what was the name of the pretty waltz she had played; and Mr Browne, seeing that he was ignored, turned promptly to the two young men, who were more appreciative.  (p. 209) 


Miss Furlong is precisely one of the people whom the Aunts were fearful of Freddy offending which rather than stemming from a genuine desire to protect her from awkward situations,  could well be because she brings money into the house – an economic, rather than social preoccupation.

Other characters also cause annoyance. Gretta describes Mr Bartell D’Arcy as full of conceit [3] (p. 217), his refusal to sing until the end of the evening procures general consternation (p. 214) and his brusque explanation that he has a cold leaves everyone speechless. (p. 241)  Miss Ivors creates a scene with Gabriel[4] and offends her hostesses with her early departure;  Mary Jane for example, taking it as a personal insult, with a moody puzzled expression on her face (p. 223).

Other moments of disquietude arise with more subtlety when attention is paid to the actual words and tone Joyce uses: the piano has to play the prelude twice before everyone is ready to dance (p. 209); Aunt Kate wrings her hands in despair that Gabriel is not ready to carve the goose (p. 223); Bartell D’Arcy protests at not paying the cab (p. 246) and many conversations are interrupted throughout the story; for example that about Lily (p. 206); Freddy Malins’ premature explosion of high-pitched bronchitic laughter (p. 211) at his own story, and his interruption of Gabriel’s “Johnny the horse” anecdote (p. 237). 

The scene at the dinner table is key in highlighting the tensions and imbalances that exist between the characters.  Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia refuse to relax  still toddling round the table, walking on each other’s heels, getting in each other’s way and giving each other unheeded orders. (p. 225); and the conversation reaches many awkward moments, for example in Freddy Malins questioning why a black tenor cannot have a good, authentic, voice: Nobody answered this question and Mary Jane led the table back to the legitimate opera.  (p. 227).  Mr Browne’s questioning the talent of present-day opera singers in the presence of Mr Bartell D’Arcy (p. 227) smacks of knowing insensitivity and the talk centring on the monks on Mount Melleray and the fact they sleep in coffins, leads to the socially-taboo topic of death and the end of the conversation: As the subject had grown lugubrious it was buried in a silence of the table...(p. 230)

Further “fault lines” and tensions emerge when we examine some of the techniques employed by Joyce in the story.  Many linguistic contradictions, often approaching oxymorons, are woven into the text which expose or suggest underlying strains in the narrative.  Such an example comes with the party contemplating the weather: “I love the look of snow” said Aunt Julia sadly.  (p. 242, my emphasis).  An interchange of sensorial notions also occurs, shown with Mr Bartell D’Arcy’s explanation of his inability to sing: “Can´t you see that I´m hoarse as a crow?”  (p. 241, my emphasis). Other counterpoints emerge with Gabriel silently watching his wife inside the house whilst from outside filter in sounds of laughter and gaiety, and the juxtaposition of the warm, seemingly affectionate, and stifling atmosphere of the dining table with that of the piercing morning air which enters the house (p. 235).  The most revealing examples however, are manifest in the character of Gabriel; whose importance Levenson has alluded to: The attempt to construct a stable self-identity from within a radically unstable community is the acutely painful spectacle that Joyce plays out through Gabriel Conroy.[5] It is Gabriel who most strongly embodies the social discord of the tumultuous period of Irish history in which the story was written and set, as Levenson continues: Gabriel bears internally the stresses and conflicts of an unresolved Irish nationality.[6]  These strains appear inwardly, revealed to us by the fact that his observations colour the story and it is he who is subject to the deepest level of characterisation, and are exemplified in the clash between his feelings of superiority and insecurity.

From the outset we see a certain pompous self-regard in Gabriel’s manner and a belief in his social and cultural supremacy over the other guests.  His manner is condescending towards Lily, not only outwardly, but internally.  Through the close alignment of the narrator with Gabriel, we are privy to his patronising thoughts as well as actions,  as shown in his amusement at Lily’s pronunciation of his name:  Gabriel smiled at the three syllables she had given his surname and glanced at her. (p. 201) He believes himself to be in a social ranking even above his own family and thus cannot even show his cousin the courtesy of paying attention to her performance:

Gabriel could not listen while Mary Jane was playing her Academy piece[...] He liked music, but the piece she was playing had no melody for him and he doubted whether it had any melody for the other listeners, though they had begged Mary Jane to play something.  (p. 212)


He does not notice his wife’s presence when they are dancing, so self-absorbed is he (p. 217), and after his painful confrontation with Miss Ivors he regains his composure and pompous (if false) attitude by pretending to listen to Mrs Malins whilst privately ruminating on Miss Ivors in a condescending manner and endeavouring to dismiss her importance and point of view:

While her tongue rambled on Gabriel tried to banish from his mind all memory of the unpleasant incident with Miss Ivors.  Of course the girl, or woman, or whatever she was, was an enthusiast, but there was a time for all things. (p.  217)


He continues in this vein by questioning her sincerity: Had she really any life of her own behind all her propagandism?(p. 219) and spontaneously adding a section to his pre-written speech aimed specifically at her in referring to the changing values of traditional Irish people exemplified in his aunts.  The fact that it is his own sincerity and hypocrisy which needs examining does not even cross his mind and he is capable of referring to his aunts, if only privately, in a telling, rude and dismissive way, far from the affectionate and apreciative sentiments expressed in his speech:

The generation which is on the wane among us may have had its faults, but for my part I think it had certain qualities of hospitality, of humour, and of humanity, which the new and very serious hypereducated generation growing up around us seems to lack.  Very good that was one for Miss Ivors.  What did he care that his aunts were only two ignorant old women? (p. 219)


Despite his nerves over the delivery of the speech, Gabriel takes his seat boldly, and  finds the attention placed on himself welcome:  He felt quite at ease now, for he was an expert carver and liked nothing better than to find himself at the head of a well-laden table. (p. 225) and the speech itself forms a key moment in the narrative and exposes Gabriel’s isolation.  A false, routine preparation and a gradual silencing sets it up, in mirroring the expectant atmosphere in the room and textually narrowing the action down to focus on Gabriel:  The Misses Morkan, all three, looked down at the tablecloth.  Some one coughed once or twice, and then a few gentlemen patted the table gently as a signal for silence.  The silence came and Gabriel pushed back his chair and stood up. (p. 230)

Before he begins to speak he hears the skirts sweeping against the drawing-room door (p. 230) which serves to reassure his sense of superiority – the movement of the dancers at this point has come to signify and fuel his own aplomb – and despite a reference to his  inadequacy and poor powers as a speaker (p. 231) he proceeds to manipulate his audience through physical gestures and the technique of repeating Ladies and Gentlemen, and refer to his own cosmopolitanism by mentioning his visits abroad (p. 231)  The absence of Miss Ivor injects him with confidence, as she is the only one capable of criticising  him (p. 232), and he delivers his speech in an assured manner which includes a substantial amount of personal references to himself for such a social occasion as is the annual dance:  I can only ask you tonight. . .  lend me your attention. . .  while I endeavour. . .  my feelings. . . I feel more strongly. . . my experience. . . to my mind. . . I trust. . . of one thing, at least, I am sure. . . I wish from my heart. . .I believe. . . if I may use the phrase. . . I fear. . . it seemed to me, I must confess. . . I will not linger on the past. . . I will not let. . . what shall I call them?. . . I will not attempt. . . I will not attempt. . . task[...] beyond my poor powers. .  .. when I view them. . . I consider. . . I confess. . . I do not know. . .  (pp. 231 – 234)

Gabriel’s self-satisfaction and superiority extend even to his relationship with his wife, whom he considers only on his terms; for example on seeing her on the stairs he cannot fully define what impression his wife has on him in that pose, and yet that is how he would paint and so represent her:  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.  (p. 240)  Therefore he does not fully know her (as is later revealed, for example, when they are alone in the hotel room.)

Despite the constant suggestion of his superiority, it would be erroneous to suggest that Gabriel is not even partially aware of its hollowness and indeed at times he is particularly vulnerable to feelings of self-delusion and insecurity, which contrast strongly with his brash manner, as we see on examining his moments of self-doubt.

Whilst believing himself to be innately superior Gabriel is nevertheless embarrassed at his insensitive and badly-judged remark about whether Lily will get married and the curt response he receives:  Gabriel coloured, as if he felt he had made a mistake and, without looking at her, kicked off his goloshes and flicked actively with his muffler at his patent-leather shoes.  (p. 202)  His confidence in himself is therefore not rock-solid.  Thus, he is still smarting some minutes later, as he waits to enter the drawing-room and effectively make his entrance to the party: He was still discomposed by the girl´s bitter and sudden retort.  It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel by arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie.  (p. 203) For Lily to have such an effect on him would surely suggest that she has touched a particularly sensitive spot of his personality, has unearthed deeper insecurities and revealed a weakness in him.  He consequently attempts to gain back his superior standing, drawing on his surroundings, in this case the sounds of the party, to reassure himself that he is of a higher social position than the other guests: 

He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers [...] The indelicate clacking of the men´s heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his.  He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand.  (p. 203)


He had already noted the noises of the dancing whilst in the pantry (p. 202), associating the sound with the vision of Lily, who at that particular moment is carrying out one of her servant and thus “inferior” duties: 

He looked up at the pantry ceiling, which was shaking with the stamping and shuffling of feet on the floor above, listened for a moment to the piano and then glanced at the girl, who was folding his overcoat carefully at the end of a shelf. (p. 202) 


He feels different, and as a result loses faith in his ability to be able to communicate with the others:  He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry.  He had taken up a wrong tone.  His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure.  (p. 204)  His fear drives him to seek reassurance, for example in reminding himself that although his mother had no musical talent (like the Misses Morkan) Aunt Kate used to call her the brains carrier of the Morkan family.  (p.  212) 

Another important scene in the story takes place with the confrontation or cross-examination, ordeal with Miss Ivors. (p. 214) in which she questions his nationalism and renders him virtually speechless. Miss Ivors herself embodies the Irish nationalist cause and the first description of her suggests an earthy (through the colours she wears), plain (through her style of dress) and blunt (the way in which she expresses herself) woman and is therefore presented in strict contrast to Gabriel:

She was a frank-mannered, talkative young lady, with a freckled face and prominent brown eyes.  She did not wear a low-cut bodice, and the large brooch which was fixed in the front of her collar bore on it an Irish device and motto.  (p.  213)


Maybe it is precisely her strength which unnerves Gabriel, or maybe it is her adherence to the Irish Nationalist movement, with which he cannot or does not identify, but either way, he loses his composure, is confused about the concept of West Briton:  A look of perplexity appeared on Gabriel´s face. (p. 214), and does not know how to handle the situation, being unable to verbosely save face and deflect unwanted attention away from himself in the manner to which he is accustomed:  He did not know how to meet her charge.  He wanted to say that literature was above politics. But [...] he could not risk a grandiose phrase with her.  (p. 214)  The fact that the attack on him for showing no interest in his own country comes in dialogue form, enhances the directness of the accusation to which Gabriel has no answer and can only feebly try to dodge away and close the subject:  Irish is not my language. I´m sick of my country, sick of it! (p. 216) In an effort to stem further confrontation, he avoids Miss Ivors’ eyes and after the dance is over, he retreats to a remote corner of the room (p. 216): a physical equivalent of the grandiose phrase. 

            Such is the impact of the confrontation, it takes Gabriel a while to recover, he feels wounded:  She had tried to make him ridiculous before people, heckling him and staring at him with her rabbit´s eyes.  (p. 217) and is consequently offish with Gretta over her wish to go to Galway (and therefore sympathise with Miss Ivors) and the blow to his self-esteem prompts him into worrying about his speech again (p. 218)  The speech preoccupation disappears however, whereas his hostility towards Galway,and the west of Ireland, with its evocations of Irish tradition and culture lies dormant until later when Gabriel and his wife are alone in the hotel room and it rears its ugly head for one more decisive time. 

This scene with Gretta in fact juxtaposes Gabriel’s insecurity with his superior feelings and acts to conclude the story with a rendering of his splintered yet particular individuality: the scene marks the move from Gabriel and the disunified society to the harmonious universal.

The close identification with Gabriel continues from the earlier parts of the story, and indeed shifts into a almost “stream of consciousness gear” in which we are aware of his thought process: the capturing of certain, old ideas, fuelled by the events of the evening,  which spark off fresh ones, in a  precursor to the technique heavily employed in Ulysses:

He longed to recall to her those moments, to make her forget the years of their dull existence together, and remember only their moments of ecstasy.  For the years, he felt, had not quenched his soul or hers.  Their children, his writing, her household cares had not quenched all their souls’ tender fire.  In one letter he had written to her then he had said:” Why is it that words like these seem to me so dull and cold? Is it because there is no word tender enough to be your name?” (p. 244)


 The words are how their lives have turned out and we see a repetition of dull and  tender.  He continues, using his allusion to Distant Music earlier in the night and, carrying himself away with his own romanticism/eroticism, plans his seduction technique, assuming he will dominate the situation:

Like distant music these words that he had written years before were borne towards him from the past.  He longed to be alone with her.  When the others had gone away, when he and she were in the room in the hotel, then they would be alone together.  He would call here softly: “Gretta!” Perhaps she would not hear him at once: she would be undressing. Then something in his voice would strike her.  She would turn and look at him...  (p. 244)


Gabriel wants to believe that they have run away together – for his own benefit (p. 247):  he is sexually exciting himself (albeit mentally) and yet so far they have exchanged very little physical or spoken contact for Gretta to have a real, active input in the relationship; she is a therefore a mere passive figure: 

He could have flung his arms about her hips and held her still, for his arms were trembling with desire to seize her and only the stress of his nails against the palms of his hands held the wild impulse of his body in check. (p. 246)


When she will not relinquish himself to her, and he is unable to dominate and control her, he gets increasingly frustrated, yet still he cannot express himself,  and a stark contrast is revealed between the innate, brute physical passion that he feels and the banal, quotidian words that he expresses: He longed to cry to her from his soul, to crush her body against his, to overmaster her.  But he said: “O, at Christmas, when he opened that little Christmas card shop, in Henry Street.”  (p. 248)

It takes the revelation of Gretta’s love for Michael to calm his passion, and indeed force him to examine himself and his humiliation of the fact.  He has spent the evening, and indeed we assume, his life, elevating himself to a position of social and cultural superiority and is cut down by the figure of a dead boy, to whom he has no control over.  Does he here see is life as a sham? It could be so: 

A shameful consciousness of this own person assailed him.  He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealizing his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught  a glimpse of in the mirror. (p. 251) 


All of Gabriel’s insecurities flood out and he does not even recognise himself in a  subjective glance towards the mirror -  his own expression puzzles him. (p. 249).  The awareness of his self-delusion and emotional sterility and the knowledge that Michael Furey  was at least authentic and genuinely passionate, reaches its culmination with the epiphany-like realisation that someone else has shown Gretta true love, whist he cannot:  

A vague terror seized Gabriel at this answer, as if , at that hour when he had hoped to triumph, some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world  (p. 252).


At this point Gabriel “discovers” Gretta, and she emerges from the background of the text - we hear her speak properly, as an individual and not as part of Gabriel’s baggage; she acquires her own identity, embracing exactly the country cuteness (p. 213) which Gabriel has tried to deny and take control over. Henceforth, Gabriel relinquishes any claims, whether sustained or false, to superiority and begins a move towards a more general human identification than that which he has previously shown.

The totalising move to the universal embraces not only Gabriel’s personal inconsistencies , but those of his nation, of Ireland.  Reducing the story down to one single image, stemming from Gabriel’s sleepy contemplation of the evening’s events,  serves to heighten its powerful and all-encompassing effect: 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.  (p. 255). The snow has the ability to transcend all social boundaries and conceal all signs of strain. Whether this be as a unifying or suffocating force is to be debated; what is clear is that the social tensions, evident at the level of characterisation in the story, and exemplified in Gabriel,  duly disappear.


[1] JOYCE, James. Dubliners. Penguin Books: London. 1996. All quotations of the story refer to this edition.

[2] ELLMAN, Richard in ...(p. 379)

[3] could his name be inspired by Austen´s character in Pride and Prejudice?

[4] this scene will be examined later in the paper

[5] LEVENSON, Michael in JOYCE, James.  Dubliners - Text and criticism, Edited by Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz. Penguin Books: New York.  1996. p. 432

[6] op.cit. p. 430

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