What Meaning do the Dead have in James Joyce´s "The Dead"?

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2013

10 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Structure

2. The Dead
2.1 Background of The Dead
2.2 Content of The Dead
2.3 Interpretation of The Dead

3. What meaning do the dead have in James Joyce´s The Dead?

4. Literature

1. Structure

Before, while and after reading The Dead by James Joyce one question seems omnipresent – not least because of the title: What connection does the narrative have to the dead? This question yields another one, namely “What does that mean?”

In order to approach these two questions appropriately and to reach epistemically satisfying conclusions, I propose a simple structure which allows us to consider the issues in question. Firstly, we will look at three elements of the storyline: The environment, the people and most importantly Gabriel. Each element will be investigated concerning its role and meaning for the whole story and as to how appropriate connections between elements could be drawn. Following this, we will be able to rank the elements in regards to their importance with reference to the answers to our initial questions. Obviously Gabriel is the most important element and hence will help us best to deliver answers to our questions. Therefore we must take a closer look at him.

I will argue that Gabriel is the key element in answering the first of our initial questions. The whole narrative culminates in the end, when Gabriel realized that he was only a substitute for the deceased Michael Furey – the early love of his wife Gretta, if not the love of her life.[1]

The answer to the second question is that the special circumstances which generate a paradoxical[2] connection are nothing more than the inflexible and rigid attitudes of people who interact with their surroundings and cause them to be rigid and uniform.

2. The Dead

2.1 Background of The Dead

The Dead was written in spring 1907 and is the last of 15 stories making up Dubliners. Dubliners is a collection of short stories, which were written between 1904-1907 and reflect on four main topics, i.e. childhood, adolescence, maturity and public life.[3] In contrast to the other stories in Dubliners, The Dead could function as an epilogue because it combines the four main topics of Dubliners in one story and thus anticipates Joyce´s move away from writing short stories to novels.[4]

2.2 Content of The Dead

The substance of The Dead is the gathering of guests at Julia Morkans house to celebrate

the annual Christmas party, which the elderly sisters Julia and Kate Morkan organize every year. Among the guests there is Molly Ivors, who does not want to reconcile with the collective oblivion of Irish history and the origins of the Irish language and is therefore very patriotic. A distinguished guest is Bartell D´Arcy, a famous but retired tenor. Mr. Browne is the only Protestant guest at the party. Another guest, Freddy Malins, is an alcoholic and a good friend of Gabriel Conroy, the protagonist of The Dead. Further noteworthy characters are Mary Jane Morkhan, a niece of the Morkhan sisters, who gives music lessons, and Lily their maid.

All the guests belong to Dublin´s middle class and their conversation revolves around daily things like local incidents, cultural and religious issues as well as political matters.

Shortly after Gabriel and his wife Gretta have arrived at the party, Gabriel talks disparagingly about Lily´s marriage prospects.[5] In general he displays a very condescending attitude and behaviour towards people of whose he thinks that they are inferior to him – and these are almost all – except for Miss Ivors. During a heated discussion with Miss Ivors, it becomes clear, that Gabriel´s position is much too cosmopolitical for Miss Ivors, whose position is indubitably a nationalist one. The conversation turns into a dispute, which culminates in raptures of Gabriel in the statement: “I´m sick of my own country, sick of it![6]

At about the midpoint of the narrative, Gabriel holds a speech in which he encourages the audience – even if it is hard – not to let straining thoughts and bad memories from the past overshadow the here and now, but to live in the present and look ahead into the future. This self-satisfying speech is a conceited sermon that addresses the whole group and appears to the reader very dogmatic. At the end of the party, when most of the guests have left the party, the tenor sings a song which affects Gretta in a curious way.

After the party, Gabriel and his wife Gretta go to a hotel to stay the night there. Gretta tells Gabriel a story about a young man, Michael Furey, who had sung the same song as the tenor but only because of his love to her. However before Gretta had to leave Dublin the fatally ill Michael Furey visited her and wanted to say goodbye to her. Gretta knew that he suffered from consumption. She dismissed him. Short time after that the young boy died. Now she becomes conscious of that mistake and begins to cry. Gabriel searches for a reason why Gretta is still so affected by this situation and realizes, that for their entire marriage he has been a substitute for a seventeen year old boy, who died once. After this “epiphany” Gabriel feels how much he loves Gretta. The story has an open end and closes with the sentence:


[1] See Joyce, 1914, pp. 2197-2197 lines 1215-1349.

[2] A paradox (gr. pará=against and doxá=opinion) is a phenomenon which makes you think: This issue can not be true, but it is true! It is a prima facie non-sense sentence, but in fact it is not only possible, but also real and hence (in special circumstances) true. Take for example the sentence: “The last will be the first!”

[3] See Bulson, 2006, p. 35.

[4] See Bulson, 2006, p. 35.

[5] See Joyce, 1914, p. 2173f lines 72-75.

[6] Joyce, 1914, p. 2180 line 402f.

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What Meaning do the Dead have in James Joyce´s "The Dead"?
Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg
Arts and Humanities
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what, dead, james, joyce´s
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Marcus Gießmann (Author), 2013, What Meaning do the Dead have in James Joyce´s "The Dead"?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/233033


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