An analysis of the short story 'The Dead' by James Joyce

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2000

26 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

I Opening remark

II Introduction
1. About the author James Joyce
2. The collection of short stories Dubliners
3. History and summary of The Dead

III Analysis
1. General assumptions on The Dead and the main character Gabriel Conroy
2. Politics and religion in The Dead
3. The author’s use of epiphany
4. Linguistic level of The Dead

IV Concluding remark

V Bibliography

I Opening remark

Dubliners is a study on human behaviour, human values and communication. The book describes and brings to life the city of Dublin, the hometown of James Joyce, at the beginning of the twentieth century. The collection is a mix of social realism and literary imagination. Each of the 15 stories is set against a background of real names, streets, shops, pubs and icons. It also comes alive through the biographical references to Joyce’s life. That is the reason why I decided to place the biography of James Joyce before my analysis in this paper.

I chose the story The Dead because it seems to stand out of the short- story collection Dubliners. The Dead had not been composed when Joyce divulged that the course of the collection must be seen under the loose- knit general plan of a human lifecycle: childhood, adolescence, maturity and public life. The story also stands out of the collection because of the story’s length, tone and positioning in the book. It was the last story he wrote for Dubliners in 1906/ 07, when he had already left Ireland. Before that, it was obvious that Joyce was very sceptical of the Irish Renaissance and the Irish literary revival, although the revival´s outstanding poet, W. B. Yeats, influenced Joyce’s writing in the first years. He felt Ireland’s future lays within the European intellectual and cultural community. Joyce became increasingly impatient with Ireland’s parochialism and turned toward Europe, he and his wife Nora moved to the Continent. Now a change of attitude towards Ireland and Dublin, manifested in the story The Dead, can be observed. He wrote his brother Stanislaus in a letter the whole collection of Dubliners would be incomplete without this new feelings toward his hometown. The author’s view is not only desperate and without prospect, “it has softened” [Joyce, 1991; p. 47]. The stories in Dubliners can be read on two levels. First, as straight forward realistic tales about everyday failure and disappointment of growing up children, humiliated women and men who drink too much. According to Joyce it is brought about by the British political domination and the nationalistic counterbalance in Ireland, also by the Roman Catholic church and the tyranny of spiritual and bodily Dogma, another burden for the common Dubliner. Stephen Dedalus says in the opening chapter of the novel Ulysses“I am the servant of two masters ... an English and an Italian” [Schwarz, 1994; p. 3]. The country is also destroyed or paralysed by provinciality and conformity.

The second level is the symbolic one, dealing with universal human nature and the transcendence of particular people. I think especially the second level is highly recognisable in Gabriel Conroy, the main character of The Dead, another reason why I try to examine the story from different analytic points of view. I compare the characters of the story to the biography of James Joyce throughout the analysis to show up that this story, as well as many other of his writings, especially his auto- biographical novel A Portrait of the artist as a young man, is very much drawn upon Joyce’s life. Another significance I found out is the importance of politics and religion in The Dead. The author criticises the role of religion and politics at the beginning of the twentieth century in Ireland, one of the reasons why Joyce turned his back on Dublin. Another dimension of my analysis will be the linguistic level, the writing style of the story, the language and the change from realism into symbolism. The image of snow is a very important one for the understanding and interpretation of The Dead, for example. I will also focus on the final part of the story, the struggle of Gabriel and Michael, caused by Gabriel’s wife Gretta, whose past sets free an important and overwhelming epiphany in Gabriel. Originally an epiphany is a religious term, meaning a manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles in person of the Magi. But Joyce’s idea of art as religion gives a secular and aesthetic meaning to the term epiphany, namely the mental, moral and spiritual uplift of a character. This influences not only the development of the main character of the story toward life and passion, it helps to understand The Dead and Dubliners as a whole as well. I try to analyse these epiphanies, very important to Joycean analysis, in the story. There are two central epiphanies in The Dead. Gabriel’s, which begins when he hears his wife talk of her love Michael Furey in the last part of the story and Gretta’s epiphany after she hears the song The lass of Aughrim. I will mainly concentrate on the epiphany of the main character Gabriel Conroy.

In the fourth part of my paper I will try to combine the results of the different analytical points to draw my final conclusion of The Dead, although the careful reader has to come to the insight that it is impossible to come to one final and valid interpretation of the story, which many Joycean critics also point out.

II Introduction

1. About the author James Joyce

James Joyce was born on February 2, 1882, in the town of Rathgar, near Dublin, Ireland. He was the oldest of ten children, the son of the well-meaning but financially inept father John Stanislaus Joyce and his solemn, devout mother Mary Jane Joyce. With each new child John Joyce was forced to mortgage another of his inherited properties until there was nothing left. Despite his predicament, John remained a witty man. He often used his wit to undermine that which was bothering him at the time, whether it was the church, the government or his wife’s family. This distinctive trait would also be adopted by his son James in later years.

Although their financial situation was precarious, his parents managed to save enough money to send their talented son to the Clongowes Wood College, a prestigious Jesuit school, but when the family was no longer able to pay the tuition fees, he was withdrawn in June 1891. Instead, James Joyce was enrolled in the less-expensive Belvedere College, where he excelled as an actor and a writer. Here he began to read European literature, discovering the works of Henrik Ibsen, Dante and others who would remain his literary idols for life. This period is also significant, however, since this was the first time that he was separated from his supportive family for any length of time. The rigorous Jesuit training he received appears to have been a turn off to the young Joyce and surely added to his growing contempt of the Catholic church. This anticlericalism was also influenced by his father, who constantly complained about the church and the clergy. This was a sharp contrast to Irish society at the time which was, for the most part, very devout. On the side, it is also interesting to note that John Joyce’s frequency of appearance in his son’s books is only second to the appearance of James himself. In the short story The Dead the main character, Gabriel Conroy, represents some characteristics of his father as well as features of the writer himself and other persons. This demonstrates the influential role which John played in his son’s life.

After Joyce graduated from Belvedere in 1898 he attended University College in Dublin, where he became increasingly committed to language and literature. In 1902, Joyce left the university, and moved to Paris, but he returned to Ireland for the funeral of his mother in 1903. Shortly after his mother’s death, Joyce began to work on the story that would later become A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Published in serial form in 1914-15, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man draws heavily upon details of Joyce’s early life. Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist is in many ways Joyce’s fictional double. Like Joyce himself, Stephen is the son of an impoverished father and a highly Catholic mother. Like Joyce, he attends Clongowes Wood, Belvedere, and University College, and like him, he struggles with questions of faith and nationality before leaving Ireland to make his own way as an artist.

After Joyce met the love of his life, Nora Barnacle, in 1904 they left Ireland once more and moved to Triest in October 1904. This self- imposed exile from his homeland begins one of Joyce’s most significant literary topics, his relationship to his home- country. This year was also a significant one for his career as a professional writer, because he began writing the short stories that would be put together as Dubliners. The publishing was accompanied by controversy. Though Joyce completed it in 1907, publishers were nervous about its frank depiction of the Irish lower classes and its satirical assault on actual living persons. Joyce was unable to see it into print until 1914. At the time Dubliners was written, Ireland was in a deep political riot following the death of Charles Stuart Parnell, the Nationalist political leader who had rallied much of the country in support of Irish independence from Britain. After Parnell was caught in an affair with a married woman, he was disgraced and died. After his death Ireland was left reeling, sharply divided between Protestants and Catholics, Conservatives and Nationalists. James Joyce felt exhausted, emptied out, and numbed in his native city, and after he and Nora moved to Austria, Joyce set out to expose these qualities in the stories of Dubliners, hoping the book would give the Irish “one good look at themselves.” [Reichert/ Senn/ Zimmer, 1969; p. 81]

Although Joyce turned his back on Dublin and returned only two times throughout his life, his hometown remained a special place for him. The relationship found brilliant expression in The Dead, the last and longest one of the short story- collection Dubliners. In my analysis of The Dead I will illustrate this relationship later on in the paper.

After completing Portrait of the Artist in Zurich in 1915, Joyce returned to Paris, where he wrote, over the course of the next several years, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. These works will not find much space in my analysis, because they are written after The Dead.

James Joyce died in Zurich on January 13, 1941 of an ulcer.

2. The collection of short stories Dubliners

The stories collected in Dubliners are short and focused windows into the lives of a wide variety of men, women, and children of Joyce’s hometown Dublin. They create a whole world with an economy of detail and a remarkable descriptive precision. Unlike many of his most famous works, Dubliners contains no stream- of- consciousness writing, an attempt to mirror the thoughts of characters and to capture their mental states stylistically. Instead, Joyce achieves his hard look at his characters through clear, uncompromising, detached prose. The stories in Dubliners are remarkable not only for their recreation of Dublin in the early years of the twentieth century, but also for their brilliant understanding of human character in its moments of revelation, a state of mind the author used to call the moment of epiphany. The book follows the lives of typical Dubliners who search in vain for happiness, who live out their frustration and desperation through others and who bolster false images of themselves to be even more hurt when those images are deflated, often in a moment of epiphany. Joyce’s intention was “to write a chapter of the moral history of my country” [Joyce, 1991; p. 11] and he offers the reader a general plan for Dubliners by revealing that he had tried to present Dublin under four aspects, childhood, adolescence, maturity and public life. From Joyce’s experience Dublin is “the centre of paralysis” [Joyce, 1991; p. 11]. Dubliners is his expression of how paralysis progresses from numbing childish wonder and hope, produced by disillusion and limitation, leading to entrapment and the failure to escape this life as an adolescent and the fixation of mature characters in an unsatisfying life- routine. In public life, paralysis in the Dublin society is exposed as inert, treacherous and deceitful. The critic Chiselin pointed out that Dubliners deals with a variation of stasis- action- images in the directional symbolism. Moving eastward generally represents youthful attempts to escape life in Dublin, immobility at the centre of the city and the frustration of mature characters. Movements toward west represent a drift toward death of the elderly. I have to add, that Joyce’s imagery follows the traditional Irish view that associates life with dawn and the east and death with twilight and the west.

3. History and summary of The Dead

I pointed out before that the short story The Dead was the last one to be composed for the collection, when Dubliners has been already finished. Along with Dubliners it was first published in 1914. The Dead is the longest story in the book and differs from the other fourteen stories due to the positioning as the last one of the cycle, the length and the tone of the story.

One night around Christmas time, Gabriel Conroy, a young writer with gilt- framed, “nicely polished looking- glasses,” [Gilbert, 1957; p. 63] goes with his wife Gretta to the Christmas dance held at the home of the Misses Morkan, his aunts Kate and Julia and their niece, Mary Jane. A cheerful chaos reigns at the old women's house, with Lily, the caretaker's daughter, scampering about, and Gabriel’s aunts worrying whether Freddy Malins will turn up drunk. A piano plays in a parlour full of dancing couples. Gabriel tells his aunts that on account of the cold, he and Gretta will be staying in a hotel nearby rather than returning home that night. Gretta laughingly confides to the old women that Gabriel has made her wear galoshes to the party and that he makes their son Tom lift dumbbells. The women laugh merrily, which annoys Gabriel. Freddy Malins arrives slightly drunk but not disastrously so. Gabriel goes downstairs to check on him, and Freddy heads towards the parlour to talk to the gregarious Mr. Browne. The group assembles to listen to Mary Jane play a difficult piano piece, and Gabriel’s mind wanders to his mother, who had opposed his marriage with Gretta and described his wife as a country cute. Gabriel remembers how Gretta still nursed his mother through her long and ultimately fatal illness.

The group in the parlour pairs off for dancing. Gabriel finds himself dancing with a young woman named Miss Ivors, who inexplicably becomes cross with him because he writes reviews for the Daily Express. An Irish Revivalist, she asks sharply if he is a West Briton. Then, she seems to be joking, but sometimes she seems serious. Gabriel is baffled and reflects that he has never had any trouble with Miss Ivors before. Gabriel goes to talk to Freddy Malins’ mother, who is visiting from Glasgow. Gretta materialises to ask Gabriel if he will cut the goose.


Excerpt out of 26 pages


An analysis of the short story 'The Dead' by James Joyce
University of Flensburg  (Englisches Seminar)
Literature, Culture and Politics in Modern Ireland
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Dead, James, Joyce, Literature, Culture, Politics, Modern, Ireland
Quote paper
Thorsten Klein (Author), 2000, An analysis of the short story 'The Dead' by James Joyce, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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