“His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead.”

James Joyce’s Short story “The Dead”

I read this story as part of my 2011 short story reading project (one story per week, 52 total for the year; I’m a little behind but have been catching up).  Like many of us, I find James Joyce somewhat tough going so it was not without some trepidation that I drew the Ace of Clubs from my random story selection generator – i.e. a standard deck of playing cards.   I checked the length and groaned a bit when I discovered it to be 38 pages. Ugh.  The story is from his collection, The Dubliners, published in 1914

****Warning: The following contains Spoilers****

This story took awhile to pick up speed – for me, at least. Most of the “action” takes place at a dinner party held by sisters Kate and Julia Morkan.  At the party we are introduced to many of the guests – and their shortcomings – (e.g. Freddy Malins, the man who drinks too much). We also learn that the ladies are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Gabriel Conroy, their nephew.  From their anticipation, we assume Gabriel is a kind of rock that “holds things together” for the ladies at their parties.

If you’re somewhat introverted, like me, parties like the one described are often exercises in tedium and social discomfort.  In fact, reading the story was also a bit of an exercise for me early on.  Eventually, though, we learn that Gabriel too is of this ilk. Though able to successfully navigate the social obstacle course such parties present, it seems he too would “rather be somewhere else.”

When an acceptable time to leave finally arrives, he is more than ready, as he has begun to feel a rekindled passion for his wife: “She seemed to him so frail that he longed to defend her against something and then to be alone with her.” After they make their escape and journey back to their lodgings he “… pressed her arm closely to his side, and, as they stood at the hotel door, he felt they had escaped from their lives and duties, escaped from their home and friends and run away together with wild and radiant hearts to a new adventure.”

His flames of passion are doused, however, when he learns that the origin of her odd mood, which is at least partially the cause for his heightened passion, is that a song from the dance at the party has recalled to her mind the memory of her first love, a young man who essentially “died for love of her.” Gabriel is hurt since, “while he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another.”

Gabriel takes the realization of her true feelings fairly well, all things considered, and becomes reflective on his life and their lives together, musing as he lays down beside her in bed that “One by one, they were all becoming shades.  Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”

I liked the story. Although the first 75% or so was pretty tough going, the payoff of the last six pages or so was very well worth it.  Apparently, there is speculation in the world of literary criticism on whether “the dead” in the title of the story refers to the actual dead, or to the living, who are as Gabriel says, “becoming shades…” I’m not sure. What about you, have you read any James Joyce? Have you read this story? What do YOU think of him (or it)?

(Author James Joyce)

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3 Comments

  1. Melody said,

    October 11, 2011 at 11:06 am

    I read this story under the wrong circumstances, in that my expectations were sky high. Also, I think that I was expecting the wrong kind of ‘wow’ from Joyce, so I was disappointed.

    Like you, I found the party to be somewhat uncomfortable, but when Gabriel started hyper-focusing on his renewed passion, I knew [from experience] that he was in for it. Any time such large emotions are based largely on your own thoughts rather than interaction and communication, the outcome must be a letdown. Reality can rarely live up to the worlds we create in our minds.

    So I was expecting the story to go a step beyond the one it did. I am planning on reading it again (it was one of the novellas I didn’t read in August. Apparently it rides the line between short story and novella??) and am interested to see if I react differently.

    The last sentence is one of my all-time favorites though: “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.”

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  2. Jay said,

    October 24, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    The more I think about this story, the more I decide I really like it. Maybe it’s one of those that takes a while to germinate before you can truly appreciate it. I recall a similar experience when I read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by the same author. The more I thought about and revisited it, the more I appreciated its value.

    Your second paragraph is so true. I suspect almost everyone falls I to that trap at one time or another (some of us repeatedly). I think that’s partly why literature appeals to many – in our social interactions with others in the real world, we never know (to a certainty, anyway) what others are thinking. In good books, thanks to an omniscient narrator, we often do…

    -Jay

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  3. July 22, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    […] My recent reading also included two stories by James Joyce, both from “The Dubliners.” One, “The Boarding House,” didn’t do much for me, being the “standard fare” of the daughter of a boarding house owner being compromised by one of the boarders and the natural attendant consequences. The other was better. Titled “A Little Cloud,” it deals with a reunion of two friends who had grown up together but had, at the time of the story, been separated for quite awhile. One had gone off and “made a name for himself” while the other has settled into a traditional life. The traditional life friend feels some jealousy and envy of the one who went off to seek his fortune. This was kind of an analysis of the concept of “the grass is always greener” that I thought was very well done. I enjoyed neither of these stories as much as I did “The Dead.” […]

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