“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)