Summary of "The Dead" by James Joyce
by Christoph Champ, 18-May-1999
The Dead has an eloquent simplicity in its design. The images flow so easily that you don’t expect it to affect you as powerfully as it does. The story’s musicality enfolds you, pulls you into its world, and into the rhythms of its period. Reading it, you’re momentarily swept away, and the experience – like the experience of anything great in art – Is rapturous, consuming, sublime (or inspiring?).
Joyce tells his story through the gradual buildup of sensuous detail. And the narrative, which traces the course of a single evening sometime in the winter of 1904 at a party in the home of the sisters Kate and Julia Morkan and their niece Mary Jane, is told as naturally as if it were being recited from memory.
The narrative begins with a shot of the Morkans’ town house in Dublin as the guests bustle out of the snow and into the foyer (or lounge). Immediately, the effect is that of emerging from the cold and being plunged into an atmosphere of cozy domesticity and warmth. Upstairs, Aunt Julia and Aunt Kate go about inquiring after their guests and receiving their compliments. The Morkans’ party, as seems to be implied, is a yearly gathering of Dublin intellectuals, musicians and cultural lights, and as the characters make their entrances, we see that for years the sisters have functioned as the official center of the city’s cultural world.
Each of the characters is well known to the others, and their roles in the group have become well established over time. The members of the party emerge as affectionate comic portraits.
The atmosphere is that of a big, gregarious (or sociable) family, with each of the members taking a turn entertaining the guests, telling a joke or a story or sitting down at the piano. The richness in this, the feeling one gets of a tightly knit family that is very unified, is a pleasure to read and brings back memories of my own family reunions as a child.
The character of Gabriel, who reviews books for the British paper (and gets chided for his ‘unpatriotic’ behavior by one of the guests), seems to be Joyce’s vision of himself as a middle-aged failure, as the artist who lingered in the comforting glow of the Morkans’ residence and withered away.
Gabriel is the self-conscious center of the story. We see the events of the night, and the characters’ actions, through his eyes; we feel the mixture of disdain and regret that Gabriel feels.
Gabriel can’t help but see himself as superior to the endearing small-towniness (for lack of a better word) of his friends. Gabriel hates the dullness of this backwater (middle-of-nowhere) place and longs to be elsewhere, where new ideas are breaking.
Gabriel’s resignation (or passivity, patience) deepens as the night progresses. As he does every year, he delivers a speech after the extravagant and elegant dinner is served, praising the three hostesses – whom he christens “the Three Graces” (1600) – as examples of Ireland’s greatest virtue, its hospitality, and the rhetorical boasting that he gives his words isn’t all empty show. He realizes that his performance is truer than he thinks that he is connected to this world.
This realization fills Gabriel with an overwhelming, indefinable longing, and we can feel the emotion welling up within him. It comes to a climax in a moment of almost unnatural stillness. As Gretta and Gabriel are leaving, a voice from an upstairs room is heard singing “The Lass of Aughrim” (1604). Gretta stops immediately on the stairs to listen, as does Gabriel, and the look he sees on his wife’s face is not one he recognizes; she seems transfigured, lost in the music, and in Gabriel’s eyes, she has never been more alluring (or desirable).
In that moment, Gabriel is drawn to his wife as never before, but it is unlikely that he has ever been less in her thoughts. Could it be that this was Joyce alluding to the impossibility of any real union between man and woman? The story ends with the couple in the hotel room they’ve booked for the night in order to avoid the long drive home. There Gretta tells Gabriel about a young boy who loved her back in Galway, who used to sing to her (once in the rain), and who died, very young, of heartbreak over her.
This is a story of exquisite, overwhelmingly passionate moments. The emptiness that Gabriel feels after Gretta has cried out her last line – “Oh, the day I heard that, that he was dead!” (1610) – Is nearly unendurable (downright torture for me, personally). He has been made aware of the insignificance of his place in his wife’s life, and he cannot help but feel a kind of jealousy for the love that his wife shared with the dead boy.
The Dead is vibrant, moving, and deeply funny – a work of great feeling and beauty.