The Dead is supreme proof of James Joyce's mastery of the nineteenth century style. With a sure touch, beautiful language and the omniscient and impersonal narrator favored in the last century, The Dead is the equivalent of an entire Flaubert or Balzac novel encapsulated in a short story. It shares with novels of hundreds of pages the capture of an entire social world.
There is an unforced beauty in the dialog unparalleled by other modern authors:
The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you.
Julia, there's Miss Daly and Miss Power will take some refreshment. Thanks for your beautiful waltz, Miss Daly. It made lovely time.
Well, you see, I'm like the famous Mrs. Cassidy, who is reported to have said: Now, Mary Grimes, if I don't take it, make me take it, for I feel I want it.
I was just telling my mother, I never heard you sing so well, never. No, I never heard your voice so good as it is tonight. Now! Would you believe that now? That's the truth. Upon my word and honor, that's the truth. I never heard your voice sound so fresh and so....so clear and fresh, never.
I often told Julia that she was simply thrown away in that choir. But she never would be said by me.
They say we haven't had snow like it for thirty years; and I read this morning in the newspaper that the snow is general all over Ireland.
I was great with him at that time.
If one of the virtues of fine workmanship is that it should pass almost unnoticed, the dialog of The Dead is of the finest, because it seems effortless. The narrator never comments, never analyzes; there are no showy flights of descriptive prose. Yet every line has the pleasing quality of poetry: "never would be said by me", "snow is general", "the men that is now". The words carry with them the lovely accent of Irish voices, the congeniality of the occasion, the mood of the people who utter them. There is nothing like the dialog of The Dead anywhere in English literature--not even in Ulysses. Joyce must have worked hard to create every line, but the effort is hidden.
In the story of a dinner party--the whole duration of the story cannot be more than four or five hours--Joyce spins several themes simultaneously: the mortality of the aging sisters Morkan, the alcoholism of their nephew Freddy, Gabriel Conroy's insecurity and his relationship with his wife Gretta, the insensitivity of the Protestant Mr. Browne, and the arrogance of the famous tenor Bartell D'Arcy. All of these are brought to some conclusion in the story, but Joyce is sure enough of his voice to introduce one other theme he leaves mysterious: that of Molly Ivors, the provocative, politically minded woman who quarrels with Gabriel while dancing with him. In a story full of unusually full characterizations (given its brevity), that of Molly Ivors is the most interesting. She is like a meteor streaking across the skies of the story.
Described when introduced as a "frank-mannered talkative young lady, with a freckled face and prominent brown eyes", Molly Ivors does not wear a low-cut dress but has "an Irish device" affixed to her collar. Beginning a dance with Gabriel, she immediately tells him she has "a crow to pluck with him" and accuses him of being a "West Briton", presumably a toady to the English.
Gabriel's first impulse is to behave high-handedly, since he is an insecure and sometimes pretentious man. But he cannot do so, because "they were friends of many years' standing and their careers had been parallel," first as students and then as professors at the University.
Molly's signals are mixed; she attacks him, then is friendly a moment later, taking his hand "in a warm grasp" and talking in a soft tone. But when she invites Gabriel and Gretta to visit the Aran Islands of Ireland that summer, he replies that he is planning as usual to go bicycling on the Continent. Molly is sharp again, asking why he would go abroad "instead of visiting your own land?" He replies that he is "sick of my own country, sick of it!" (cf. Stephen Dedalus' statement that "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake"). She presses his hand warmly again, then accuses him once more of being a west Briton.
A while later, Gabriel finds Molly preparing to leave while Gretta and Mary Jane Morkan try to persuade her to stay for dinner. ("To take a pick itself after all your dancing.") Molly refuses to stay, and responds to their concern about her leaving alone by reminding them her home is "only two steps up the quay." Gabriel offers to see her home and Molly gets irritated: "I'm quite well able to take care of myself." She calls out an Irish phrase--Beannacht libh--which Joyce does not translate, and runs down the stairs.
Molly Ivors is the fascinating unsolved mystery of The Dead. She is today a familiar type-- the strong, independent woman with a tinge of political fanaticism--and would be more at home at a Manhattan dinner party in 1998 than in the Morkan's home at the turn of the century. Her motivation is not entirely clear; we can speculate that she likes Gabriel but does not respect him and feels contempt for his weakness. The manner of her departure--in particular, her refusal to allow him to walk her two steps up the quay-- raises a strong suspicion that she is not really going home, but is off to meet someone privately. There is a vibrant life here, which Joyce does not reveal. Molly Ivors is the only character whose existence is not fully described in the 49 pages of The Dead.
The most remarkable aspect of The Dead is its use of the passage of time. Proust spent two thousand pages tracing the effects of time; the duration of Joyce's story is four or five hours, and in 49 pages he is able to create the same impact Proust did in his two thousand. He expresses a mood, of something precious, elderly, about to pass away (the sisters Morkan and their world); a group of people come to pay their respects; interwoven through-out the story are reminiscences, mainly the sisters and Gabriel's, of people and things which are no more: the Catholic choirs when women were still allowed to sing in them; a beautiful tenor of the past of whom almost no-one in the room has heard the name; even Julia Morkan's voice ("thirty years ago I hadn't a bad voice as voices go").
Without excessive sentimentality, Joyce creates a powerful atmosphere of nostalgia and regret. What is most remarkable about The Dead is that the past is still alive, but barely, like the sisters Morkan themselves. In Ulysses, Joyce toys with the relationship between space and time revealed by modern physics. The Dead is not concerned with the fragmentations and quandaries of physics; there is no Uncertainty Principle here, as the story is conventionally narrated. Nonetheless, in The Dead Joyce gives one the sense that the characters are all precisely located at a point on a space-time curve from which the past is still visible. One feels it would be possible to run a telegraph line, or a speaking tube, to communicate with the past.
Young people and cultures have no past, and conceive that of others as a compartment separate from the present, buried, uncontactable. When one passes a certain age--thirty-five or forty at a minimum-- and is able to talk about things which happened twenty years ago when one was an adult or almost, a different mood sets in. If a person or thing was important enough to you at a certain time, it will always form a part of your surroundings. When a character in Citizen Kane speaks of a girl he saw on a ferry in 1899, about whom he has thought every day for forty years since, he is expressing the mood of The Dead. When I think about my friend Janet as if she were still alive, I am in the same elegiac mood.
I am not saying that at such moments we are being Joycean, but that Joyce, when he wrote The Dead, was being us. Again, as Proust said, it is the quality of the mirror that one holds up to life which is the workmanship of the art. The Dead is the most finely polished of telescope mirrors, capturing a mood which most of us have felt after a certain age but which is largely ignored in modern literature. Most twentieth century literature exists only in a relentless present (when not actually written in the present tense.) Most nineteenth century literature is set in the then present or in a past treated as the present; a novel may take place fifty years before the time when it was written, but does so without nostalgia. The work that bridges two eras, with sadness, seems almost unique. Besides Proust, the only examples I can think of are the end of Education Sentimentale, when the middleaged men are talking about how they missed their way, and The Tempest, as Prospero plans to break his sceptre and sink his book.
This nostalgia is also captured in many beautiful poems of Yeats, in images from Irish folk tales, in metaphors of dawn and sunset, compass directions, extreme mysticism. But Yeats' is the poetry of the extraordinary man, the lonely intellectual. There is something far more poignant in the past erupting in the Miss Morkans' living room.
Gabriel delivers an after-dinner speech about time and regret. Again, Joyce's ear for dialog is unerring; he captures the exact note of pretentiousness:
It has fallen to my lot this evening, as in years past, to perform a very pleasing task but a task for which I am afraid my poor powers as a speaker are all too inadequate.
But Gabriel's sadness and sincerity (probably the qualities Molly Ivors likes in him!) break through:
But we are living in a sceptical and, if I may use the phrase, a thought-tormented age: and sometimes I fear that this new generation, educated or hypereducated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humor which belonged to an older day.
"Thought-tormented" is nice and is a Yeatsian phrase; cf the "gong-tormented sea" of Byzantium.
It is interesting that this lovely tribute to the Misses Morkan is intended by Gabriel to be a reproach to Molly Ivors, who left so rudely. We saw him earlier, adding phrases like "thought-tormented" and "hypereducated" to his prepared speech in anger at her.
Gabriel refers to the past as more "spacious", confirming the identity of space with time. He concludes with some trite recommendations about getting on with one's life:
We have all of us living duties and living affections which claim, and rightly claim, our strenuous endeavors.
Which confirms that there is really no reply to the question posed by the past. In the last passage of The Dead Joyce will refute Gabriel's modest assertion.
If Joyce had ended The Dead after Gabriel's speech, or with the breaking-up of the dinner party, it would still be a remarkable and beautiful story. But he gives us one last revelation, which makes the story perhaps the greatest written in the English language.
Joyce does not set up the final events until the end of the dinner party. So far, we have seen Gretta Conroy as an attractive, kind, but shallow woman. Gabriel's mother called her "country cute" in a nasty way, and Gabriel is extremely fond of his wife but looks down on her intellectually. Then, as the guests leave, Gabriel is downstairs helping his aunts, and the tenor Bartell D'Arcy, who has refused to sing all evening, is heard upstairs singing a song called "The Lass of Aughrim" to a girl with whom he has been flirting. Gretta is standing on a landing of the stairway, listening. Gabriel spots her and possibly does not recognize her at first; he sees "a woman", and Joyce describes what she is wearing, then adds, "It was his wife." Gabriel thinks, "There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something."
They go back to the hotel and the whole way, Gabriel, perhaps a little intoxicated, is overwhelmed with desire for Gretta. The blood is "bounding along his veins" and he is full of "proud, joyful, tender, valorous" thoughts. He apparently wants to make love to Gretta as soon as they get to the hotel.
On the journey home, the past erupts into the story for the penultimate time. Gabriel has a series of disconnected memories about her, united only by love:
A heliotrope envelope was lying beside his breakfast cup and he was caressing it with his hand. Birds were twittering in the ivy and the sunny web of the curtain was shimmering along the floor: he could not eat for happiness. They were standing ion the crowded platform and he was placing a ticket inside the warm palm of her glove.
He concludes that he will "make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their moments of ecstasy." He remembers a love letter he wrote her and like "distant music the words that he had written years before were borne towards him by the past."
In a rare foray into the future (there is one more at the end of the story), Gabriel imagines how he will call his wife in the hotel room and she will come to him amorously. They arrive at the hotel and he is in "a fever of rage and desire" because Gretta seems abstracted. They talk about this and that, he mentions he lent a pound to Freddy Malins the alcoholic, and she comes over and kisses him, looking at him strangely, and saying "You are a very generous person, Gabriel." At this moment, he believes he has won her, that she has come to him of her own accord. He caresses her hair, made "fine and brilliant" by washing, but then, in his typically inconsistent and wordy way, must ask her what she is thinking. I don't mean to imply that a husband is weak to ask his wife what is on her mind. It is just that Gabriel believes that she is in an amorous mood (he is wrong) but instead of proceeding to make love to her, draws back into talk.
She says she is thinking about the song D'Arcy sang, and bursts into tears. He draws out of her a story that shatters him and his view of their world and their marriage: she was in love at seventeen with a boy named Michael Furey, who did not want to live without her and then died of consumption. Michael Furey used to sing "The Lass of Aughrim" and hearing the song has projected Gretta into the past as the madeleines did Proust.
This is the final eruption of the past in The Dead. It causes Gabriel to feel his animal nature (a "dull anger" and "the dull fires of his lust"), which is then supplanted by shame. On the trip home, while he had been full of memories of their shared past, "she had been comparing him in her mind with another." His rage gives way to shame and self-degradation: he sees himself as "a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous well-meaning sentimentalist orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts."
He overcomes his own shame and rage to draw the rest of the story out of her: She was in love with Michael Furey, or as she says, "great with him at the time." It is a wonderful phrase, evocative of pregnancy. She seems as if she is still "great with" Michael Furey and there is no room for Gabriel, her husband of so many years. Gabriel feels the hand of the past reaching forward to destroy the present ("some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world.") The Dead is as much a ghost story as James' The Turn of the Screw.
Gretta cries herself to sleep and Gabriel passes into one final mood, of resignation. He now looks at Gretta "unresentfully", and with a "strange friendly pity", even as he realizes how poor a part he himself has played in his wife's life (he recognizes that his love, mixed with lust, is not on the same plane as Michael Furey's because no-one, not Gretta or another, has ever made Gabriel wish to die.) The Dead then makes a last foray into the near future, as Gabriel imagines sitting with his Aunt Kate, consoling her for the death of Aunt Julia.
Then Gabriel and his world dissolve. Presumably he is falling asleep; but Joyce says that his "soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead."
His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.
In the famous last paragraph, Gabriel recalls the phrase heard earlier in the evening, that the snow "is general all over Ireland," and imagines it falling on dark plains and treeless hills, on Michael Furey's grave, and "upon all the living and the dead."
Here is Joyce's answer to Gabriel's statement in his speech about "living affections" which claim "our strenuous endeavors."